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The relationship between clients and agencies has never been an easy one; these days it seems especially precarious.

Agency execs complain that it's difficult to build relationships. The top guy doesn't want to get involved, and the marketing people under him aren't around long enough to matter-except to cause an agency review.

Clients, ever since Bob Jacoby pocketed more than $100 million when he sold Ted Bates Worldwide. (an agency rumored to be on the move again), believe that agencies use their billings to enhance their own value in the marketplace, and they are quick to dump one client for a more lucrative one.

As one client-oriented reader wrote me: "Delta Air Lines drops BBDO, and the barbarians are at the gates. The end of civilization, or at least civility, looms. The bars along Madison Avenue echo with moans about the short-sightedness and ingratitude of clients.

" TBWA dumps Jack in the Box to grab Taco Bell. Was it the challenge of turning around a troubled brand . . . or was it the extra $150 million in billings?

"Sometimes, the advertising business is amazing to behold."

What's happening is that trust and respect for the other guy is at an all-time low, compounded by the fact that clients and agencies can't even agree on the basic value of the product one produces and the other approves-the basic value of advertising.

If they can't agree on that, is it any wonder they can't agree on much of anything else? And why there is so much lousy advertising rampant on the airwaves. I have a feeling agency guys sometimes try to foist the most outrageous ads they can come up with on their clients to see how far they can go. And the clients approve the ads with the idea they'll at least be talked about-equating a marketplace buzz to sales.

Here we are less than a thousand days from the millennium, and we don't know much more about the power of advertising than we did at the turn of the last century. At the American Association of Advertising Agencies conference in Florida the other week, Chrysler Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said: "Clients feel they don't have a clue as to the relationship between the agency's billings and its actual value added." So Chrysler is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising without knowing whether it's doing any good? Or was Mr. Lutz referring to other clients?

The incoming chairman of the Four A's, Ralph Rydholm, said the "single most-asked question" agencies get is: How much should we spend on advertising? So for the umpteenth time the ad industry is announcing a study to once and for all nail down the value of advertising. Ralph conjured up that old chestnut from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, who said more than 90 years ago he knew half his advertising was wasted, he just didn't know which half. "Let's show clients how the other half of advertising works," Ralph exhorted his colleagues.

It sounds to me as if the industry doesn't really know how either half works. So the advertising business has actually lost ground in the last 100 years.

I don't think it's exactly fair that clients blame their agencies for this abysmal lack of knowledge about the effect of advertising. Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.'s Ron Cox told the agency group, "You have a price-value problem," but I say that since it's the clients' money, they're the ones with the problem.

Usually when an agency group gets together, speakers are accused of "preaching to the converted." But in the case of the advertising business, after all these