Agency relations gone bad? The solution starts with a beer

Writing an article on agency-client relationships is like walking into a minefield. No matter how carefully you step, your chances of getting out unscathed are small.

Writing an article on agency-client relationships is like walking into a minefield. No matter how carefully you step, your chances of getting out unscathed are small.

Strategy has published articles and opinions on the agency-client relationship before. Some of them have been overt critiques, others have provided a more subtle undertone. Almost all, however, paint the relationship of agencies and clients as being antagonistic, stressful and often counterproductive.

It is fair to say that a certain amount of conflict, challenge and heatedness is endemic to the agency-client relationship. When it is good, it is constructive. Intelligent, informed, passionate professionals seeking the ultimate good for the brand.

At its worst – and I do believe that it is getting worse – it is a pox on both our houses. It is destructive, confrontational – a zero sum game – something which is ruining the business.

Two major structural forces in our industry are contributing to this situation: the changing natures of brand ‘ownership’ and control, and the move from retainer to fee or project-based agency-client relationships.

Globalism: New strains for agencies and clients

Much has been written over the last 10 years about the effects of globalism on the Canadian marketing industry. These days, most big brands take their cues from the head office brand architects in the U.S. or Europe, with the Canadian division being largely an execution or trade-focused arm.

This leaves Canada’s agencies and marketers with less ability to meaningfully impact the brand, and a loss of intimacy with the brand itself.

When Canada was considered a distinct geography, with distinct consumers needing distinct products, insights, packaging – and therefore, advertising – marketers were much more intimately involved in their products. When R&D and manufacturing are local, even co-located, there is a deeper understanding of both the product and the consumer (as well as the long-term strategic direction) that has been lost.

While the extent to which Canadian divisions have close links with their head office varies company by company, on the whole the ties are far more distant than they used to be. Canadians are less and less ‘owners’ of brands, and more and more ‘lessees,’ with strong provisions about what kinds of changes and adaptations are allowed to the structure.

And while no agency wants to work on a big, global brand over which they have little control, they should understand that neither does anyone on the client side. Marketers are just as frustrated.

This leads to greater strain because both agency and client – often both branches of global companies – are fighting over that much smaller, controllable piece of the pie.

From retainer to project work

The other issue is that of the changing relationship between marketers and their agencies. The ICA reports that more and more Canadian marketers are moving from a retainer relationship to a fee or project format. While the thinking behind this involves perceived value and tighter budgets, one of the results is a weakening of the relationship between client and agency. This diminishment takes on several forms – from a personal perspective, frankly, we are just spending less and less time with our agencies.

Agencies used to be involved in every aspect of a brand – from initial concept development, through the R&D and testing phases, through the research phases, through the brand planning phase. This created not only a greater awareness, knowledge and understanding of the business on both sides, but for the marketer, it created almost a mirror brand manager – any marketer new to a line of business will tell you the value there is in the continuity offered up by an agency intimate to a client’s workings.

No more. Now agencies are often brought in not at the earliest possible time, but the latest. The later the agency is brought in, the lower the amount of time spent on the project, the lower the cost of project.

So, given that we are not going to change either the global nature of brands nor the financial arrangement between our agencies and clients, what can we do to address this situation?

Well, one thing you can do is update your agency regularly – get together once a month or once a quarter to touch base formally on what’s going on with the business – it’s worth the few hundred bucks of time involved.

Secondly, we can improve communication through our head offices. Clients should be giving the agency updates on what’s going on at head office; and so should agencies, with their respective parent companies (especially where the brand is managed globally by the same agency).

Thirdly, you should seek ways to include your agency in major presentations, even if advertising is not directly involved – for example, major research findings.

The fourth thing you can do is attend conferences together – if it’s of interest to the client, it should be of interest to the agency – go together and discuss how the topic might impact the brand.

Fifth, send regular e-mail updates – we all circulate articles and links of interest to our managers, peers and subordinates – make sure that the agency is included too. It costs nothing and ensures that communication is open.

Finally, have lunch, have dinner, have a beer – get together with your agency once or twice a quarter where there is no agenda – just folks getting together to shoot the shit and talk – it not only provides better communication about the business, it strengthens personal relationships and respect in an informal setting – rather than waiting for the always-stressful copy project.

Michael Shekter is a marketer with Maple Leaf Foods. He has also worked at such marketing institutions as Procter & Gamble and Kraft (Nabisco), and taught marketing at the business schools of both the University of Toronto and York University. He can be reached at michaels@marketingadvisory.com.