This week's news that Reckitt Benckiser has dumped one Interpublic
network because of a conflict with a client held by a separate IPG
network must have brought a tear to the eye of McCann-Erickson, which is
the outgoing agency.
Reckitt's beef is that the Chicago office of FCB handles another large
Interpublic client, SC Johnson, while the London office of McCann is the
centre for the worldwide Reckitt account. The conflict became an issue
when IPG acquired True North Communications, FCB's parent, in July.
Interestingly, Reckitt's actions fly in the face of current
Procter & Gamble altered its conflict policy about two years ago to
treat agencies as standalone units from a conflict point of view and not
look through agency holding or parent companies. And where P&G led,
others have followed. Unilever works happily with Bartle Bogle
Hegarty ... which is 49 per cent owned by Bcom3 ... which, in turn, is
wedded to P&G through its D'Arcy and Leo Burnett networks.
The question is, is Reckitt Benckiser taking client demands on agencies
to illogical extremes or is it applying old-fashioned emotional values
worth clinging to that also make for good business?
The fact is conflicts are always more emotional than rational because
agency-client relationships are more emotional than rational. But ad
agencies cannot on the one hand argue that they want to be treated as
partners rather than mere suppliers, and that they need clients'
ultimate trust if they are to do the best possible job, while their
principals report into a holding company that professes to offer the
same for a client's arch-rival. They cannot, in other words, run with
the hare and hunt with the hounds.
It seems to me that this comes down to how the holding company positions
itself. While Omnicom positions itself as the financial centre of a
number of independent operating units, IPG and WPP attempt to control
their operating companies more tightly from the centre.
You could argue, therefore, that IPG and WPP have entered a dangerous
game; playing it from both ends towards the middle. For example, when it
suits WPP to strike a multi-agency deal with Boots, it will. When it
suits WPP to build up Chinese walls because an acquisition throws up an
uncomfortable conflict, it will do that too. For if the Reckitt
principle had been applied to WPP, then Colgate, a Y&R client, would not
have remained with a holding company whose two other networks handle
Unilever when WPP bought Y&R.
So Reckitt's actions are understandable. Agencies need to accept that
there are certain clients in certain categories where conflict is a
visceral thing. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola leap to mind. What a pity,
however, that Reckitt leaves itself free to talk to a roll call of
unconflicted networks that a household cleaning products manufacturer
can count on the fingers of a mitten.