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April 9, 2009
Couples Counseling for the Agency-Client Relationship

Marketers who want better work need to know the people who can deliver it

Have you ever trashed your client in Newsweek?

Unless you’re Peter Arnell, my guess is you haven’t. Because that’s what he did last week, in an attempt to diffuse a shitstorm over his Tropicana packaging redesign, which was quickly ditched after its launch.

He said, "I have my own perspective on it. But it's not my brand. It's not my company. So what the hell? I got paid a lot of money, and I have 30 other projects. You move on." So what did Neil Campbell, President of Tropicana, say in response? According to the article, he’ll keep working with Arnell.

So the ad guy publicly says he doesn’t care about the client, and the client doesn’t seem to care that the ad guy doesn’t care. I guess they deserve each other. But for the rest of us, agency-client relationships are under scrutiny as the economic climate forces everyone to rethink everything.

It’s no secret that advertising agency folks love to gripe about clients. It's a push-pull relationship where both agency and client often work at cross-purposes. But agencies should strive to express some level of gratitude and dedication to the clients they serve. Particularly in public forums. Clients deserve that.

What clients shouldn’t do is what Neil Campbell apparently did. Which is to accept and embrace the public trashing of his company by a well-paid agency executive who doesn’t give a crap about his clients.

Clients have more power than ever to shape the future of advertising, and the agencies that make it. Why? It’s very simple. All across the economy the customer is in control, and clients are the customers. For example, price haggling was once limited to cars and flea markets. Now, it’s everywhere—appliances, clothing, etc. Everything is subject to negotiation, and advertising agency fees are no exception.

But despite all that newfound power, story after story comes out about the dissatisfaction large clients feel with their roster ad agencies. Why are marketers, their CEOs and CMOs, still bitching about ad agencies and the quality of the work they’re getting? I have a guess.

It’s because most marketers have no clue who's really working on their account.

Any time I worked at a big agency on sizeable accounts, I rarely met with the client. The other creatives didn't. The writers, art directors, production artists, traffic managers, junior AE's and other people who did the day-to-day work didn't meet the clients either. Client meetings involved a CD, an account supervisor, even the management of the agency who would show up just to get face time.

None of that will change unless clients demand it. Agencies are perfectly content to keep their talent hidden away--no matter what the color. And it's true, some creatives are good with clients and present well, some aren't. Yes, the creative people are sometimes resentful, because clients are thought to be the enemy, watering down concepts behind closed doors and rarely meeting the ad makers. It’s also fomented by agency culture in some places, where the management is perfectly happy with that status quo, parachuting into clients meetings to complete the illusion of appearing concerned and engaged.

Most clients just aren't interested in the workings of their agencies, even if the people doing the work can provide better insight on the business or the client-agency relationship--which they often can, just from living with the account.

The ball is in the marketer's court. They need to ask--and demand--to meet the very people who do the work. Not just the agency people who serve as stand-ins during a new business pitch.

Are you a client in a position of power over your roster ad agencies? Do yourself a favor: Scare the shit out of them—in a good way. Pop into their office unannounced one day. Collect the business cards of the people you’ve never met before. Ask who wrote a particular piece of work, or who produced it.

You’ll learn some fascinating things. Like that the people working on your business aren’t rich, slack, or uncaring. They’re ordinary people. If you’re not willing to connect with them, it’s unlikely you’re able to connect your brand to your consumers. And you deserve the ineffective work you’re likely to get.

But if you do it right, with an understanding that creativity isn’t always pretty, simple, or logical, you will build trust with the very people whose hard work can make or break your brand—and often, your own career as a marketer. Then, and only then, you'll know how much sunshine ad agencies are blowing up your ass. Plus, you won’t find your brand insulted in Newsweek by the very people you hired to be stewards of that brand.

A successful relationship between an agency and client isn’t one that’s 50/50. It’s one where both parties give 100%. Just like every other relationship—so if yours isn’t working, a little therapy might help postpone a breakup.


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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