News & Views

Partnership problems

by Arif Haq

Contagious' Arif Haq says it's time for the great British ad agency to find some balls in order to re-balance its relationship with clients.

Has the British ad agency become the least entrepreneurial business in the advertising process? While brave brands focus on product and category innovation, and plucky production companies drive salience by investing in advertising-adjacent forms like design, illustration and wider culture, ad agencies seem to have stood still, in fear of what change might mean for the industry. And slowly but surely, the spirited agitators that used to populate agencies - the trouble-makers, the quarrelsome and the awkward - have been worn down, their edges rounded off by a variety of malevolent forces.

First and foremost is the relentless haranguing agencies are taking from smaller sexier competitors in the digital and tech worlds. Their assertion is that ad shops are merely flower arrangers in a new post-promotional paradigm. Today, so goes the argument, the smart work is done by those who are focused on what's inside the giftbox, rather than merely the wrapping paper. This feeds neatly off the long-held client perception that agency folk don't really understand the wider drivers of their business, a suspicion that blooms into mistrust as over-zealous pitch cycles have begun to focus only on the price of advertising rather than the value of it. The ever-present threat of the pitch that can be seemingly called at any time for a variety of opaque reasons ignores a single truth that having spent almost a decade as a PepsiCo client I've witnessed first-hand: Fear, in all its forms, stifles creativity rather than provokes it.

Then of course, there's the more insidious role played by the agency business model itself. It has always struck me that the 'waiting-for-a-brief' culture has always been at odds with clients wanting their agencies to think proactively about wider business challenges. The growing sense of disempowerment that is fostered by reactive brief-waiting - based on the understanding that agencies don't make decisions, clients do - is leaving agency folk, especially younger ones wanting to make their mark, increasingly frustrated.

Attacked from outside the building and hamstrung by the processes within it, British shops have been left demoralised. It's not uncommon to hear of creatives frustrated by the lack of opportunities to make 'real things', or see planners leaving to seek jobs in 'hard strategy' consultancies. The low morale in those that stay is palpable; the widening quality gap between the very best creative work and the runners up is a clear indicator that many agencies have given up having the balls to defend their best ideas. Sir John Hegarty summed this up at last month's Campaign Big Awards saying 'the only way to improve our creative standing is to take control and fight for what we believe in.'

Smelling blood in the water, some peculiarly short-sighted clients have chosen to exploit the sorry situation. Take Premier Foods, who earlier this year took the unprecedented step of asking agencies to pay tens of thousands of pounds in upfront fees to remain on its roster. The move is notable for many reasons, but mainly because the company felt it could get away with it in the first place.

In the search for a safe haven from the storm, ad agencies have looked at a variety of solutions. From the obvious: the 'safety in numbers' route of hyper-consolidation, the guileful: enticing tech industry detractors inside the tent with cash and job titles (Chief Technology Officer anyone?). And the hopeless: at least a handful of agency heads cling to the notion that one day they might be able to license creative ideas to clients. Beyond this, we must applaud initiatives that bring a sense of collaboration to the problem. The newly launched Alliances Adaptathon which brings together members of the IPA, ISBA and Marketing Society to 'hack the future of better client agency relationships' is a smart and purposeful move which I wish the very best. I just hope they manage to avoid talking about things like 'winning together in a spirit of true partnership' or some other hoary notion that ignores what should be an obvious truth: Clients and agencies are not partners. They never have been. Partners share risk and reward. Clients and agencies do not. There may be a profound sense of enlightened self-interest in ensuring the other party succeeds, but that's as far as it goes.

The real way to re-ignite our agencies' broken spirits is to stop talking about a common sense of purpose. We need to invest in it. A solution well worth considering is clients and agencies entering into formal business joint ventures that give co-ownership of a brand and its supporting business to both parties. This would do away with any mistrust that the over-zealous pitch cycle has generated, allowing a long term relationship based on genuine mutual interest. Agency folk can be seconded to the JV on a rotational basis, giving them valuable experience of brand management - working on the stuff inside the box as well as the wrapping paper - while the client is guaranteed the far-sighted creative stewardship generated by trust rather than the over-caffeinated creative spasms induced by fear. At least one Chief Creative Officer I spoke to at this year's Cannes agrees that we need this kind of bold step to future-proof the client/agency relationship for the next fifty years. Anyone else?

Arif Haq joined Contagious' consultancy team in April 2013. Prior to this he spent nine years working on the PepsiCo UK and Europe brand teams.