“When you actually ignore reality for years on end, payback’s a bitch, brother!”

– Bruce Sterling

Research shows that half of the agency/client relationships out there last less than two years. This is from a sample of about 140 companies with an annual marketing spend of at least $2 million, including Citibank, General Mills, IBM, GE, and ESPN.

After nearly 15 years in agencies, this percentage sounds about right. But where the research tries to determine why this is the case, I take issue with it.

The other big reason [for the short tenure] is likely the fact that agencies take their eye off the ball. When you examine the reasons why clients get rid of agencies, a lot of it has to do with weaknesses in strategic thinking, creative, and service. Too many agencies try and do too many things well. They are in the business for being great creative and strategic thinkers and do-ers…not to be a great lead generation/business making machine. Too many agencies take their eye off the ball soon after an account is won, only to look for the next new win. Staying more focused on existing clients and leaving the business of building business to experts is likely a more productive strategy, long-term.

A lead generation firm sponsored the research. This fact turns the above excerpt from a research insight into a thinly-veiled ad.

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

So who’s fault is it? Part of this churn is a natural cycle vs. it being someone’s fault. Marketers are restless creatives at heart. The shelf life for any type of creative work is getting as short as consumers’ shrinking attention span. And, while it’s expensive to select a new agency and get them ramped up on your business, doing an agency review is often seen as the best way to get new ideas. Even the research notes (depressingly) that “more than 40 percent said they ‘look forward to’ or ‘find it exciting’ to search for a new agency.”

But there are also external factors that impact the client/agency relationship. Many of these factors are out of the agency’s control, including industry economic climate, client contacts changing jobs, client politics and client chemistry. These are just a handful of items to deal with and we haven’t even discussed the work yet.

Since moving client side three years ago, one of the biggest benefits I’ve discovered is time. I’ve been able to prioritize and grow our marketing efforts strategically. With a few years of momentum, and plenty of results along the way, I’m looking forward to doing even more in 2008.

This may read all Pollyanna, but I think clients and agencies need to rethink ways to keep their relationship vital to realize this kind of return on investment. Yeah, who am I kidding. Anyone want to be a client/agency counselor? LOL, I can see the role playing session now.

Other likely culprits:

– Clients’ inability to work with their agencies as a true partner in developing marketing solutions, growing their brand, etc. This is RAMPANT across all industries. The fact of the matter is that most companies tend to a) not understand marketing, b) be afraid of creative, c) lack the insight and tools to adequately measure the value of great marketing/the opportunity cost of bad marketing, and d) promote douchebags with no concept of brand development to CMO positions – when they even bother to have a CMO position.

– Many agencies’ inability to see the client as anything other than a cash cow.

– A business-as-usual attitude towards “marketing”. This starts on the client’s side but eventually infects the account team on the agency side. (Usually characterized by a “job shop” attitude by the client towards the agency.)

– Fear. Fear of pissing off the client. Fear of taking a chance with the creative. Fear of making a statement. Fear of standing for something. Fear of standing out from the competition. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of looking like asses. Fear of trying something new. Fear of asking the right questions. Fear of letting customers voice their opinions. Fear of losing control of the brand. Fear of paving the way. Fear.

– Really, really, really REALLY lousy, clueless, lazy or otherwise dumb AE’s.

– Really, really, really REALLY lousy, clueless, lazy or otherwise dumb marketing managers/CMO’s on the client side.

– Risk-adverse decision-makers.

– Lack of focus on both sides. Client: “Hey, we need something awesome for this new (XYZ).” Agency: “Right. What do you have in mind?” Client:”Um… We don’t know. We’ll know it when we see it.”

– Complete, total and utter emphasis on overrated brain-rot like “messaging” or “brand consistency.”

– Overbearing reliance on 1980’s “channels” to reach the masses.

– The notion that “it’s worked great for us for the last fifty years. If it isn’t broken, why fix it?”

Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

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