'Partnership' days at P&G may be numbered

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The term "agency partners" reeks of hooey. Journalists, like purchasing folks, tend to think "vendor," not partner, when someone gets paid for services. In an ad industry where fleeting relationships are common and purchasing executives are brazenly squeezing savings, "partnership" seems particularly hollow.

But there always have been a few places, despite how it might sound, where "agency partners" really is an apt phrase. One is Procter & Gamble Co., where agency relationships span decades-millennia in the dog years of a fickle industry.

As marketers hopped businesses and brands incessantly, agency executives often served as repositories of institutional knowledge. Agencies like D'Arcy could be "in trouble" for years and get new business instead of fired. P&G frowned on shifting agencies even within its tightly contained roster, based in part on research that showed brands that switch shops lose share for an average of seven months.

Among the last holdouts on media commissions, P&G switched in 1999 to sales commissions that institutionalize partnership as nothing short of equity.

Like a parent, P&G squelched bickering. Public gloating, lobbying or backstabbing among agencies over new business was frowned upon. P&G even prohibits one roster shop poaching talent from another.

The arrangement is very polite, genteel-and slowly vanishing. P&G's quest for creativity, its Gillette acquisition and its now year-old communications-planning assignment are converging to loosen bonds and shake up the roster as never before.

Creating award-winning ads is a journey, as they say in Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel's group, but one they'd not-so-secretly like to take faster. So Wieden & Kennedy in June got a tiny assignment on Eukanuba and Ivory (in Canada) that could grow, a la Bartle Bogle Hegarty's role with rival Unilever.

Less threatening to incumbents, the vacant Millstone coffee account went a month later to Team One, part of P&G's top holding company, Publicis Groupe. Two more candidates to snatch creative assignments once the Gillette deal closes are also part of P&G holding companies-Publicis' Fallon and WPP Group's Red Cell.

The really big challenger waiting in the wings, however, is Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, which handles Gillette's all-important razor brands. Gillette's success, combined with P&G's desire to prove it will let the razor executives keep running their own show, indicate BBDO will get a chance to stick around.

In all, P&G will within a year have added at least three shops and as many as five to a U.S. roster that, depending on how you count them, had only four or five main creative agencies two years ago.

In the new proliferation phase, shifting creative accounts could be easier, thanks to last year's communications-planning assignments to Publicis' Starcom MediaVest Group and Aegis Group's Carat.

All the pieces are in place, in short, for P&G to switch brand assignments as never before. Rather than partnership breeding complacency, competition is now in place to breed fear. And, as P&G executives in their impetuous youths might have heard from an underappreciated Cincinnati band, The Raisins, "fear is never boring."


The journey to creating sharp, award-winning creative is one that P&G would like to take faster

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