Agencies these days often learn about cracks in their client
relationships via phone calls from reporters, or discover that
their accounts are going into review from media reports.
Publicis Groupe executives -- including CEO Maurice Levy -- were
famously blindsided to learn that GM's former CMO, Joel Ewanick,
had shifted the entire Chevy creative account to Goodby, Silverstein
& Partners without ever getting a phone call.
It all spells a troubling breakdown in communications between
clients and agencies. Some say sound account management -- the
domain of the Ken Cosgroves and Pete Campbells during "Mad Men"
days -- is being lost in the accelerating speed of business. But it
doesn't help that clients and agencies have more partners than
ever. There are multiple points of contact, making for a spiderweb
The relationships are also shorter and more fragile. According
to Atlanta search consultancy The Bedford Group, in 1984, the
average client-agency relationship tenure was 7.2 years. By 1997,
that number fell 25% to 5.3 years. Today the average client-agency
tenure is thought to be less than three years. "As an industry, it
feels like we have lost sight of what it means to have a
relationship," said Elizabeth Zea, partner at Juel Consulting. "I
see three things that really get in the way. "Time, technology and
Agency executives and clients alike have never been so time
constrained or asked to do so much with so little. "Technology
isn't helping," she noted, adding that there's a "Why talk when you
can text?" mentality that's permeating the business world.
"It feels like conversations are more frequent, but less
substantial," Ms. Zea said. "And none of this bodes well for
In Ms. Zea's experience, the more preparation the better. She
once saw a 10-page deck that organized the communications of how
one person was being promoted within an agency, complete with chart
after chart explaining who was responsible for making phone calls
It sounds extreme, but it works.
A good start on both sides? Appoint someone whose responsibility
is to ensure that the communications plan of a big executive
departure or hire, a merger or acquisition or the dismissal of an
agency partner is done in a way that's professional and respectful
to all parties.