Client-Agency relationships: we don't have to be like this only!

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‘Trust’ will only be generated if both parties believe it is a partnership of equals, with equal voice on a level playing field. This inevitably calls for some system which can help ‘maintain’ the relationship on even keel despite personnel churn and subjective evaluations.

Water Flows Through Rocks

It was interesting to read Prasad Sangameshwaran’s article “We are one happy family” in the Hindu BusinessLine which cited Mr Shiv Shivakumar’s (Pepsico) erudite address in the form of a T20 fable on the vexed subject of Client-Agency (C-A) relationships on the occasion of the INDIAA Awards.

The cricket metaphors seem to have flown thick and fast, and the quick fix of the 3 T’s (Time, Talk and Trust) was presented seemingly with the flourish of a Warne bowling the ‘ball of the century’. I can almost see in my mind’s eye a collective slapping of foreheads by all participants with a “of course, why didn’t we think of it earlier” type of refrain.

As one of the fiercely mustachioed worthies told me many years ago, “Arre, what’s the problem, just have a beer with the client CEO/Marketing Head and all will be well, why do we need a system to tell us about our relationship?” If it were so easy, why hasn’t this magic recipe been institutionalized and held up as Best Practice in a sector that is rife with pitches and agency changes?

The reason is that no relationship, especially a commercial, working relationship that encompasses many people of different skills, predilections and views on both sides, can be maintained on a diet of senior beers. I dare say neither could a personal one consisting of two people!

But we are like that only! We love the slogans, but forget that they are only as good as the execution, and if there is one thing that all of us Indians will agree on is that the execution on the ground is sorely lacking in almost all fields, because that’s where one has to roll up ones sleeves, be disciplined and do the grunge work.

So let me explain why the Three T’s need to be based on the hard yards of the Two W’s (Why, When) and One H (How) by using a metaphor of my own: a C-A relationship is like a river, some smooth passages, some rocky, some definitely dangerous, some fresh, some polluted, often with changing contours but hopefully continuously flowing, because when a river stagnates, it is dead. It is important to gauge the health of the river, then, at all times, so that bottlenecks are removed, courses corrected if needed and full advantage taken of the smooth flows when they occur. White water rafting is fun, but you don’t want to be doing it every day!

1) Why? I have advisedly used the word ‘maintained’ above. This is because unlike a marriage (to which the C-A relationship has often been –incorrectly- compared), the C-A relationship is:

a) comprised of many different personnel working at different levels and on different aspects and who, importantly, can and do keep changing over the course of time; many of them work at the real coal face, where things can get tough and dirty, unlike the pleasant confines of board rooms; thus one person’s view, however senior he or she may be, should not be the basis of assessing the relationship; in fact, the rot often starts below;

b) a commercial one with hard and measurable commercial objectives. (Of course, many marriages in India are based on this same principle, but that need not detain us here);

c) most importantly, just like any other relationship, is ultimately dependent on the behaviour and performance of both parties. It has now been proven with 99.9999% statistical confidence that David Ogilvy was indeed correct when he said “Clients get the advertising they deserve”. So if you want the best outcomes from the relationship, an open and honest dialogue of feedback needs to flow in both directions.

‘Trust’ will only be generated if both parties believe it is a partnership of equals, with equal voice on a level playing field. This inevitably calls for some system which can help ‘maintain’ the relationship on even keel despite personnel churn and subjective evaluations.

2) When? A dipstick in the river may not (and usually does not) give us a representative picture of how it is evolving, and what is happening along its course. It is akin to the marketing process, which also needs constant and fresh information to enable successful decision-making, planning and execution on a dynamic basis. Marketing information collection is never only annual or limited to a single report, as it would become dated and unusable. The same holds true for the C-A relationship, which is itself crucial for marketing success.

So it follows that a C-A relationship should also be evaluated and information collected on a regular basis, to allow for early warning if there are rocky passages coming up, or stagnation setting in, and to ensure that benefits of the smooth passages are maximized.

3) How? Happily, such a system exists. APRAIS Worldwide (www.aprais.com) has been helping Clients and Agencies the world over to objectively monitor and measurably improve the C-A relationship across the globe from Albania to Vietnam for the past 17 years. APRAIS has helped assess over 16000 relationships and the data from that vast pool has demonstrated clearly that regular, objective assessments make the C-A relationship more effective across all parameters, as is evident from the Ogilvy quote example above.

Many in the marketing and advertising industry are aware of this, but one assumes that running the ones and twos of regular assessments and dedicated follow ups on the findings is perhaps not as thrilling as hitting all those glorious sixes of grand-sounding sentiments.

However, if the C-A relationship is the subject of so many discussions, so much sound and fury and so many ups-and-downs, then surely objective and regular assessments could help ensure they remain happy and healthy. Alas, despite protestations to the contrary this seems not to have happened in India, or otherwise why should we hearing T20 fables even today?

But since we are one happy (Indian) family, perhaps that is why we are like that only! 

This article was previously published in The Hindu Businessline.

Regional Director
Results International Group; Aprais WW Ltd,

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