Clients Don't Really Lie, Cheat, And Bully Their Marketing Agencies, Do They?

I come from the camp that this world is filled with great, honest people who care for each other. People who understand the value of a hug from Mom and Dad, and know the inborn difference between what is right and wrong. The same goes for the notion that most people have more in common, than not. I guess the recent upheavals in Great Britain, and the current POTUS race seem to reflect a different view about society as a whole. For this writer, I shut off all mainstream news media about 10 years ago. I did it because it is negative, and ahem, it really isn’t news anymore. Most of it is jaded, agenda-based BS that has seemingly corrupted the common folk. 

When it comes to certain business people, I have a different opinion. Maybe because the almighty dollar constantly gets tugged in between the mysterious, moral balance of right and wrong. Yes, over the past 25+ years, I have had my fair share of awesome clients that have respect for the craft of marketing agencies of all ilk, and the people dedicated to common success. But I have to be direct. In the last 10 years or so, there seems to be a rapid decay occurring in the industry that I feel I have to share with readers. If you are a marketing agency (or now commonly referred to by procurement as just another vendor in the supply chain), or a client (or now commonly referred to by agency leaders as just another number in the new business pipeline), I’d like to hear your perspective.  



I’ll share mine from the “just another vendor in the supply chain.” Agree or disagree, it doesn’t matter. It is my voice and by golly, I’m tooting it. 

Let’s just put it out there so people understand the simplest and most basic outcome of any marketing effort: Sell people stuff. Sometimes they need the stuff. Sometimes they want the stuff. Sometimes they don’t even care about the stuff. We can banter back and forth about marketing’s highest order benefit in business, such as creating brand preference, developing compelling and persuasive content, pricing optimization scenarios, big-data predictive analytics, ideas that change the world, image management, etc. But at the end of the day, money and profits are basic necessities to pay employees and make products. To do that, somebody has to open up the wallet, and yes, buy stuff. I am hoping most agree on this most basic principle. And agency staff, we also need to recognize that the more client stuff we sell, the more likely we can keep our jobs. There is no dotted line, assuming correlation. It is an empirical, direct and solid line between success and pink slips. 

Where it starts to get sticky and when the proverbial tug begins is here: Why a client consciously hires an outside marketing vendor to help them sell stuff in the first place. There are only 3 reasons why this transaction exists: 

  1. Clients have the internal skill sets but not enough of resources to deliver upon the workload.
  2. The clients don’t have the internal skill sets and elects not to staff up.
  3. The client acknowledges that option #1 and #2 are not viable, and it is far better to hire experts to do the job. After all, if they were true experts in marketing, then their core business offering would be marketing services in the first place, right? 

Once a client decides doorway #3, the dynamics of the relationship between an agency and a client are very, very different when #1 & #2 doorways are also present. You may say, duh. I say duh right back.  Under this circumstance, one would think the client would need the agency more so than the agency needs the client. After all, the client is the one reaching out to the agency and asking for help. And as usual, the receiving agency wants nothing more than wanting the client to successful. That’s just what we do. We care.  

I wonder if there should be as much energy developing a financial scope contract as there should be a document describing written conditions of satisfaction. You know, the principles of a relationship and conduct. Not just dollars and cents. How many marriages last when the courtship is only about 4 weeks?  Probably the same success as JoJo and Jared’s future. Absent of this agency/client principles document used by both party’s most senior executives to help manage their respective teams, the day when financial contract is signed is like an accelerated countdown for when it will be over even before it even begins. Here is what eventually happens; you hear it all the time from clients about agencies:  

“The relationship got off to a rocky start. The honeymoon is over. We don’t see eye to eye. This is not a good fit. They’ll never know our business like we do. Creative is awesome, service sucks. Service is awesome, creative sucks. They are expensive. Let’s do it ourselves. Maybe we should have hired the runner-up.” 

And from the agency perspective: 

“I thought they hired us for our expert opinion. They take too long to make decisions and yet the deadline doesn’t shift. They are now on round 10 for a 3-round scope. If you hire the band, let them play. Really? Now HR has a vote on the new brand campaign. Aha. I knew the CEO had an agency friend he always wanted to hire over our firm. Don’t act surprised that your competition was about to change positioning, we told you a long time ago about that. They are now on CMO #2 in less than 3 years.” 

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Except in this case, these tough clients keep going all right. Right to punting on 2nd down with short yardage, and hoping the answer to their internal marketing leadership weakness is to find another agency. Yea. That’s the ticket. It must be the agency’s fault why we can’t work together, not us. Let’s just find a better, cheaper, faster agency that does what we tell them to do without all that expertise, whining pushback. After all, we know marketing. Even HR does too. (Oops, lest we forgot why we hired agencies in the first place - see doorway #3 reference above). 

Given the frequent revolving door between agency and clients, I think the AAAAs could set–up a whole new revenue stream of client-agency divorce courts. Oh wait, that’s not funny. Agencies actually do outsource to expert lawyers, and actually pay them to get the last 60 days of AR payment on a contract the client holds hostage to squeeze the last ounce of remaining blood. Maybe there should be a Yelp for agencies to rate clients so their brethren avoids stepping in it for the next free spec review with no disclosure that a budget does not exist to actually hire the agency. (Is there such a beast like Yelp for Clients?) 

I really wonder if the CEO of a leading brand actually hears the truth from their CMO when the going gets tough. Isn’t it just convenient for the CMO to blame the agency troops for not listening? 

I remember one time when a well-known, long tenured CEO business colleague of a multi-billion dollar global company called me out of the blue, asking for some advice on marketing leadership.  

“Jeff, I just terminated my CMO. He was my third CMO in seven years. We are now on our fifth new AOR in as many years. Despite that, I decided to increase my marketing budget by 10% because I am believer. But I don’t trust anyone in my marketing department, nor any new candidate to run global marketing anymore.”  

That takes balls. Key word in his statement to me - trust.  

How many times do you think the average CEO has been conned by his CMO disclosing the true business value of past investments he/she delivered to get more people to buy more stuff? Here is a CMO to CEO conversation that probably happens more than we want to accept: 

“Mr./Mrs. CEO, if you are satisfied, I’ll take all the credit. If you are not, it must be the underperforming agency. 

Oh, OK. Sure, I understand and I totally agree. 

I’ll call my agency review consultant friend tomorrow and get right on firing the current agency. I’m sure I can find a few hungry agencies that are willing to do free work upfront, and then we can negotiate the contract so they make mouse-nuts for a profit.” 

McDonalds, I’m lovin’ it. I’ll be happy to take a Big Mac whack to my bottom line. Thank you sir. I’ll have another one. 

On second thought, maybe we should turn the tables and at least have the chance to expound our feelings. Let’s do what we do well. Expressing ideas. Let’s have a little fun in a corny sort of way for a few yuks but with a happy outcome for our collective effort.   

I think it would be awesome if agencies that have even an inkling of the same experiences that I have shared start a movement of sorts. Maybe we can wear t-shirts, buttons, pins and bring coffee mugs at concept meetings expressing how we believe that Yes We Can! Make Marketing Great Again. Let’s stop getting “Burn’d” by outlandish and unrealistic last minute, 10th revision edits by clients at 10PM because they have been in meetings all day trying to concept on top of our concept.

What if we stick to our morals? Stand up against professional bullying. Tell the truth. Fire the bad client to keep good staff. Stop free spec. Please don’t undermine your agency peers. Respect the innovators. The crazies. The people who think different. Act different. Dress different. After all, we are different. And that is what makes us unique, smart, relentless, desirable, and passionate to help our best clients sell stuff better, faster and more profitable than the next guy. Yes, it is the best clients that allows us to be better. We know you are out there. We are here to help, and we are good at what we do.  

I propose we help the next generation of marketers to know there is hope for using their God-given talent. And that the agency world doesn’t have to hire and fire every other year because we stood up for what we believe is right.  

Chew on this Berniesque idea. And wear it with pride.

In light of this lets-just-get-it-off-my-bucket list message, we set up a simple CafePress site that has a few slogans on tchotchkes like coffee mugs, shot glasses, whatever. If you like, buy one. Heck, buy 10 for the office. Buy stuff you may want, need, or don’t even care about. We will give 100% of the proceeds towards a marketing degree to a rising college senior. If you have better expressions based on your experience through the lens of what is politically right and wrong, by all means, share it. And we will put it on other stuff for other people to buy and give back for the common good.  

If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool. I know Americans can say what they want. So say it. But in the meantime, God bless marketing agencies. And God bless the United States of America.


1 comment about "Clients Don't Really Lie, Cheat, And Bully Their Marketing Agencies, Do They?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Gillian Lynch from Winsper, August 31, 2016 at 2:34 p.m.

    Agency people, we'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Clients too! We encourage healthy dialogue about the evolving dynamics between marketerer and provider...

Next story loading loading..