Agency Assignments: Managing the Hidden Costs

Nov 01, 2011

Problems agencies and clients have today in maintaining their relationships is an issue that is often discussed but not easily overcome (see part one of this article, Pharm Exec, Sept. 2011, p. 108). The result: a growing turnover of agency assignments that add costs, both obvious and hidden, for both parties. A frustrating scenario, given the time, consultants, and seasoned professionals involved, when an agency/client relationship ends up being short-lived and painful.

Part of the problem may be the selection process itself, affectionately known as "the pitch." It's the time-honored approach in which a client calls in a variety of agencies, poses a marketing communications problem, and the agencies work their tails off in a contracted, unrealistic time frame. They then parade forth and present their solution—speculative, of course—to the client group. The winning agency is selected based on the client's opinion of the work and whatever relationships have been formed during the accelerated process. For clients, it may be fun; for agencies, it's almost always brutal.

But more importantly, is a pitch a realistic assessment of how an agency and client can work together? Sometimes. Does it create impactful and usable work? Rarely, since there are few tales of the work proffered in the pitch actually being used in the market. And are the relationships formed successful and long-lasting? That's the hope, anyway.

Now, is it going to change? Probably not, but it's interesting that in a recent report, a joint committee of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers has suggested an alternative. Clients should tighten their objectives and criteria in advance, narrow the list of potential agencies down to three or four, then visit agency offices for a capabilities presentation and "meet the team" session.

Like many other selection formats among companies in the service industry, this should facilitate a realistic, rational decision. If there are still questions between a few agencies, further interview sessions can challenge each finalist with specific issues.

It's the People, Silly!

Whether the agency and client have just started their relationship or have been together for years, the glue that keeps the relationship together and productive is built on the chemistry and trust between the agency team and the brand team. Having worked for many years on both sides of the relationship and having talked with many veterans on both sides, I see a consensus: Given reasonable strategic thinking, creative, and service, it's the people issues that hold the agency and client together. That should be no surprise in a service business. Yes, competency is critical because no relationship can last without the basics being delivered. But people are the key to longevity.

So the question becomes: How do you keep the glue working? No matter if you're a client or an agency, there are seen things you can do to keep the relationship solid.

1) Take responsibility for the success of the relationship. Both sides should consider themselves accountable. Agencies promise bold, fearless thinking, and clients commit to an open mind. But if clients begin to make decisions out of risk avoidance or repeatedly change criteria or direction, an agency can lose its fearless edge. And if agencies continually exceed cost estimates or seem to reject any client suggestion, a client's open mind begins to close.

2) Write it down. I'm not talking about just the legal contract. Throughout your relationship, get as much as you can in writing, starting with initial expectations. Who's responsible for what, how you want to work, what's the process, who should be involved—these need to be spelled out before work begins. Sometimes that's difficult in the rush to market with a new campaign or brand. But as a good friend of mind always reminds me: Unexplained expectations can't be met.

Work through and write creative briefs together, and get the right people to sign off—before work begins. Then bring that signed brief to each meeting and use it as the basis for judging the work. It's the best way to infuse objectivity into a very subjective process.