The Break-up: Clients And Agencies Have Fallen Out Of Love

I am very sad, as it looks like I will soon be like the child of divorced parents. In my past life, I have been an agency man for almost as many years as I have been a marketer. I worked for three venerable agency brands: JWT, Leo Burnett and McCann-Erickson. Then I worked for two equally venerable marketers: The Coca-Cola Company and Anheuser Busch-InBev.

A few months ago, I wrote an article on the occasion of the Association of National Advertisers’ report, “Enhancing Client/Agency Relations 2015.” In it, the worrying deterioration of the client-agency relationship was clearly outlined for the U.S. market. And now the news reaches us that in the UK things are actually almost worse, per a recent IPA study (they are the UK version of the 4A’s). You can click through the slide share.



If you don’t feel both sad and scared pant-less after clicking through the deck, I don’t know when you will. Both parties feel completely mismatched and misunderstood. Clients want things like a better understanding of the clients’ actual business (“sell my stuff, grow my business, drive my share – how can you help?”). Agencies say they don’t have access to the very client people that actually are in charge of this stuff.

Agencies want briefs to develop creative excellence and the time and space to build long-term brand value. Clients say, “Where is the ROI for those lofty ideas?”

Clients want an increase in diverse talent who can do more than develop traditional advertising, and do so in a genuinely collaborative way. Agencies say the clients need to develop clear models for collaboration, and build reward systems that would pay and incentivize agencies to do what clients say they want.

And so it goes on. In the end, this is a custody battle where the poor children (the brands) are tossed back and forth among a variety of parents, step-parents and care-takers. Nobody wins. The relationship appears to be so broken, that out of the 60 slides in the deck, only one talks about possible solutions. It is slide 60, and it doesn’t really go much further than stating that the big, broken issues should be fixed, jointly.

My feeling, though, is that something far more radical is needed. I don’t believe that we can mediate ourselves out of this completely broken relationship. I think it is time to do the right thing, be mature about it and walk away.

What I mean by that is that agencies, as they exist today, need to completely reinvent themselves. Rather than trying to tinker, repair and plug real financial holes with dubious media deals, I would set up a completely new agency model if I was Sir Martin, Monsieur Maurice or Mister John. That new agency is not your current digital agency, media agency or even experiential agency. It is the agency that your smartest people would set up if they didn’t have the constraints of the existing models, money streams, structures, P&L’s and whatever else stands in the way.

Sometimes very smart people break away from agencies and try something new. It usually doesn’t lead to major businesses because, despite the founders’ best intentions, they miss scale. The big, global networks have scale, resources, smarts and now an urgent need. 

Sadly, my guess is that they won’t try, even though the client-agency relationship has become as dysfunctional as U.S. politics. I don’t see either relationship changing anytime soon.

3 comments about "The Break-up: Clients And Agencies Have Fallen Out Of Love".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 3, 2015 at 9:38 a.m.

    Maarten, haven't advertisers been complaining about their agencies from the very beging? When an advertiser wants ROI documentation in advance before trying out an agency's "good idea", is that really a reasonable position to take. Next, the advertiser will want the agency to guarantee sales resulots for each proposed positioning strategy. Without test marketing the idea, how could an agency do this? It seems to me that advertiser marketing people need to accept responsibility for making decisions about their ad campaigns and stop passing the buck to the agencies.

    I do agree that the way agencies are structured, with many seperate fiefdoms which do not always talk to eachother or understand eachother, needs some serious rethinking. This is especially true of media and "creative", which badly need to be integrated.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 3, 2015 at 10 a.m.

    Correction: make that "results" in the third sentence, above, not "resulots". Drat and double drat.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 3, 2015 at 7:01 p.m.

    That's passion, Ed, passion. The humongeous co-dependent agencies with the co-dependent conglomerates is incestuous. Go figure.

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