Fire the handlers redux?

Everything old is new again - like bell-bottoms and the 'bold new direction' Labatt Breweries of Canada is taking with its advertising business.

Everything old is new again – like bell-bottoms and the ‘bold new direction’ Labatt Breweries of Canada is taking with its advertising business.

In January 1993, Hugo Powell, CEO of Labatt parent Interbrew SA and then president of the Canadian brewery, gave his famous ‘fire the handler’ speech to the Canadian Congress of Advertising. He called for immediate advertising agency restructuring to get rid of superfluous layers of ‘handlers’:

‘People handling clients. People handling creative people. People handling media buyers. People handling new business prospects. People handling New York. People and activities that cost millions of dollars. I don’t want to pay for handlers. And I certainly don’t want to pay for being handled.’

A year later, the Labatt creative account (then worth about $3 to $4 million in annual fees) was handed to four-month-old Ammirati & Puris.

Today, Labatt has pulled up stakes at Ammirati Puris as it’s now known and is putting its money behind a startup, as yet without a name or staff, but one to be shaped in Labatt’s image of the ideal agency.

In terms that echo Powell’s, Labatt VP of marketing Charles Oliver shows that Labatt’s desire for cost efficiencies and new and better ways of getting its advertising product out is not a whim but rather part of its culture.

‘We absolutely appreciate the amount of talent that it takes to do great advertising. That’s why we have agencies. What we’re not on for is paying extraordinarily high dollars to support a huge infrastructure as opposed to compensating those few individuals that make a difference. I don’t mind paying good money but I’m not willing to have a large portion of my fees support things other than getting the creative done.

‘We think there’s a better world. It’s a different client/agency model with much more client involvement than most traditional agency relationships. Clients that want handholding and those multileveled, multi-layered meeting, just won’t fit into this model.’

Labatt has always been up front about its advertising value philosophy and, as with all of the most desirable clients, realizes that great advertising begins with a solid business strategy and a true client-agency partnership.

With our slowing economy and companies looking for ways to tighten their purse strings, the industry will see more advertisers shopping around for a better agency deal.

Unlike Labatt, not all of them will be as candid about their reasons for change.

It’s not uncommon for agencies to take the bulk of the blame in these break-ups. They are used to the role of scapegoat. After all, in the agency-client relationship, the client is the more powerful partner – it pays the bills.

The client also prepares the brief and gives approval to the work.

If money is the primary mover in a decision to switch agencies, admit it. If an advertising campaign is a flop, isn’t it just possible that half the blame lies in the client’s court?

Rupert Brendon, president of the Institute of Communications & Advertising, recalls one old cliché in the business: You can have it good, cheap, or fast. Pick two.

It’s not always possible to deliver all those things. But agencies try.

After Powell’s ‘wake up call;’ agencies did cut the fat from their companies and are paying the price today with a talent shortage.

They also answered subsequent client calls to provide new media services, direct response and customer relationship capabilities – all adding people and layers to the process. And if they have ‘handlers,’ well that was because some clients needed those too.

Labatt’s Oliver believes clients get the agencies and advertising they deserve. But he also believes that marketers have to take ‘ownership’ of the process and their marketing communications. Don’t just take the credit for efforts that work; take responsibility for those that don’t.

Advertisers not willing to take such a proactive approach had better stick with their ‘handlers.’

Agencies want to feel like they are valued partners. Clients who treat them simply as paper suppliers will merely get their requests filled – or quite possibly, find themselves surprised and without an agency like Sears Canada.

Patti Summerfield, senior reporter

Pick a winner…

Now that everyone has what’s wrong with the world out of their system (note our Letters section), let’s move on to what’s been good about the last year.

The Dec. 17 issue sees the unveiling of the much-anticipated Agency of the Year winners and the results of the Creative Report Card. The process and judging is rigorous in both of these endeavours (not to mention completely arm’s length and as scientific as feasible without involving Vulcans). That’s a good thing for AOY, which is intended as a strictly professional assessment of the shortlisted agencies’ body of work. However, in the interest of providing a forum for a more subjective assessment of the year that was, we’re opening up the Perspectives section to let everyone share any BESTS that don’t fit in the typical award-show categories. You’re invited to send us your top picks of 2001, in categories of your own invention.

Here’s one to get the juices flowing…Most Popular Marketer at a Party: Taxi client Roly Morris of Krispy Kreme fame. (As a KK evangelist, he’s always carrying a box or two of the decadent and addictive uber-donut.)

Whatever caught your fancy or made you wildly envious this year, email me your picks at