Let me share a story that was told to me a while back.
The recent focus in Campaign on long-hours culture in agencies and the subsequent retort from Tim Lindsay, who said brands don’t pay their agencies enough, makes me feel it’s the right time for airing.
It was around three years ago that a wise agency sage and I were engaged in lively conversation over a real-life lunch. The discussion, which started light and breezy enough, reached an intense crescendo as it turned to all the worst elements of clients’ buying practices in the arena of marketing services.
Drawn-out pitches requiring agencies to give away their product for free, subsequent negotiations under duress for maximum leverage, marketers abdicating responsibility at the 11th hour to ruthless procurement types. You know the kind of cheery thing.
It was at this point that the agency sage paused. His mind had just conjured-up a moment that had clearly been a seminal one in a long and illustrious career. A wry smile came over his face and he began to recount a tale about a time when his agency had pitched for a sizeable and ambitious client that they appeared on the brink of winning.
Despite excitement upon taking a call from the senior client to reinforce the strong position in which the agency found themselves, his heart sank more than a little when she mentioned that the head of procurement would be paying a visit – despite this not having been mentioned before.
That familiar rising feeling of nagging concern washed over the agency sage in the way it does to any agency leader in these tense moments: the feeling that, having thrown more resources (human, financial and emotional) than they could truly afford at the process, they’d ultimately be shafted late in the day. The cost of losing had arguably become too great.
Apparently true to form, when the meeting arrived the conversation opened with much of the expected lingo about open-book policies, transparency on margins, visibility of base cost, ratios and more – culminating in a direct question about the agency’s best- and worst-paying client deals.
But then something surprising happened. Shedding the menacing aura for an altogether sunnier disposition, the procurement lead stated a desire to pay 10% more than the agency’s best-paying client. The only negotiation: that they would be uncompromising in their pursuit for the brand and agency (together) to make the best and most successful work of their respective histories.
It feels as though I hardly need spell out how this story ends but, then again, perhaps I do, given the rarity of truly equitable client-agency relationships in existence today. We can all be forgiven for forgetting what things look like when we don’t see them often enough.
Suffice to say, the agency sage was more animated at this point of the conversation than at any other. Not simply because his agency and, therefore, his staff were paid and treated with the respect their considerable talent and experience demanded (and the value their work generated), but because the results for the client were transformational, too.
He recounted a golden period that followed. One that saw top talent in the agency falling over themselves to work on the brand, and other market-leading talent from outside the agency falling over themselves to be hired for the same reason.
One that saw some of the best work the agency had ever created, with unrivalled results to match, untold effectiveness awards won and a general sense that the agency (and most within it) would drag themselves over hot coals to achieve the aims of the client. Through choice, not fear.
One that saw a knock-on effect in wider areas, too – the agency’s other clients developing a taste for bolder and more effective work, the client themselves attracting a higher calibre of marketing talent over time, other agencies starting to make better work, the industry more confident, focused, appealing and successful to next-generation talent.
All this from just one, single client. The classic snowball effect.
Now if you are a client-side marketer or procurement type, you will rightly read this story warily and as provocation that should be taken with a pinch of salt. It was told by an agency leader with a not insignificant stake in ensuring this narrative permeates far and wide. Sure.
But if Tim Lindsay’s assertion that conversations between agencies and client procurement teams have been going only one way for 30 years is deemed to be true and accurate (and I don’t hear a lot of dissenting voices), then it’s a provocation worth thinking very hard about.
If this enlightened approach from one client has the power to open dialogue about whether we have hit rock bottom in the incessant devaluation and commoditisation of creativity and be a catalyst to spark a reversal in the spiralling vortex of doom, then it has been a story worth telling.
The opportunity for change that comes off the back of this recent crisis we have all faced down is a once-in-a-generation window. Let’s not watch it pass us by.
Charlie Carpenter is chief executive of Creativebrief