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How Advertisers are Killing Advertising Agencies.

By Kayode Oluwasona

I will truly be surprised if any of the points I am going to share with you is strange to any of us, advertising professionals practicing in Nigeria today. It is however very necessary that we take advantage provided by this unique opportunity to discuss the issues, and possibly agree a way forward together. Do we agree?


Before going into the details of this discussion, I’d like us to understand the basics underlying Client-Agency relationships. This will necessitate our understanding a few basic definitions.

1. SERVICE: This is simply work done for another or others; helpful act; favour. It is, put in other words, an act of helpful activity; help; aid.

2. VALUE: This is the quality of being useful or worthwhile or important

From the above it makes sense to say that Value-added service means work that is done for a Client that is useful, helpful and worthwhile. Stretching this definition further, I’d like to discuss ‘value’ in a much simpler, easier to understand dimension by breaking it into the key elements of Quality, Cost Effectiveness and Timeliness.

Quality here is in the product sense. Creative solutions, solutions that work, Out-of-the-box thinking, strategically fitting, refreshing, differentiating etc are some of the ways in which colleagues have described qualitative service from the Agency. There is also a service dimension to Quality, which covers such intangibles as reliability, punctuality, pro-activeness, friendliness, passion etc. Cost effectiveness, simply put, implies competitively priced, cheaper than before, low(er) total cost as against out-of-pocket cost. Timeliness is a major, recurring point of friction between Clients and Agencies, or better put, lack of it. It means delivering late.

By all standards, these are all worthy elements of standards for any client or customer to look out for in any service, and all service providers, to succeed, must not only be ready to deliver on each and every one of them, but must deliver beyond the expectations of the client, as well as far and above competitions.


At face value, one is wont to debate whether or not it is possible for a demander of service to truly contribute to the death of the service giver’s business. Is it not an irony? Can one want value-added services delivered by a supplier, and yet do things to kill the service provider or his business? You will soon see that it is possible and it does happen!

Before I proceed, let me state that I do not see myself as having been asked to come here to present a catalogue of agencies’ complaints against our valued Clients, but rather to bring to the fore, some of those factors that militate against the successful delivery of value to the client, which the client herself could help resolve, not only in the interest of the agency, but indeed, in her own interest.


So that I do not hear my own voice alone, or attempt to carry the burden of this assignment alone, I decided to run a short survey across a number of professional colleagues, some of who are advertisers (Clients). One thing that came out clear is the agreement of all my respondents that, YES, indeed, a service receiver can contribute to the killing of the business of the service giver.


Now, we can discuss some of the key ways in which our Clients are killing our business. Please, note that the points are not being listed in any particular order.


Let me ask around the house, do we still get well-thought-out briefs from our Clients? I mean quality briefs. Today, the Brand Manager could hardly articulate a simple, clear brief, yet he expects the Agency to perform wonders. Sometimes, when you ask for formal briefs, you can see palpable fear on the faces of our client contacts. Why this? They largely do not have the competence to write briefs. Writing top quality briefs used to be the most basic competence of a Brand Manager in our time.


Can you believe that a client could hoard very vital information required as input into providing effective communication from the Agency? Today, some Clients believe that the more information they release to their Agencies, the more power they lose. How wrong! Rather than share openly with Agency, some will ration out information in a manner to say, you depend on me afterall to deliver. Anyway, in many cases the client herself does not even have the information, so how can he give?


When you refuse to remunerate your Agency properly, what else are you doing, if not killing her business? Some Clients will never pay a fair price, and on top of that, will not even pay the unfair price at the agreed time! For some Clients, all the value they bring to the table in their organisations is cost savings! And the only way they know to do this is to ‘under remunerate’ the Agency. When anyone runs an unprofitable business, over time, will he not fold up? And by the way, we are all familiar with the saying that when you pay peanuts, you end up with . . . . .


It has now become the fad to have Clients look towards the Agency to address their shortage of competent hands. When I made a move from the Client side over eleven years ago to join an Ad. Agency, not a few of my friends thought I was going crazy. And let me tell you one of the reasons I made that move then. I saw that the Agency side actually had more intellectual capacity than most Clients, and I am not kidding. Today, simply because the Client does not train again, it is the same agencies they accuse of incompetence they run to for professional hands! Just look around you, and see what I am talking about. The money they cannot pay the Agency in the normal course of business is what they are ready to pay to ‘snatch’ her staff. Can you beat that? When will Clients start to develop her human capital and stop depleting Agencies’ hard-earned talents.


I hope you will all agree with me that graft has become a common currency in Nigeria. Our industry is a major player in the graft market. Integrity has been thrown to the dogs. How many times have you pitched a business and later discovered that the account has been awarded long before the exercise. How many times has the Client mandated you to use a particular supplier, who is not necessarily the best in value delivery? How many times have you selected a board that is completely out of place for that outdoor material simply because the Marketing Manager owns it? How many times have you had to ‘settle’ the Marketing Director to get that business or retain it? Please, do not misunderstand me, I know the difference between ‘appreciation’, PR and GRAFT, and I am not talking about branded paper weight here.


At the beginning of some Client-Agency relationships, terms of engagement are formally agreed to. We all know the basic contents of such an agreement. It is not uncommon to note that most of these terms are contravened almost as soon as the relationship kicks off. Credit periods get extended with impunity; Scopes of Work get extended with cajoling, intimidation and threats; Agency rate cards are called up for review mid-way into the contract period; Agency fees are renegotiated mid-way, and as usual the Agency carries the can. Is this not killing the Agency business?


Sometimes you wonder if the Client is a copy writer or art director. If he is one, then why does he need an Agency? Some clients get in the way so much that by the time the communication material is ready for exposure, it has become completely bastardised and useless, but all the same the Client is happy! It’s his work afterall. A particular Client is known to have shot down an otherwise great concept with ‘my daughter doesn’t like it’. And here, the daughter is way far off from the audience targeted with the campaign.


This is what some people will call Master-Servant relationship. Perhaps the fastest way a client can kill an Agency’s business is to assume the destructive posture of ‘I pay the piper, so I must dictate the tune’. When a Client expects her Agency to answer to her as a servant, then he has missed it. This is because that Agency, if it is not wise enough to resign the account as soon as possible (should this be after breaking even?) will soon loose every iota of initiative in her head and none of her works will again be original. The client unfortunately will continue to dwell in a ‘closed circuit’, losing the benefit of robust engagement that can deliver top quality output time and time again.


It is now common place to receive a re-launch communication brief that says presentation day is ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week Monday’, meanwhile, today is Thursday! When you try to make them see reason, what you get is ‘we also want to see how responsive your Agency is!’ That is simply black mail, and an insult on the professional integrity of the Agency. Agency work is brain work and great ideas come from deep thinking, which may take some time. I ask all the time, how possible is it to ‘short-circuit’ the brewing process so that that same top quality beer can be rushed to the market in half the time it should normally take to brew? It is simply not possible. If you do that, and eventually get any drink out, then you will need to rebrand because it will simply no longer be that same brand. If you always pressurise the Agency to deliver quality work but you deprive them of quality work time, then, you are killing their business.


This factor may never have found space in my write-up, thanks to hearing people out in the short survey I conducted. It is amazing, the volume of threats that are issued out to Agencies on daily basis. I then remembered a particular ‘almighty advertiser’, who all the time he had the opportunity of handling the microphone did nothing but threaten, intimidate, and lash out at advertising Agencies. He never saw anything good in virtually everything the Agencies do. It is the same that goes on in some Client-Agency relationships. The creative mind is usually huge on emotion, and rubbing them off on the wrong side can only diminish their morale and ability to deliver value-added services.


Have you noticed how suddenly, brand or marketing management has become A&P Management? Today, our Brand Managers heap all blames for their brand’s non performance or under-performance on the advertising Agency! It is advertising that will quadruple the brand’s sales in one year! How realistic? Little attention is paid to other elements of the marketing mix. I was once asked by a prospective client to prepare an ROI analysis for the advertising investment he was planning to make. He wants to spend N15 million, and within 6 months, he wanted to double sales! In fact, it was to be part of the contract that if sales is not doubled within the period, I will lose money. When I told him that advertising is just one of the several factors he needed to get right, he lost interest. Whatever he was expecting. Unrealistic expectations can only lead to rising frustration, and frustration kills business.


Finally, it is important to mention that a Client is killing the Agency’s business when she either refuses to demand top class standards or complain when she is being under-serviced. Although, I know this is rarely the situation in our clime, one cannot rule out the possibility of its occurrence. Where this happens, the Agency simply fails to grow, and eventual dies from mediocrity. There should be an agreed format for regular evaluation of the performance of the Agency, and this should be based on parameters on which both parties have agreed upfront. The best form of this type agreement is the one that allows both parties to evaluate each other’s performances. Client should not accept poor performance from the Agency, but this should be done reasonably.


This session would not have been meaningfully concluded without some discussion of the way forward. Although the job of finding the solution should be collective, I’d like to kickstart it.

Drawing from the foregoing, I would recommend just one mega solution, and that is the return to ‘true partnership’. I may not have spent too many decades in the industry, but I have stayed long enough to know that what has happened over the years is the rapid erosion of those values that hitherto sustained a mutually rewarding relationship between Client and Agency.

We need to address our collective psyche. The ‘Client’ of today needs to realise that he is the ‘Agency’ of tomorrow, and what do I mean by that. You may just want to look around you. Check out those Marketing Directors of yesterday. Where are they today? Those who are still active are either self styled consultants, organising training programmes or marketing services providers, branding T-shirts and selling ‘innovative’ POS materials.

I have also seen some of my former Clients become outright agency staff. The reality I am trying to draw out here is that roles can be swapped at any time.

There is no inferior partner in a brand building relationship. There therefore should not be a superior partner. Yes, you pay the bill, but you cannot do the job yourself anyway. So why kill the Agency? I recall my days in Lever Brothers, now Unilever, a fellow Brand Manager who treated Agency bills with levity was firmly rebuked by our Marketing Director and even given a query. Our Directors’ voice still echoes in my ears, saying to my colleague, ‘don’t you know that that is where they get money to pay their staff’. My colleague prostrated and did all the begging he could do, but the Director, for whom I have enormous respect, insisted the query must be properly responded to. My colleague never did it again. How many of today’s Marketing Directors are that disciplined?

The name of the game is mutual respect. Partner with your Agency, motivate your Ad. Men and see them unleash their full potential on your brands.

CONCLUSION: If I ever go back to the Client side, the last thing I will do is KILL my Agency’s business.

Kayode Oluwasona is the Managing Director of Rosabel Leo Burnett, one of Nigeria’s leading advertising agencies. He delivered this piece as a key note address at an industry gathering.


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