Looking for love in all the wrong places

Surveys about client-agency relationships are a dime a dozen and tell you what you already know. To wit,Reardon
clients are unhappy with their firm’s strategy, creativity, execution and responsiveness. Probe a little deeper and you’ll find concern about agencies simply not understanding the business of their client’s business.

So, as I reviewed yet another one of these surveys from a Cincinnati-based group called Reardon Smith Whittaker, I was taken aback by one ‘new’ finding: forty percent of client respondents said they ‘look forward to’ or find it exciting’ to search for a new agency. Can you believe that? Do they have no idea how tortuous new business pitches are for agencies? These respondents would be right at home in Gitmo or most any concentration camp of the 20th century.

‘…Enjoying and looking forward to…’ agency reviews is a clueless remark for many reasons, including:

– The inordinate amount of time and resources an agency has to devote to a new business pitch
– The business disruption caused by agency searches to both client and agency organizations
– The fact that an agency search means the prior firm, and the client conducting the search, failed to achieve the business communications goals.

For me, this last point is what rankles most. Enlightened corporate communications departments realize that success (and failure) should be shared. Sadly, there are still too many client-side personnel who will claim credit for success, but point the finger at the agency when things go south.

Obviously, there are some bad firms, but most provide a similar level of service. So, what’s the real issue? Usually, it comes down to staff turnover on the agency side (a big agency problem) and a corporate communications department that is either too far removed from the organization’s strategic decision making to connect it to PR, or simply too lazy to do much more than enact a purely tactical, media-by-the-pound campaign. Either way, senior management gets antsy at some point and demands a new PR firm. And, the communications department readily accedes because, ‘hey, it’s fun and exciting’ to do an agency search.’

Don’t get me wrong. Agency searches are critical when a client is looking to re-position itself, take the business in a new, more strategic direction or, if the PR firm really has failed to live up to its end of the bargain. Sadly though, most are fishing expeditions that may be fun for the ‘angler,’ but pure torture for us ‘fish.’

3 thoughts on “Looking for love in all the wrong places

  1. Yes, that’s another part of the “integrated marketing” B.S. I won’t ever miss.

  2. Hard to say, Peter. I have to admit to not having done a ton of new business wining and dining. Usually, it’s just a meeting or two, and then the decision. I think the Julie Roehm-type wining and dining is part and parcel of the ad agency world which, as we know, is undergoing radical change in order to survive. Hopefully, wining and dining out of town prospects will be one of the things that changes.

  3. Steve,
    Reardon Smith Whittaker will never spell what I think is the real agenda behind these exhaustive agency searches. Clients just love the wining and dining ritual, especially if it’s a chance to leave Dullsville, USA for NY, Chicago or LA and be treated like royalty.
    Of course it’s also an opportunity for
    blatant abuse. The most extreme example of someone who liked to be the client is the infamous Julie Roehm. Her 2006 search for Wal-Mart’s new ad agency included expensive dinners, parties, late night drives in Howard Draft’s Aston-Martin and allegations of marital infidelity that messed up everyone’s reputation.
    While I’ve never seen a PR firm search lead to entertaining on that grand a scale, don’t you think that deep down a lot of clients want to be courted that way?