It’s with somewhat unsurprising sadness that I read the latest report from ID Comms on the state of trust in our industry, with just one in 10 execs within agencies and clients trusting one another.
It’s with an equally unsurprising sadness that this report has come from ID Comms -- which specialise in improving clients' agency relationships and ultimately running pitches.
I have been married for over 17 years. Along the line, there have been times when trust between us has not been great, but not once have either of us said "sod this I’m out of here it’s time to find myself the perfect other half." The truth is, there is no such thing as a perfect other half; great relationships need bloody hard work and commitment to each other.
True in life and true in business. So to think that a pitch will solve the problem is utter madness. You’re only going to see the loveliest version of your new partner, only to find that they gradually begin to stop wearing that great outfit you loved so much on date night.
The truth is that this report actually points to some potentially dangerous undercurrents within the elements of our industry that need to be fixed.
1) The real relationship is broken.
Ask yourself when the client last called to say thanks so much for the extra hours you put in last week and
when you last called them to say that you’ve been thinking about their business and had this thought.
Someone at a network agency recently told me a story related to a major client he had in his old agency days. The client had called him to say "I’m really sorry, I’m not happy and considering putting the business up for pitch." When he asked why, the client said "because I haven’t heard from your account lead James for over a year,’" to which he replied, "oh god, that’s terrible... not least because his name is actually Steve."
As to why the client didn’t raise the alarm after a matter of days (or possibly weeks) and as to why Steve never properly engaged with a client spending over £10m in media is beyond me. And I don’t think this is a one-off; Big Ben scale alarm bells -- we aren’t making the basic effort in building good relationships and that is before I even start to rant about email and, dare I even say it, things like Slack!?
2) The idea of a "pitch" and the process itself is a joke.
Pitches are excessively exhausting for both parties. It’s almost as though we all spend so much time and energy dating that when we finally get it over the line we’re so exhausted that we just call it an early night instead.
I’m also at a loss as to why clients claim that they’re seeking a long and trusting relationship only to push them so hard on price that the only way the agency can deliver on it is by lying... only for the client to declare foul play several months later.
There are so many sides and influences that are complicit in this outcome that it’s not fair to single out any party specifically at fault.
But the fact is that charging around from pitch to pitch is crazy behaviour on both fronts. The process has to evolve to understand (and reward) the business value that a great agency relationship can deliver in the medium term. It’s all about the velocity of growth that can be delivered (price is only a small factor in this).
To be fair to ID Comms, this is precisely what it is trying to do.
3) The tendency to win it, then worry
I know I’m not the only person that thinks this -- we have all become media mercenaries lacking the confidence to say no. We all know that there is always someone in our market that will say yes.
Over the years we have seen agencies writing clients multimillion-pound cheques to win business, and worse still, the emergence of a "let’s just get the business in and worry about it later" mentality. If we keep thinking like this how can we possibly hope for trust?
4) Big billings above sustainable growth
Why are we obsessed with billings as a metric for success?
Can someone please explain to me why working on a multimillion-pound client, obsessed with price, strangled by process, happy to blame first in the hope of improving business growth by less than 1%, is any better than working with an owner-run dog food brand that understands the value of great relationships, great work and subsequently sees over 20% year-on-year growth?
I do understand the logic of the reams of coverage afforded to big billing swings; GBP30m auto brand moves from MediaCom to Mindshare, only for GBP30m of FMCG to swing the other way. Such moves impact lots of readers at lots of companies, which means lots of clicks. So I don’t want to attack the press for doing their jobs.
But I do worry that the weight of attention afforded to the problems in big media hides the great work that agencies can do when relationships are working -- and that this distorts the perception of our sector in the eyes of clients, investors and the public.
Done right, media is a growth engine for British business. And great relationships are essential to that. I’m just not sure the outside world sees it that way -- maybe it’s you, maybe it’s me. Either way, we need to talk.