Stressed-Out, Skeptical Clients Need Trusting Agency Relationships

Old-Fashioned Values Seem to Have Fallen by Wayside

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
It's somehow comforting to know that in this age of digital discourse, often excluding any input from advertisers and their agencies, basic marketing relationships still matter.

For a while, the very notion of a close and trusting working relationship between client and agency seemed almost quaint. There are so many other concerns among marketers today that advertising just isn't an overriding issue. High turnover among marketing directors; unrelenting pressure on costs that have forced the insertion of the procurement officer between the CMO and the agency; and the drive for corporations to get ever bigger and less susceptible to the vagaries of the marketplace -- all these factors conspire to make the pursuit of great advertising seemingly irrelevant.

Add to that the proliferation of media choices, many of them changing so fast and only dimly understood, coming as they are from the vast recesses of cyberspace, and you get an advanced case of marketing gridlock.

What happened the other week showed me that once in a while basic and old-fashioned things can cut through the obstacles described above. I'm referring to the stunning news that McGarryBowen was awarded the Verizon Wireless account. What makes the switch of more than passing interest is that Verizon has been running attack ads that had put AT&T back on its heels.

When we selected McGarryBowen as our agency of the year for 2009 we described it as "the perfect blend of old world and new world in the rapidly changing agency landscape."

John McGarry left Young & Rubicam in 1998 and was replaced the next year by the equally adept relationship-builder Ed Ney. Ed once told me that during his years as chairman at Y&R he used to start every week with a telephone conversation with the head of his biggest client, General Foods, to map out how the agency and GF would interact that week. That kind of relationship soon became a lost art.

What puzzles me is why McGarry's ability to cement client relationships is at all unusual. After all, as former JWT chairman Burt Manning told me, with such "turmoil and uncertainty" in the marketplace, it's "extremely valuable to have a relationship where trusted guys are at your side."

It strikes me that for agency executives to play this sort of role it takes the right client. John Stratton, exec VP-chief marketing officer of Verizon, is apparently secure enough within his company to seek and encourage advice from outside partners without seeming to fall prey to schmoozers and glad-handers.

"That's not what this is about," Burt said, quite emphatically.

When McGarryBowen lost its founding client Verizon in 2007, John McGarry took the client to lunch. "He worked for two and a half years to maintain the relationship, despite what were probably hard feelings," said Stratton. "John really understands how to manage relationships," he said."He doesn't fall off the radar screen long enough that you forget about him and his company."

Normally, that strategy wouldn't work because the head marketing guy would have surrendered his Verizon BlackBerry by then and moved on.

So not only does the CMO need to have the confidence to accept advice and counsel from the outside, but the agency chief needs to pick his spots and not bet all his chips on forging relationships with short-timers. Most marketing guys these days are preoccupied with trying to explain to their top management what social media and other cyberspace mysteries are all about and why they're important to consumers, so that's why it's refreshing when McGarryBowen got the Verizon account the old-fashioned way.

Burt Manning believes agencies need to do more of that basic spadework. "They'll have to build trusting relationships with clients who are more skeptical and under more stress than any time in recent memory.

"These relationships can't be built on the golf course or at fine restaurants or with tickets to the ball game. They can only be built at the professional level, when advertisers feel sure that talented people are intensely focused on their business."

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