It's Up to the CMO Community to Address Client/Agency Tensions

No Shop-Based Effort Has the Capacity to Solve the Problem

By Published on .

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
Recently many of Belgium's top agencies, both large and small, set up a virtual roadblock on their websites to collectively protest the injustice of new-business pitches. I'm waiting for our CMO compatriots to call in the cyber strike-busters.

The protest was organized by the Belgian ad trade group called the Association of Communication Companies, or ACC, which has proposed a set of ground rules for clients and agencies to voluntarily follow in support of more civilized new-business pitches: limits on the number of bidders and resources spent; clearer, better defined decision criteria; commitments to communicate and reach conclusions quicker; protections for agency spec ideas. You get the drill. Typical European socialist stuff.

Leave it to us to be the pioneers in screwing over our agencies.

We know the best results come from the worst relationships, so while we talk a lot about the importance of engagement when it comes to our consumers, we're happy to forget all that when we get our marketing done. Transparency is all well and good, just so long as it's transparently obvious that we want dozens of proposals, don't really know how or when we'll reach decisions, and we'll in all likelihood use sometime later some of the best ideas we don't buy now.

A free market means that needless and sometimes punitive costs happen, especially in new-business pitches, only those wounds are mostly self-inflicted by the agencies themselves. That makes it the best prep for the winners, as our procurement processes will make sure that we continually get the most work for the least possible remuneration. So our vendors are taught to hate us from the moment we initiate the bidding process, and we start off distrusting them.

I mean, haven't those Belgians ever read Darwin? This sort of no-holds-barred competition drives success, and if Walmart can squeeze its vendors to climb up a rung or two on the evolutionary ladder, why can't we? Light bulbs or ad creative ... they're just products that are made better if they're made faster, cheaper and more often.

Of course not.

The ACC principles and work stoppage aren't a fix for the relationship woes that plague marketers and their agencies any more than we've been able to remedy them with our sometimes brutal selection processes and Pinkerton-like contract enforcement. We're the customers, though, so I wonder if the CMO community could do more to help lead everyone out of what TBWA Worldwide President-CEO Jean-Marie Dru called a "death spiral."

Would client-side standards or rules of conduct help? CMOs tolerate procurement officers' management of agency relationships, which is like letting HMO accountants prescribe medical treatments; it's an abrogation of our leadership responsibility while we (and the agencies) bemoan the disconnect from the meaningful substance of marketing's work. How about shared definitions, or simply more relationship transparency? My guess is that the striking Belgians feel the same disrespect for their creative worth as agencies in the U.S., yet the CMO/client community has offered no meaningful or objective way to solve those fears. In fact, we feed them.

The client/agency relationship woes start during the new-business process, as evidenced by our large expectations of creative and "strategy" (whatever that means at the moment) and the smaller indignities of unreturned phone calls and proposal fire drills. No wonder the resulting relationships are dysfunctional. I just don't think the ACC or any agency-based effort has the capacity to solve the problem, and we should know by now that calling in the virtual strikebusters doesn't work. It's up to CMOs, or an entity representing marketing leadership, to step up with something constructive.

We get what we pay for.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author, and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
Most Popular
In this article: