4A's Chair: Client Category Exclusivity Is A 'Dated Concept'

Sharon Napier,executive chair and founder of Partners + Napier and current chair of the American Association of Advertising Agencies,will be a featured speaker at the upcoming ANA Advertising Financial Management Conference. In advance of the event, ANA Group Executive Vice President Bill Duggan sat down with Napier for a conversation.

Bill Duggan: Let’s talk about some of the timely issues in the industry, particularly as they relate to client-agency relationships.

Sharon Napier: Our industry is in a time of reflection. We’re thinking about the future of our industry and the talent that will be our future, client-agency relationships and how the realities of CMO tenure impacts those relationships, and we’re rethinking category exclusivity in this time of change.



Average CMO tenure hit 40 months in 2020, which was the lowest it had been since 2009. And the average client-agency relationship is almost exactly the same:  3.2 years. Agencies and clients are meant to be partners in this industry, working together for long-term brand growth.

Disrupting those partnerships and starting from zero every three years is not the way to get there. As partners, we need to get back to the framework of how to get to great work and create environments where we both succeed. This requires collaboration, holding each other accountable for business results, and building trust over time.

Then there is category exclusivity. Clients, for good reason, want proven experience in a category. Having this category experience embedded in our teams allows us to hit the ground running.

However, the concept of exclusivity is, frankly, a dated concept. As client-agency relationships have evolved into more short-term contracts, there’s no longer a justification for category exclusivity. As agencies, we can address the desire for exclusivity by creating separations, establishing client-specific teams, and using secure systems to manage privacy concerns. I believe the expectations around total exclusivity need to change.

Regarding DEI among talent, we’re at a pivotal time in our industry — thinking about talent and how to attract and retain the next generation, while making ourselves more accessible and inclusive to people of all backgrounds. We need to move beyond just saying that we value DEI and focus on holding ourselves accountable to make real, meaningful change. We also need to shift our thinking from relying on diversity percentages and other quantitative data to measure our progress. It’s about creating spaces of belonging.

Duggan: There seems to be more of a focus in the industry these days on media, rather than on creative. What can be done to elevate the importance of creative?

Napier: I don’t necessarily agree that the focus is on media and not creative. Yes, from a regulatory standpoint (data, privacy, measurement, etc.), the focus is certainly on media. But creativity and content continue to have a prominent position in headlines and drive business value. All the way from the Super Bowl to the creator economy, to generative AI — that's all creative.

Duggan: Discuss some of your experiences with procurement.

Napier: The reality is that client-agency relationships have become much more transactional, with project-based work largely replacing AOR relationships. While it can be tempting for agencies to put that on procurement, one of the reasons procurement has had to play a stronger role is that CMO tenure is at a record low. Procurement teams don’t get swapped out every 18 months. The real focus needs to be on building healthy, mutually beneficial relationships from the start and focusing on creating real value together.

Duggan: Congrats on being the current chair of the 4A’s for a two-year term. What are the key priorities for your tenure?

Napier: Thank you! At the 4A’s, we are thinking about how to help our agencies redefine how they think about talent beyond traditional paradigms and be prepared to attract and retain a new generation of talent with different needs and motivations.

In terms of growth, we’re focused on serving as an “accelerator” for our members with dedicated resources to help agencies stay on top of new technologies, rapidly changing business trends, and economic uncertainty.

We’re also strengthening our commitment to our members — showing that we’re here to help all agency disciplines and all levels be successful. From peer-to-peer learning opportunities to diversity trainings and campaign enlightenment workshops, to our deep database of category research, and more — we’re more than a trade organization, we’re here to help people in our industry be more effective.


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