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November 24, 2016

Article by Jacques Burger – Founding Partner: Group Executive 

With more than 15 years’ experience in the industry, Jacques Burger (@1jacquesburger) has lead some of the most-prestigious accounts in SA, such as VW and SABMiller. As Ogilvy Cape Group MD, he successfully lead an integrated team which included digital, direct, design and PR. As The Campaign Palace Group CEO in Australia, he oversaw internationally recognised and awarded communications for brands such as Target, Panasonic and Westpac (Australia’s biggest banking group) and was named one of the Top 40 young marketers in the region. Since October 2010, when he founded the M&C Saatchi Abel JHB group, Jacques has lead the growth of the office from startup to over 100 staff members today, handling blue chip accounts such as Edgars, Nedbank and Simba Pepsico.



I was once told the story of an agency that had to fly on a Friday from New York City to some industrial city in the Midwest of the US to go and pitch on a piece of business. On the way back to NYC from the pitch meeting, the client called the agency to ask if they could set up a conference call to discuss next steps in the pitch process for the Monday morning — and the client asked that the full agency team be present for the call. On the Monday morning, with the pitch team huddled in an agency boardroom waiting for the call, the receptionist called to announce that the client was in fact in the reception area of the agency; they had arrived unannounced with a case of champagne, having flown in earlier that morning, to come and surprise the agency at their offices with the good news that they had won the account.

In stark contrast to this are the many stories overheard this year, where news of a pitch win comes in the form of an email from the procurement department. Not that I have anything against procurement departments — they have an important role to play in business — I just think these two stories talk powerfully to what has gone wrong in many of the modern day agency/client relationships.

Three key tenets

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think great business relationships are always about partnership and long evenings swaying side to side next to each other around a campfire. As an industry, we need to become more comfortable with a relationship structured around that of a professional, trusted supplier — such as a doctor/patient or lawyer/client relationship — and free ourselves up from a sometimes unnecessary burden of what it really means to be partners. But, whether you are looking for a partner or trusted supplier, I do believe that there are three key tenets in building powerful business relationships that are often undervalued or ignored in some of the pitch processes of today.


The first tenet is honesty. We all know that the truth may be uncomfortable, that it may challenge, that it may reveal hidden agendas, but both parties have to be bold enough to embrace honesty as part of the process: why are we looking for a new agency? Why is the current agency not working? Have we tried to make it work — really tried? Is what we want in an agency, and the reality of what the daily requirements of our business demand, different? Is it just about saving money? Why are we inviting the incumbent to pitch when we have no intention of awarding them the account again – and, in fact, if that were an option, why are we pitching at all?

Why do we want this client? Is it just for the money? Can we deliver brilliantly on what this client is asking for? Do we want to work with this client — can we feel the chemistry? Why are they looking for a new agency and how can we make it work when the previous agency couldn’t? What are they looking for but, also, what are we looking for?

These are all important questions that both parties need to be able to honestly answer, which, no doubt, will lead to fewer pitches and less opportunity, but many more long-term, mutually beneficial relationships. Butm in the rush of pitch fever and the many mixed agendas, the opportunity to honestly assess fit is missed.

Agency vs idea

The second tenet to consider when looking for a perfect agency/client match has to be distinguishing between looking for an agency vs just looking for an idea. Many pitches today rely heavily upon the principle that the agency with the best idea on the day wins. Of course, these ideas are developed in isolation of the client debate and collaboration that usually accompany the birth of so many brilliant ideas, but one could argue that all agencies in the pitch are subjected to this same flaw.

Much more significant, though, is that one idea on the day, by one agency, has the power to overshadow a lifetime of brilliant creative solutions delivered to happy clients by another agency. In the end, the chemistry, the track record, the proven ability to solve business challenges can surely not be made less important than one idea, off one brief, on the day? If one is looking for a great idea, then sure, ask five agencies to show you what they could do but, if you are looking for a great agency, then consider an approach that perhaps better balances the allure of a great idea on the day with a proven track record and deep expertise (do you even need that idea on the day, I might dare ask?).


The third tenet is about chemistry. Scorecards and spreadsheets cannot tell you whether a relationship will last, or bring enjoyment. As the world becomes more transactional and cut-throat, there seems to be less and less time allocated to finding inspiration, like-mindedness, shared values, great energy and trust. The clients who are adored by their agencies are the ones that benefit most from their brilliance; these are the clients who enjoy ideas and smarts beyond the transactional requirements of the relationship. Actually liking the person whom you do business with means that you will do more for them, more often; it also means that you take your commitment to them much more seriously. I can only imagine how positively the agency orientated around that Midwestern US client who flew all the way to their offices to tell them that they had won the pitch.

Pitches are about the start of the relationship but, with many of them not having great endings (as proven by the number of pitches we’ve seen this year), perhaps it’s time that we look at how we start a little bit differently. Who knows? We might just all like how it ends a whole lot more!

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