Is all this client bed-hopping getting us anywhere?

Matt Weiss is the global chief marketing officer at Havas Worldwide.

With Valentine’s Day looming, plenty of couples are taking stock of their relationships and considering what the future holds. According to Facebook, two weeks before Christmas and the weeks following Valentine’s Day are the most popular times to jettison a mate.

Might I be so bold as to suggest that we in the advertising industry also make time to evaluate the state of our relationships? It seems to me that our current culture of short-term flirtations and sleeping around isn’t benefitting anyone. Maybe it’s time for a bit of couples therapy.

We’ve all heard the stats: The average tenure of a client-agency relationship now stands at three years, down from 7.2 in 1984, according to The Bedford Group. That’s the shortest in our history — and a sorry retreat from the storied partnerships of our past. It’s tempting to pin this rapid turnover on fickle clients, but it’s also a consequence of the tremendous changes our own industry and our clients are undergoing. As brands grapple with everything from a tidal wave of new technologies to consumers’ increasing insistence on taking over the controls, the pressure is on for a stratospheric ROI, attained impossibly quickly. This means a whole lot more jump-ball briefs, reviews and pitches for those of us on the agency side.

As one client told me recently, “We are in a fight for our life, and we simply have to go with the best idea.” This affords us precious little protection as we move forward.

In a perfect world, the upside to this intense pressure would be a greater willingness on the part of clients to push past the boundaries of the ordinary to get to extraordinary creative ideas. That would be great for the brand — and for all the creative people within agencies who are champing at the bit to show what they can do. Getting to that business-transforming idea requires a level of trust, however, that is absent when one’s partner is showing up with a lipstick-stained collar.

A straying eye is hard to control, I know. There are so many shiny new shops out there. And some of them are awfully attractive — even if just from a distance. The problem is that even if a client is technically remaining faithful, these flirtations likely mean he’s pulling back a bit, communicating a little less, and not working quite so hard on setting and meeting mutual goals. That means a lack of clarity, and it’s awfully tough to produce great work when only one side is fully engaged.

Meanwhile, the agency is working overtime to deliver and to build the sort of knowledge base that can only come from a longer-term relationship. That’s how you get to great ideas faster and with more insight and smarter execution. Whether it’s for a pitch, the post-pitch onboarding or the daily battle to help the client brand win the market, the agency is investing time and talent to make the relationship work.

Enter the agency pre-nup
So what should we do when a client decides to kick us to the curb before all the boxes have even been unpacked? And, in a more extreme situation, what should we do when a client takes the kids with him—adopting our insights and platform and then moving on to have someone else raise them?

In the good old days when agencies received substantial commissions, provisions in agency-client agreements stated that if clients walked and took the agency’s ideas with them, they would be obligated to pay media commissions on the use of those ideas for a set time. Of course, that doesn’t work anymore — but neither does the lack of such an agreement.

So what do you say we come up with some sort of pre-nup in 2015: an agreement that says that if the client terminates the relationship within a year of the appointment and uses materials and intellectual capital they’re entitled to before the agency earns $X, then they have to pay the agency $Y?

Or maybe compensation plans should align with the work’s actual in-market impact on sales over a fixed period, regardless of whether agency and client are still together. Of course, neither of these scenarios would apply to clients who engage agencies for one-off, short-term projects, just as the legal protections of marriage aren’t extended to flings or one-night stands.

Such provisions might help to restrain a client’s wandering eye. And they would give agencies an incentive to invest in pitches and produce brilliant ideas without fear that the client company will sample a few, pilfer the rest and pay someone else to produce them. Most important, fixing the client-agency relationship will bring back to our industry the sense of security and mutual trust that is absolutely vital to risk-taking and free-flowing creativity.

The issue is certainly not going to be resolved in an op-ed, but it is something we all need to be thinking and talking about — for every one of us understands that our agencies are only as valuable as our ideas, our people and our client relationships. And, like any relationship, there are plenty of advantages to sticking around and doing the work necessary to make it blossom.

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