It's Time For a New Approach to Client Conflicts

TBWA CMO Laurie Coots Proposes a More Rational, Less Emotional Tack

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Today's business climate includes unprecedented corporate consolidation, global expansion and diversification of brand portfolios. Just as many agencies are integrating their services, the number of shops unbundling services is on the rise, too.

Additionally, with the increase in specialized discipline partners, agency relationships are becoming more transactional, driven by deliverables and less about the long-term relationship, making one wonder if the "agency-of-record" designation is a thing of the past. It's important to consider too the impact of holding-company alliances, as growing multinational clients actively seek a consolidated offering that allows them maximum control, flexibility and cost savings.

So much has changed. Yet our view of what constitutes a conflict of interest has not.

I would suggest that the business shifts we are seeing have affected the very essence of the client-agency relationship we used to have and should serve as a catalyst for a more enlightened and surgical approach to managing client conflicts.

It may be only slightly more complicated than when Jerry Della Femina said: "There are no client conflicts, only bad explanations."

I submit that it's time for the industry to collectively abandon conventional wisdom and replace it with a more disruptive approach that will deliver what clients need and want, while liberating agencies to grow and gain expertise.

For any agency, our primary job is to be a trusted partner and adviser in providing our clients with the creative solutions that solve the business challenges and fuel the ambitions of their companies and brands. Our clients should feel that the agency resources assigned to their account are dedicated to their success, without distraction and without compromise.

Let's start by adopting two ground rules: 1) We want discussions about conflicts to be more rational and less emotional; 2) Protecting the client's confidential information, trade secrets and intellectual property is non-negotiable.

In other words, having a client suggest that you not serve another client in a non-conflicting category because it does not want you to "contribute to its competitors' success" is no longer acceptable.

What if going forward we adopt the practice of defining the competitive space as narrowly as possible, instead of as widely as possible? We should not think of it so broadly as to include product category, geography, specific competitors and services offered.

What if conflict was limited in definition to refer to the people directly assigned to serve the client or deliver the creative solution? After all, we like to say that we are in the ideas business and talent is the lifeblood. Let's cut to the chase and become agents of those ideas and that talent.

Think about it: In most cases, conflicts could be addressed by creating physical separation, e.g., separate cities, separate buildings, separate floors, separate work areas, separate personnel and separate management. The result: Clients would have a wider choice of agencies and increased fluidity with assignments. And agencies would no longer need to create the illusion of separation with conflict agencies that are often not as "real" as their branding alludes.

Now here's the rub.

My interviews with clients illustrate that they don't seem to trust agencies to uphold and maintain client confidentiality in the presence of a competitor -- unlike consultants, lawyers and architects, who are entrusted with trade secrets.

This means we agencies would need to demonstrate, not just talk about, our trustworthiness by adhering to some clear, transparent, auditable processes and procedures that prove we are protecting and keeping confidential clients' information, trade secrets and intellectual property.

Moving to a more modern conflict model would require changes on both sides of the fence.

Agencies would need to learn to manage client assignments more surgically, and accept working with less long-term confidential client information. And clients will have to learn to brief for better and explicit returns and accept different and/or shorter periods of exclusivity.

But in the end, our relationships might be more honest and truthful, our contributions and ideas might be valued more on their merit, and we all might end up behaving a little more rationally -- which could be a bonus for all of us.

Laurie Coots is global CMO at TBWA/Worldwide and the president of the agency's Disruption Works unit.
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