Agencies Getting Jerg'd Around

I can't say that the Andrew Jergens Co.'s recent account review reaches new heights of pickiness over conflicts. The industry has been pretty obnoxious about supposed conflicts for years, but Jergen's account review does show how the combined effects of both conflict paranoia and agency consolidation can make for poor pickings for a $95 million creative and media assignment.

Part of this may be because agency review consultants, lacking credible claims as to how they might actually add value to a review process, created an arbitrary set of criteria that allows them to appear as though they're thoughtfully winnowing down the number of agencies. Such conflict examinations may eliminate, for instance, the agency working for a dog shampoo company from working with a dog food company. Or in the case of one major technology client I had in the mid-90s, a laundry list of industries that included everything from travel agencies to insurance underwriters, areas they thought they might one day want to enter. Some of these lists of prospective conflicts look more like the Internal Revenue Service's list of SIC codes (3842 Abdominal supporters, braces, and trusses-mfg, 3829 Abrasion testing machines-mfg...).



Problem is, the ever-tighter client conflict perceptions seen in the industry, coupled with agency consolidation, have in some cases left too few available "non-conflicted" shops to compete. Such is the case with the Jergen's pitch, which appears to be requiring shops to have both at least $250 million in existing billings as well as the snow white purity of category Vestal Virgins - just serving the Japan-based Kao Corporation holding company, instead of the Roman goddess Vesta.

Rather than re-examine the faulty logic behind the conflict policies in the first place, the consultants seem to be splitting the Jergen's baby into two different pitchable - and billable - accounts. This will allow some of the larger advertising holding companies to enter the fray while still claiming wholesome, if overly cumbersome, propriety.

The truth of the matter is that the internal workings of ad agencies seldom create a real conflict. It's hard enough to get the media people to talk to the creative people within the same account, never mind having different client groups intermingle improperly. One of the dark secrets of the agency world, whispered among senior ad execs in post trade conference bar binges, is that none of the large ad companies are organized or integrated enough to actually exploit a conflict were one to exist.

The matter warrants some proper research. A study could take two different rooms, both filled with monkeys (or recent liberal arts graduates, as they're cheaper and almost as good ats representing average agency employees). With one of the sets, the researchers tell one half of the room that they're supposed to be working on hair care product print ads. The other half of that room is told that they're making computer product print ads. With the other set of subjects, both sides of the room are told that they're selling two different types of hair care products. After letting them churn around for five months (somehow managing to spend $1.4 million on each side of each room, I'm sure) they come back with ads for approval. In how many cases will the "conflicted" monkeys come back with better work than the hair care half of the other, "non-conflicted" monkeys? I'm willing to put my money on the collective bunch of monkeys that have specialized closest to the relevant category. If true, this would suggest that our conflicts policies help encourage mediocrity in the work product.

Pitching agencies should remember that the entire Jergen's review avalanche started with the yodeling caused when IPG's Lowe moved in with IPG's Bozell. This living-in-sin with the creatives doing the Johnson & Johnson baby-care account caused the rumblings, despite the fact that the only thing separating these two commonly-owned agencies was a few grimy blocks of New York City.

For Jergen's - and of course, the poor incumbent agency - this is a lot of money and trouble over the mere perception of a conflict.

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