The Value of Relationships

When it comes to advertisers and their relationships with their advertising and media agency partners, change may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Or, to put it another way, some change is good but too much can be decidedly anti-productive.

At the end of last year the incoming IPA President (the IPA is the UK ad agency trade body) Ian Priest laid out his vision for his term of office, the outcome of which he neatly summarised in a hoped-for future headline in The Financial Times: “Client confidence in agencies soars as business results demonstrate value of creativity”.

One of Ian’s main points is that there is a direct correlation between the length of a client/agency relationship and the quality of the work produced. He quotes various examples: BBH and Audi (30 years); DDB and Volkswagen (over 50 years); AMV and Sainsbury’s (over 30 years), and of course there are more.

I agree with him and not just on the topic of award-winning creativity. Agencies working on the Procter and Gamble business have long benefited from the loyalty shown to their organisations – a loyalty that allows those working on the account to focus on their role on the business (whatever that might be), as opposed to always worrying about the politics associated with a change in brand team, at whatever level. And of course there are many examples here too.

The IPA has set up an initiative that brings together the ISBA (the UK advertiser body), The Marketing Society and the IPA to try to improve the relationship between advertiser and agency – a relationship that has deteriorated in the sense that the average tenure on a piece of business has fallen from 7.2 years in 1984 to just under 3 years in 2013.

This seems to me to be a most worthwhile and indeed mature initiative; and all credit to the IPA and to Ian Priest for taking it. I would contrast it with the language of the media agencies where the talk is of not blinking in what they see as a toe-to-toe battle with procurement departments; of advertisers bringing agency bad practice on themselves through their behaviour on payment terms; and of clients not being prepared to pay for upstream planning services. In short – a confrontational stance that is diametrically opposed to the collaborative position taken by the IPA.

Much of what the media agencies say may very well be founded on truth. It is certainly entirely unreasonable for clients to impose payment terms on them that lead to them having to behave as if they were banks (on many levels). It is most unsatisfactory if procurement terms are dominating any decision on which agency to select and how to work with them. It is a dreadful indictment that the agencies have for many years failed to convince their clients of the true value of great planning (‘value’ equalling something worth paying for).

I question whether the war of words is really all that helpful. The IPA represents media agencies as well as their creative cousins, and even though Ian Priest’s words have focussed on creativity there is much in the collaborative nature of this initiative for the media agencies.

They could start by coalescing around a theme – maybe something to do with trust and mutual benefit. They could come up with a charter, and seek to engage and involve advertisers in it. The way for the media agencies to improve the currently sorry reputation of the sector is to prove their good intentions with words and deeds. And words aren’t a bad place to start.