BREAKING UP ISN’T AS HARD TO DO IN THE ’90S



If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is an overused aphorism. But what happens when ‘it’ is broken? We Americans tend to replace rather than repair things that break.
Would you find someone to fix the broken heating coil in your toaster, or just drive to Wal-Mart for a new one? Usually we decide it’ll be cheaper and faster to replace it. Anyway, having a brand spanking new toaster is fun, a relatively inexpensive luxury.
That attitude has been undeniably good for our economy, but it carries over to our approach to human relationships, too, where it is less good. The statistics are that, increasingly, marriages that encounter problems are dumped or traded in rather than fixed.
The same is true of business relationships, especially those between clients and agencies. Behind all the excitement over the amount of business, especially in the Midwest, that’s been reviewed in the last few months is the disturbing question why so many client-agency relationships would suddenly go so sour that an agency was fired, or a review was called or the business simply was shifted.
Last week, we reported that Wolverine World Wide was so taken with a creative presentation from Ayer/Chicago that it abruptly moved responsibility for its Wolverine Work Boots and Wilderness lines to that agency from BBDO Chicago, ending a two-year relationship. Tatham Euro RSCG had the Celestial Seasonings business for only two months, barely time enough to learn how to brew a good pot of Red Zinger, before the account was packed up and moved to Grey/N.Y.
No doubt both clients had their reasons for their decisions, and they may be different in each case. But obviously the urge to change was stronger than the desire to repair the relationships. Why?
‘It’s human nature not to confront problems. It’s a fact of life, including business life,’ said Jeffrey Cox, executive vp at Rojek Marketing Group, a Cleveland-based consultancy. ‘If there’s a problem with an agency, the first response is likely to be to find a new one rather than solve the problem.’
Most of Rojek’s work involves handling agency searches, as it did for White Castle and Society Bank, but Cox says the first thing he tries to do with a client is consider whether its relationship with its current agency can be repaired. Eight of 10 unhappy client-agency unions probably can be fixed, Cox estimates, but few are.
‘It’s a lot like marriage counseling,’ Cox said. ‘Usually, clients haven’t even been thinking about saving the relationship. They think it can’t be, but often it can. If there’s a people problem, that can be fixed. So can an organizational problem. It’s rare that a client has truly outgrown its agency.
‘But usually clients have their minds made up to make a change. It’s a lot easier to change agencies than to fix the problem. Plus, being with a new agency is exciting.’
It’s like the first weeks of a new romantic relationship. Everything’s fun, and funny, and better than anything you recall from that last relationship.
But the biggest motivator for agency-switching, Cox said, isn’t romantic. It’s the great and growing pressure on ad managers to provide the sales boost that no one else in the lean-and-mean-for-the-’90s company may be providing. ‘The demands are higher on the people in marketing, so the demands are higher on the agencies,’ said Cox. And, of course, if the numbers aren’t there, ‘an agency is a good place to put the blame.’
Agencies taking the fall for something outside their control or responsibility isn’t new. But is it happening more than in the past?
Maybe, said Cox, and if so, it may be an outgrowth of the ‘re-engineering’ wave sweeping through business. Restructuring often means putting new people in charge, or altering responsibilities, and agencies know where that usually leads: the new guy wants his own team, his own agency.
‘There’s been a lot of reshuffling at most companies, and you can get a ‘shuffle overflow’ ‘ into marketing that leads to a review, said David Fairman, chairman of Chicago’s Fairman, Schmidt & Capelli. ‘The breakdowns in relationships have been a lot from those kinds of changes . . . and a little from lack of listening.’
But agencies aren’t blameless. They’re ‘hungrier, so they’re calling the clients when they see any chink in the armor’ of its existing relationships, Fairman said. If clients are more likely now to switch rather than fix – and he believes all but the largest clients are – agencies have brought it on themselves to some extent.
Despite the pressures and the politics, ‘the people on the client side are really trying to do what they think is best for the company, and agencies want nothing more than to drive the client’s business,’ Cox said. So what goes wrong? Communication between client and agency goes wrong, Fairman and Cox said.
That communications failures lead to trouble isn’t surprising or news. But that it should be becoming more common among those people who best understand communications and how it works is both ironic and unfortunate.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)