Greg Paull

Life would be simpler if agencies were vendors, much as the office supplies company or the printers are. There would be no need to nurture a relationship, no need to motivate and inspire, no need to build trust and respect. But agencies unfortunately are (usually!) full of creative people. And creative people bring attitude. They are making something that requires originality. While some may act like rock stars, the reality is they have more in common with musicians than most clients like to think – because they do create an end product – like architects, or actors.

Some marketers already realise this:

Procter and Gamble run awards shows for all their agencies on an ongoing basis to celebrate the best work by market and by brand;

Volkswagen hold an annual conference where, apart from a handful of clients, the only attendees are their best agencies, sharing their best ideas; and

Nike regularly take their entire agency out on road trips around the USA, and have established ongoing sporting events between client and agency.

While these are just small gestures, they ring true of a greater overarching approach to agency management – that of mutual respect and trust. We look at relationships such as that of Unilever and their agencies – they have just celebrated 100+ years together. Johnson & Johnson have a credo in every office in the world that points to working well with all their partners.

So how many Asian marketers can be considered to have achieved world’s best practice? In the last eight years, we’ve seen pitches with over 200 agencies invited. We’ve seen pitches taking as long as a year to be resolved. We’ve seen agencies shortlisted to a panel where every project then becomes a pitch. It’s becoming a very difficult region to do business in.

That said, it’s not all one-way traffic – agencies have also been ferocious in their discounting, and do not always keep all their promises. But the challenge is going to be in ten years’ time – when the truly creative people in the industry would have decided it’s too hard and left, and compound this by discouraging youngsters to join. Singapore’s potential as a regional hub for advertising development will then surely diminish.

To make the marriage work, we need a number of disciplines on both sides and greater transparency.

It means that a client should only invite a final list of three agencies in order to select one. Choosing these three might either be through the use of a consultant, through asking around, or through a basic Request for Information. Without more than a 33% chance to win – why would an agency invest time and resources to thinking?

It means that if two or more agencies are hired, their rosters are very clearly defined. (Look at Unilever, Nestlé, J&J and P&G as role models at this)

It means an agency should be a paid a fee with a performance metric for good work.

And likewise, it means agencies should be open, honest and transparent in their dealings with their clients.

A utopia? Maybe. But if the industry is to stay healthy, it needs to look at what great marketers and agencies are doing in the rest of the world to build brands and business.

Greg Paull is Principal of R3 (, a consultancy focused on marketing efficiency and effectiveness.

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