Agency-Client Relationship: Still Crazy After All These Years

ExecutivesAfter 150 years or so of working together, it is assumed that ad agencies and marketing concerns could figure out an efficient -- even optimal -- relationship.

In many cases, however, they’re not even close. The main problem: people are involved. And the shift to digital has added numerous complexities as well. That was the upshot of an Ad:Tech New York session today on the pitfalls of agency-client relationships.

Some age-old problems also remain, like failing to communicate in a coherent and honest way from the start of the relationship. Plus, clients sometimes forget that at the end of day, it’s their business and brands that are being presented to the outside world, and it’s their job to lead the process, said Tom Cunniff, vice president, Interactive for Combe Inc., the men’s and women’s personal-care products company.



Add digital to the mix, said Cunniff, and clients frequently end up with a half-dozen or more additional agencies to their roster, including different mobile, search, social and creative digital shops. “They all have their own strategies and want to get paid” by the client for implementing them.

Frequently, the client has hired all those additional agencies without thinking through a coherent strategy, or being clear on what exactly it wants from each shop,” said Baron Conway, global head of business development for Possible Worldwide.

Strategy is key, said Rich Gagnon, chief media officer, Draftfcb New York. “Things tend to spiral out of control if the strategy hasn’t been locked down,” he said. “Everyone has to agree with it -- and it has to be locked in up front,” he said.

Which is all well and good until reality settles in, said Cunniff. Often, the corporate culture at the client can be a wrench in the works. He referenced a recent conversation with a consultant who asserted that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said Cunniff. What the consultant didn’t add, but which is often the case, Cunniff noted, is that the culture -- having so feasted -- “then pukes it all over the organization.”

Transparency and trust can help address cultural issues, Cunniff said. Clients should not “try to hide [their] crazy Uncle Joe,” he added. Sometimes, corporate higher-ups are going to demand marketing initiatives that make little, if any, sense. Cunniff said clients and agencies need to address those initiatives with as little cost as possible, “so we can say we did it,” and then move on to what’s important.

Higher-ups often know little about the digital world their customers spend increasing amounts of time in, said Josh Karpf, senior manager, digital media communications, PepsiCo. Many of those digitally challenged leaders “have an inherent fear about being outdated,” and possibly marginalized as a result, Karpf said. His solution: teach them as much as possible. “We try to train them and drive digital competency at senior management."

Also, so-called “scope-creep,” where the scope of work is constantly expanded beyond what was initially agreed to, is as problematic in the digital space as it is in traditional advertising. Because of the array of offerings, digital scope-creep is “very easy and it eats up a lot of resources,” said Gagnon.

But it works both ways, said Cunniff. Agencies are not immune to pushing “digital chrome for somebody’s resume. Part of my job as the client is to say no. We might need paid search but not augmented reality apps. Much of digital today is in endless test mode.”

Testing is essential to stay on course and have an accurate sense of where media will be in five years, said Gagnon. Or as Conway put it: “You have to change the business as you run it.”

Karpf said he strives for the “right tension” of “shiny object chasers” and those more focused on delivering on today’s strategy.

2 comments about "Agency-Client Relationship: Still Crazy After All These Years".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, November 10, 2011 at 8:45 a.m.

    I'm sure someone figured out the optimal client/agency relationship. And it became outdated within 1 year anyway. Face it, our business is always changing. "Optimal" turns to "outdated" awfully fast.

  2. Hank Blank from Blank and Associates, November 10, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.

    The problem with client agency relationships today is that there is no romance.

    Hank Blank
    Blank and Associates

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