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Pretending it’s ok won’t make it go away

February 16, 2011

Flickr: Balakov

The funny thing about “procuring” an agency

I have worked with many manufacturer-related clients over the years and as such, have dealt with the most stringent of procurement departments. We have lined-up much like the commoditized nuts and bolts suppliers and had our intellectual property & capital, talent and experience force-fed through the same 3x3mm measurement funnel.  One can obviously shut up and go along with it all, or one can continue a conversation to bring sanity and sobriety to the table. We recently won an account where we have a 3 year contract and after that, the business goes out to pitch again. So this is genuinely what happens: Year 1: the client and agency get to know and trust one another, year 2 the agency starts to add real value, year 3 is all about the contract ending, extracting maximum value on both sides, separation anxiety and divorce. The client has one eye open for a new agency, the agency has both eyes open for a new client.

Now neither party has erred, as this idiocy has been written into the contract by the good folk that also bring us polystyrene coffee cups, 50 gram stock printer paper and Canon 40 black ink cartridges. Point is, at the time that the agency can add the most value, the marriage is contractually forced to end.

A cold marriage bed? Putting the shoe on the other foot, with the three year client/agency contract firmly in place, if there is no magic in the marriage after the heady post-pitch honeymoon, one must fess-up and call it a mistake and move on. I have spoken to so many potential clients over the past years that are unhappy with their agencies but they are stuck in a loveless contract for the next 18 months. Similarly, I have chatted to many of my industry colleagues who lead large agencies both locally and internationally and on some of their largest accounts it becomes a marriage of convenience versus a passionate and dynamic exchanging of thoughts and ideas to effectively grow the clients market share (and bottom-line) in their category.  If not that, then what?

So where do we get it so wrong? We all know the adage that “a bad start makes for a bad ending”.  And in truth, there are many bad starts today. I’m referring to the true tender process, not the sanitized version we are blindly meant to believe and then … the “creative pitch”. We can all go along with the lie of the objective tender process – yeh right, get out that toilet aerosol “Paris in Springtime” (who names these things?  Failed Hallmark card copywriters?) and start spraying and pretending. We all know it mostly isn’t objective but a sanitized process to simply choose the agency you want. And why not? But if so, do it without creating an unnecessary and very costly diversion in innocent and unsuspecting agencies’ lives.

It is well hashed territory, but I will rehash it. We all know the creative pitch (which much like advertising focus groups) is rubbish. It is common fact that hardly any work that wins a pitch, ever gets produced. And yet this costly foolishness gets perpetuated around the globe daily. The reason most pitch work doesn’t get made is obvious. It is generated by the agency in isolation of the client who knows their business, brand and objectives intimately – but now embarks on a counter-intuitive process whereby agencies need to second-guess what they want.  And the winner is usually the agency that gets it least wrong. Once the hundreds of thousands of Rands worth of pitch hours are spent, it gets zero rand based for the proper briefing.

A pitch needs to establish only four things:

–        Do I like these people?

–        Do I trust these people?

–        Are they fresh thinkers?

–        Do they have the requisite skill to get my business to where it needs to go?

The tender or short-listing processes that I have seen locally or abroad seek to lobotomize this in so many ways. It is like a dating site (or at best, speed-dating) with pics and a brief bio. Where you don’t hear the magic giggle in her laugh, the subtle smell of her perfume, of her quiet passions or the way she crinkles her nose just-so, when she actually wants to disagree.

There is no more intense a business relationship than that between client and agency. It is daily, frequently highly subjective and where innumerable variables affect the business and work flow.  So it is essential that you like and trust each other. A creative pitch doesn’t, won’t and can’t tell you this. But a series of meetings and workshops can better help simulate the real thing. An environment where you get to actually feel and see what it would be like to work with each other.

Many clients globally are starting to adopt this type of process rather than the current stilted, staccatoed  and uninformed one. The “procurement or pitch process” simply needs to create the environment to best answer the 4 questions above.

Misplaced loyalty:

I am credited with having run some of the bluest of blue chip accounts for many, many successful years. The only reason for this is that my team has to know and understand the clients’ business deeply and have a great ability to collaborate with them on finding and executing highly effective solutions to their business challenges.  Loyalty should not be confused with current performance, but rather on the live and present situation. Clients should ask themselves if these people, (like them or not as it may be), can get my brands and business to where they need to go? Are they the best possible team to go to war with? At a high level it is really no more than that. In fact I cannot see what could be more important in a business relationship. The past cannot determine the relationship – but it can get one to ask some key questions, like, “If it was a great and effective relationship before, what has changed and why?”.

An agency and a client are only as good as the people that occupy those key jobs at that particular time. Not before and not future. Now – it is all we have.

So, rather than pretend something makes sense when it doesn’t – or a relationship is working when it isn’t, use your God-given common sense in making the best, logical decision.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dirk permalink
    February 16, 2011 12:53 pm

    Mike

    You are so right, simple is smarter and brutal honesty with oneself will answer almost all our questions.

    Great article and relevant to all industries not just yours.

    Dirk

  2. Bulldog Charton permalink
    February 17, 2011 6:39 am

    Enjoyed the article Mike…. and used a couple of points for the MAC when we were talking about putting a good pitch together.

    Bully

  3. Anon permalink
    February 22, 2011 11:07 am

    Stalwartly said, I could not agree more. Had a good laugh as it hits the nail right on the head. After being in the industry for long I am amazed how superficial Agency/Client relationships have become and getting worse by the day. This makes for an unhealthy affiliation where no one thrives, and what a negative knock-on effect it has on all involved. A selfish act, indeed. Time is so precious so why waste it, move on find someone you can work with in an efficient manner. You are the first person, or person I know in the industry to have said what’s on a lot of people’s minds publically. Long live loyalty, respect and honesty which is certainly lacking in the industry. If you continue to think and operate your business this way, you can only go from strength to strength. Good luck!

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