February 06

Client-Agency Wars – the end is nigh

As if brexit wasn’t trouble enough

If client agency relationships are to survive the coming of Brexit and Automation (One will reduce budgets. The other will eliminate jobs) we need to develop empathic work practices.cyborgagency

It will take more than profoundly considered but ponderously produced creative alchemy to keep the outsourced agency of the future in business and will take more than penny-pinching technology of the in-house sweatshop to meet the demands of real-time engagement.

I have been banging on for years about clients not dumping strategically minded agencies who seem incapable of making the shift to real-time engagement with customers. In the interests of fairness, I have also slammed timid clients for their lack of desire to take full control of the marketing and communications process.

After 30-odd (sometimes very odd) years working with brand, direct and digital agencies and clients, what really pisses me off is clients and agencies who constantly moan about each other without doing a bloody thing to fix the problem.

Despite the obvious benefits of combining the agency’s talent for insight and originality with the client’s talent for design and production, they end up on opposing sides of what is usually an expensive and bridge-burning divorce.

Relationships unravel in fits and starts. First they stop talking. Productivity drops to an all-time low. Both parties spend more time firing off missives full of he said, she said bullshit than getting work out the door. And, all the while, the competition are having it away with their customers and no one has the danglers to take responsibility.

When Sir Martin Sorrel described working with agencies as like, “Herding a bag of rabid cats,” he could easily have been talking about client agency relationships.

Even inside the agency bubble, the atmosphere is contrary. Sit Martin’s plea for respect:

“The snottiness of believing that creativity just resides in the creative department of traditional agencies, that media people can’t be creative, or data people can’t be or people who do healthcare or promotion or CRM can’t be creative – it’s a nonsense and it’s insulting to the people who are in those areas.”

In turn, Sir Martin was trolled by the self-proclaimed ad contrarian, Bob Hoffman with”

Martin Sorrell is to advertising what McDonald’s is to food. He demonstrates no appreciation for the art, quality or grace of it. His only interest is in making it lay more golden egg mcmuffins. … He pretends that because we call a certain department the ‘creative department’ that we are disdainful or unappreciative of contributions from others. This is utter bullshit.”

They both make valid points but both points are not the point. Creativity begins by anticipating what people want. That process starts, in most cases, well before agencies get involved. Clients can be fantastically creative too. I know, I teach them creativity and they constantly blow me away with their ideas.

Clients and agencies are not combatants. The sooner they get their collective act together, they sooner they will realise that the real enemy is automation. When work becomes little more than a set of individuated tasks performed by aggrieved parties rather than a collective driven by passion, the door to replacing us humans is flung wide open.

Out go all the humans (even the cool ones who know how to perform CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver on a fallen colleague at an awards do) and in comes a collection of microchips and algorithms that never get pissed down the pub, cop a life threatening dose of man flu after a long weekend, conceive quadruplets at the Christmas party, call the chairman a wanker at a shareholder meeting, storm out of the building looking for a flamethrower when the big idea gets turned down, stab the art director in the leg with a scalpel for singing in-tune at a karaoke bar, shag the head of typography in the disabled toilets, frees all the poor oppressed lobsters from their tank at one of London’s most expensive restaurants and urinates in the Bank of England’s letter box on a dare, etc. etc.

I am not advocating a return to the anarchy of my younger years in brand agencies but this business can still be the stuff of legend. Marketing was simpler back then, that is why there was so much time for funny business. Putting the fun back into the incredibly complex task of marketing in the twenty-first century is difficult but not impossible.

What I am suggesting as a small but significant first step is that we all inaugurate a “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine day” where agencies and clients, for example, swop roles for 24 hours in order to begin the process of clearing the air and rehabilitating the working relationship.

I know the very idea of role reversal is already filling most client and agency types with a sense of dread.

If you are client-side, you are thinking…

  1. I arrive at my normal start time 8am and wonder where everyone is?
  2. Get told by the unhelpful and pretentious desk jockey in reception to take a seat and “Hang” until they have finished asking the courier about the best place to get a complimentary pallet cleanser with their Tex Mex prawn tempura gluten-free ciabatta this lunch time
  3. Listen to a passing creative team moaning about the dullard of client who just doesn’t get how juxtaposing Soren Kierkegaard’s reaction against the systematic and rational character of Hegel’s philosophy with a montage of kittens wearing go-pro head cams is the best way to sell fudge
  4. Be shown to a meeting room overlooking the atrium containing a three-thousand-year old eucalyptus tree bedecked with a rare and endangered species of Mantled Howler Monkey
  5. See something on the meeting room flipchart they shouldn’t be seeing, namely; a shortlist of competitor pitch dates and plans to allow the agency interns to run the business for 24 hours while senior staff hit Cannes on a rented oligarch’s yacht prior to offsetting the bill on some unsuspecting mug of a client
  6. Attend a meeting in which the client’s business is discussed only in passing while the real topic de jour is,” Why don’t we bring back the 70s” when madmen ruled the world and the COI (Central office of information) would hand over bank vaults of tax payers money to any agency who asked for it – no questions asked.
  7. Choke on your bean salad tortilla as a planner who is unaware of your real day job suggests that big budget creativity should be restored to its rightful place at the centre of the universe and that the world would be better off if only those halfwit politicians and economists would let us brilliant agency people run the show
  8. Sit in on an agile development scrummaging meeting to discuss and dismiss the relocation of all agency teams to Sunderland for the day to see how real people live so that we beautiful people can understand how the retards voted for Brexit and cannot find jobs that will allow them to buy a top of the range Mercedes 4×4 like normal people do
  9. Meet all 16 of the agencies organically tattooed creative directors and interrupt their debate regarding the ins and outs of penis and breast enlargement with a question regarding the status of the new campaign only to be told that the research team are waiting on Google Trends for inspiration
  10. Head out to a very noisy bistro for some overpriced lobster and chips before hitting the town on an epic “We are not coming back to the agency” pub crawl during which the junior account execs inform you that the agency intends to push for a 15% commission rate in the interest of fairness to one of the shareholders struggling to cope with the falling pound while buying a Chateau in the Loire.

If you are agency-side, you are thinking…

  1. Drive up to the barrier in your 1985 Porsche and be told that you are not expected and as a result do not have an assigned parking space – “WTF? Don’t the plebs know who I am?”
  2. Park in the chairman’s space – “Why not? Owes his/her job to me anyway.”
  3. Develop palpitations and almost heave at the junk furniture and the pathetic IKEA showcase in the reception area – “Have they never heard of an atrium or Thomas Heatherwick, FFS?”
  4. Head to the canteen and marvel at the lack of Foie Gras and nanotech-foam on the menu – “How do people live like this?”
  5. Notice that you are surrounded by ordinary people who wouldn’t know Tom Ford from Henry Ford – “Please god, let this be over soon.”
  6. Ignore people who try to converse with you while you are waiting for the HR rep to meet you and give you a health and safety briefing – “The only phrase that sticks is do not resuscitate.”
  7. The HR person escorts you to some godforsaken hell hole of an office and introduces you to the team – “So this is where The Good, The Bad and The Fugly was filmed?”
  8. You sit in on a meeting and bland people discuss the importance of strange terms like zero-based budgeting, ROI and attribution – “It’s like living in an alternate universe loaded with cave people who have never heard of awards.”
  9. Lunch is skipped over, which could be a blessing in disguise given that the burgers look like they are made from carpet offcuts – “I bet they sound a hooter at knocking-off time.”
  10. The knocking-off hooter is delayed as the sales director, who is terrifying and “fucking” aggressive, holds a public execution for several members of staff who failed to hit their daily targets – “Accountability is such an ugly thing.”
  11. You crash through the barrier on your way out and are stopped by the Police who seem worried about your sanity – “Can you tell me where I can score a Ferrero Rocher frappuccino, a crumbling wedge of Persian walnut cake and a pint of Absinthe before I lose the will to live my dear fellow?”

Of course, both of these role reversal days, while mildly adapted to the recommendations of lawyers, are absurdly illustrative of why the agency/client relationship is so broken.

They are riddled with cliché and supposition. In all my years working in everything from creative hot shops to multinational agencies and with every kind of national and global brand, the relationships that worked best were based on camaraderie. We were always in this thing together.

Without a transcendent sense of communion little is achieved that is of lasting benefit to both parties. If all you ever share is the budget, you are missing out on all the good stuff that makes marketing such an amazing line of work.

So if your agency isn’t open to change get off the pot and fire them. If your client is making your life hell, get shot of them and move on. Alternatively, and perhaps more productively, walk that ragged mile in each other’s shoes for 24 hours and perhaps you will both find a better way.

I speak from personal experience when I tell you that after 20 years of doing battle over every dotted i and crossed T, I ended up marrying my client. I rest my case.