The late Mr. Harper, remember, bypassed account conflicts by building agency departments into separate corporate structures, moving them into separate offices and-voila!-declaring them free to pursue business from any marketer. But, still, he took no chances; he always kept his clients informed and came to respect the fact that only clients could decide when an account conflict exists.
It's supposed to work that way today. Yet agencies do forget.
The latest suspense story involves D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, its client for the past 80 years, Anheuser-Busch, and DMB&B's separate media-buying unit, TeleVest, which is supposed to be free to take on media buying assignments from outside.
So separate from DMB&B does New York-based TeleVest consider itself that when it agreed to take on a media-buying assignment for Miller Brewing Co., a sister company of big client Kraft General Foods, it assumed there was no need to check with the DMB&B office in St. Louis, home for about $150 million in Budweiser and Michelob business.
That was Mistake No. 1: It assumed no conflict between two marketers locked in a mighty battle for market share. The assumption gave DMB&B executives in St. Louis no opportunity to clear things in advance with Anheuser-Busch. And that was Mistake No. 2: surprising the client, who heard the news from an Ad Age reporter.
Having made these mistakes, DMB&B was left to sweat out a decision from Anheuser-Busch, its biggest client: Would it now okay the Miller assignment? Anheuser-Busch took its time-five suspense-filled days-before announcing it didn't "view this situation as a conflict. . . ." But it didn't let DMB&B off the hook. A-B felt obliged to add "at this time."
Even in Marion Harper's heyday, that kind of "approval" translated into "don't screw up again."