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August 14, 2008
The Loyal Treatment
Do we have an obligation to promote and use our client’s products?

It was recently reported that when Michael Dell went to go tour the office of his new ad agency Enfatico, there was a scramble to replace all the Macs on the desks with Dell computers. Now, we all know that creative departments in advertising agencies generally use Macs, but this dog-and-pony show apparently had to be arranged to placate the top client’s ego.

Many agencies have a policy of using their clients’ products. Like the Pepsi ad agency where you can’t be spotted with a Coke or a Diet Pepper in your hand (hint: pour the Coke into a travel mug). Or the Chevy ad agency where the people who drive Chevys or other GM cars get better parking spots. In some agencies, you can get fired for violating this strict loyalty code.

But what happens when you leave work in the evening? In your outside-the-agency life, how much of an advocate should you be for your client’s products?

I think people who work in advertising are more susceptible to liking or loving brands, not less. We’re all major fans of brands with great marketing and buy into their stories. Apple, Nike, Target, Starbucks, Method–there’s a whole cadre of brands ad people salivate over. So it comes naturally to want to be a brand advocate for your client, and buy into the brand’s attributes. (Funny how it’s easier to embrace your client’s products when they’re upscale, well-respected or well-made.)

It’s not just good business to use a client’s product or talk it up. If we’re going to start saying word-of-mouth conversation is the new way to stay relevant, we are personally responsible for being part of spreading the word. Plus, I care if my clients do well. Because if they do well, I do well.

Well, in theory that’s true. I’ve worked on dozens of different clients, most of which didn’t make products or services that I was in the target audience for. Nonetheless, I promoted them, and advocated for them. Until the point where I didn’t work on those accounts in those agencies. But in some cases, there were some clients that simply stopping earning my respect.

There’s no loyalty in the advertising business anymore, if there ever was any. Clients are all too happy to parcel out pieces of business to eager agencies that kiss their ass. Or throw a 10-year relationship into review to “take a holistic look at our marketing parnerships to see if our communications objectives can be better met.”

And so the agency/client relationship becomes a constant game of kiss and punch. I’ve never worked at an agency where, behind closed doors, a client wasn’t cursed, damned or burned in effigy--in many cases by the people whose names were on the agency’s doors.

Such behavior is not usually born of callousness, it’s born of frustration. To good advertising professionals, a certain type of brand advocacy comes in the form of wanting clients to become better businesses overall, regardless of the quality of ads that get produced. I’ve seen too many cases where a client’s wasteful spending and incompetence led me to believe that they don’t deserve anyone’s business, let alone mine.

This is not a desire to bite the hand that feeds me. Advertising professionals are uniquely positioned to look at a client’s brand from a perspective unlike any other: up close, yet dispassionate. It’s important for me to learn as much as I can about a client’s business. But that doesn’t prevent me from being critical. In other words, I take the factory tour, but I don’t drink the Kool-Aid when I’m there.

When you work at an agency, using a client’s product, or simply advocating for it, is often something that's forced upon you. Most people in advertising don’t much of a say in which clients they work on. And most agencies aren’t all that picky about clients if they’re profitable accounts. So you’re forced to be loyal to companies you might not like all that much. And that’s a shame.

But maybe that will soon change. It’s getting harder and harder for marketers to hide behind a false facade. Consumers are savvier and have access to more information. Which means if brands don’t live up to their promises, they’ll be exposed. And that will seep over into ad agency life, because the same principle applies in agency/client relationships: if the transparency isn’t there, the relationship is doomed, and forcing agency people to use a product won’t help.

Note to all marketing managers and marketing directors: The people who work in your advertising and communications agencies can be your biggest advocates. And if you don’t treat them well, or they can turn out to be your brand’s biggest denouncers. We know the good, bad, and the ugly; the big picture, and even some of the dark secrets.

So clients and marketers who want loyalty need to reciprocate. By being loyal to good ideas. And being loyal to unconventional thinking. And being loyal to the agencies and people who strive to deliver those.

Now that’s the kind of loyalty program marketers would really benefit from.

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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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