Agencies to Clients: Why Don't You Talk About Your Feelings?

Survey Finds Marketers' Communication Issues Hurt Madison Avenue Marriages

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Marketers and their agency partners may want to consider therapy.

Their relationship isn't looking so hot these days, according to a survey that finds, among other things, that the agency is often the last to know when its client is straying or wants a divorce.

The survey -- conducted jointly by New York-based agency-search consultant Joanne Davis Consulting and its international counterpart, Scan International, surveyed more than 100 top agencies in advertising, media and other fields. In one of its more eye-opening findings, agencies estimated that 61% of clients fail to notify them before hiring other agencies or terminating them.

Being upfont
And even before that breaking point, clients are not airing their grievances. Prior to ending a relationship, agencies estimate that only 39% of clients discuss their concerns about the agency's performance or make an effort to find other solutions. An estimated 31% of clients assign work to other agencies for services that their own agencies can deliver, the survey found.

"In my experience when we are told, we are told right before they are about to pull the trigger on something grandiose," said one Interpublic Group of Cos. agency executive when asked to comment on the survey.

And of course, then there's the difficulty of keeping track of all those bedfellows. As media fragmentation drives more marketers to hire new and different agency partners, shaking up their agency rosters more than ever before, some say transparency is actually taking a turn for the worse.

"It's getting worse in some respects because there are more players at the table, and they are changing faster," said Allen P. Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates in New York.

Multicultural communication
Among marketing agencies, multicultural agencies reported the most transparent client relationships, while design and packaging were the disciplines feeling least advised. "There are fewer multicultural specialist agencies than there are agencies that can do packaging and design, so the sheer numbers are one factor," noted Ms. Davis, who presented the survey at a recent AdForum. "The other factor is that multicultural communications are often made at a higher level in a corporation and there's a greater sensitivity" to those issues.

According to Landor's Mr. Adamson, the fact that design and packaging companies came in on the low end of the scale reinforces that agencies in that category suffer from a perception of commoditization rather than long-term brand belief. "For some clients, it's seen as very transactional."

One thing that could keep agencies out of the therapist's office: consistent communication. The study's authors suggest a monthly report-card process to keep track of where clients and their agencies stand. Not that all agency-client relationships are dysfunctional. Shops participating in the study identified a handful of "role model" clients for their top-notch relationship skills. Among them: Alltel Wireless, BMW, Farmers Insurance Group, Marshfield Clinic, Pella Corp., Red Lobster, Secura Insurance and Visa.

*Cadillac first shifts half of business over. Source: Advertising Age.
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