Agency-client relationships: of ‘terms’ and the long term

So two big accounts change agencies this week: Reliance Communications moved to Grey and now there is talk of Airtel moving to JWT.  On the media front, there was change of agencies at Coca-Cola too. What makes some client-agency relationships break? If it breaks within a span of months, you know something drastic happened – wrong chemistry, poor creative…whatever. When pitches are called for after 2-3 years of working with an agency the reasons could vary from a change of CMO at the client’s end, unhappiness with the agency’s response time, quality issues etc. Client CMO & brand manager stints are getting shorter and hence they are in a hurry to launch new stuff and do new things (junk whatever has been done in the past) during their stint. A natural repercussion: review. Consistency & retaining talent at the agency side too has been an industry-wide issue, leading to lack of continuity on a particular brand.

But it gets really puzzling when clients decide to terminate long standing relationships – the ones that last for decades. (In an October 2008 post, I asked ‘Are legendary client-agency relationships in trouble?‘. Most of the issues outlined there seem so relevant today).Global alignments with an agency group, especially for MNCs is common. They ensure that relationships at the top remain stable, a Global Account Director keeps track of brand issues across regions and so on. But for local companies to stick with an agency over decades is rare. When they do it’s usually starts with right chemistry between the two CEOs. Good business-building work is also at the heart of that kind of relationship. I think things go wrong when senior level involvement from the agency wanes especially in tough times for the brand. Which is directly linked to being able to retain talent within the agency over a long period of time. I think with consistency comes not just familiarity with the brand but also an ability to steer the brand in the right direction. In agencies you may find consistency at the CEO level but with levels 2-3 rungs lower, across functions, there seems to be a lot of churn. The ability to hold on to senior talent – be it for reasons of remuneration or otherwise, is getting difficult for agencies. An important element – but not the only one – is the agency remuneration that allows one to attract good talent. A handy guide on 10 deadly sins in agency-client relationships can be found here.

Recently, Strawberry Frog outlined the essentials of a long-lasting client-agency relationship:

Honesty. Whatever happens, client and agency, need to tell each other the truth. Trust and mutual forgiving of mistakes, which are unavoidable on both sides. Absence of fear. Nobody can produce great work, under a Damocles sword. Acknowledgement of jobs well done. Mutual agreement that carrots produce largely better and more work than whips. Openness from wherever ideas come from. They often come from the client. Close involvement at the top of client and agency. The big picture must constantly be clear to everybody. Nobody is permitted to waver in the belief of the essential values of the brand. A sense of humor, which allows both sides to have as much fun as possible, in the interest of outstanding commitment and work.

What are the ones we can tick in a typical client-agency relationship?

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