Campaign UK

Off your ros­ter

The re­tained agency model is an ar­chaic one, but there are ways to im­prove it


Mar­keters of­ten tell me they lose sleep over how to mo­ti­vate their ad­ver­tis­ing agency. “How do we get the best out of them? How do we en­sure we get the most tal­ented peo­ple on our busi­ness?” I am usu­ally stumped for an in­tel­li­gent re­sponse since it re­verses the nor­mal di­rec­tion of flow of busi­ness angst, whereby those los­ing the sleep are the sup­pli­ers, ea­ger to re­tain the good­will of their hard-won cus­tomers. “How do we keep them com­ing back? How do we show them their busi­ness re­ally mat­ters to us?”

But lit­tle about ad agency re­la­tion­ships is rou­tine busi­ness. The “re­tained agency” norm is wildly out of kil­ter with the way things are done in vir­tu­ally ev­ery other mar­ket­place. Wouldn’t it be odd, for ex­am­ple, if you had a “restau­rant of record” –

Luigi’s, let’s say – to which you were com­mit­ted to re­turn for all your eat­ing-out needs? And wouldn’t it lead to some du­bi­ous be­hav­iour on both sides?

The epony­mous Luigi, know­ing the con­tract was sewn up and hard to un­pick, might be tempted to cut cor­ners here and there, be­come slow in re­turn­ing calls, ease you from the most favourable ta­bles, feel less in­clined to of­fer those com­pli­men­tary af­ter-din­ner limon­cel­los.

But even if his com­mit­ment to your ut­most sat­is­fac­tion were ir­re­proach­able, even if his culi­nary pas­sion were in­tact and af lame, you might suc­cumb to creep­ing doubts about whether he was do­ing ev­ery­thing right by you or whether, in some un­seen way, back in that con­cealed kitchen, your cus­tom was be­ing taken for granted.

De­nied to you both would be the silent but ex­pres­sive lan­guage of the free mar­ket­place – where you both know that Carlo’s, over the road, does a pretty mean spaghetti alle von­gole and that you are at lib­erty to ven­ture there as the mood suits. Just as Luigi would be at lib­erty to fill all his ta­bles one night and turn you away. It’s health­ier all round.

We’re so ac­cus­tomed to the re­tained agency sys­tem, and its ar­cane con­ven­tions, that we fail to see it for the strange and mal­adapted en­tity that it is. For each ad agency, just one client of a kind – a stricter door pol­icy than Noah had for the ark. And for each client, a de­press­ingly nar­rowed choice of po­ten­tial agency due to the is­sue of “con­flict”.

What an odd, ad­ver­tis­ing-spe­cific hang-up that turns out to be. Try to imag­ine it ap­plied in other in­dus­tries – air­lines, for ex­am­ple. It would be like Air­bus de­clin­ing to sell planes to Bri­tish Air­ways be­cause it would some­how seem dis­loyal to its prior cus­tomer, Emi­rates.

Frankly, the ad­vice I’d like to give to mar­keters doubt­ing agency mo­ti­va­tion would be to change the foot­ing on which their agen­cies are pro­cured. Bet­ter to put them on short-term con­tracts or projects, where the in­cen­tive – the mo­ti­va­tion – is the nor­mal one of try­ing to gain the next as­sign­ment.

That would not pre­clude long-term, un­bro­ken re­la­tion­ships: it would just achieve them by a more pro­duc­tive means, built on sat­is­fac­tion rather than in­er­tia. The corol­lary, of course, is that your ad agen­cies would be free to work with your com­peti­tors – just as your re­search agen­cies, de­sign houses and pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies al­ready are.

Since “How about you sin­gle-hand­edly change an en­trenched, cen­tury-old sys­tem” is not use­ful coun­sel in the face of a sleep­less mar­keter, I do try to find some­thing more con­struc­tive to say, based on my ex­pe­ri­ence both in­side and along­side the agency world. The trou­ble is, it is pretty ob­vi­ous stuff. But, for what it is worth, I of­fer it here.

Ad agen­cies are pop­u­lated by driven and tal­ented peo­ple who are mo­ti­vated by the prospect of do­ing great work. But that is an enor­mously dif­fi­cult and ex­pos­ing jour­ney – one not to be em­barked upon un­less they be­lieve it is also what the client wants.

And – strange but true – your agency might doubt your com­mit­ment to “great”, even though you’d be crazy to want any­thing less from them. So you need to tell them.

Do this with a state­ment and a ques­tion: “We want you to pro­duce the best ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign in the world this year. What do we need to do to help you achieve it?” Be pre­pared to fol­low through: they won’t ask for any­thing crazy – it will be about clar­ity of briefs, lean­ness of ap­proval lines, hon­esty on con­straints, and time.

You will have achieved two things. You will have left them in no doubt that what they most want is also the thing that you want. And you will have re­moved any con­ve­nient ex­cuse they might have for not pro­duc­ing it – a re­al­i­sa­tion as ter­ri­fy­ing as it is ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

From this point on, it will be the agency awake at night – and pul­sat­ingly alive through the long day – de­ter­mined to de­liver. You might not get the world’s best work, but you will cer­tainly get theirs.

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