Friday, February 03

Can an agency really 'choose' its clients?


I recommend Petr Vaclavek's article in this week's MaM, in which he claims that his agency Lemonade will only work with clients which "it chooses". I do this, in the full knowledge that I become a tool of Petr's carefully crafted campaign of self-publicity. He is a master of it, having graduated from the Josef Havelka Academy of Self -Publicity. If that sounds a little sarcastic, I do not mean it to be. The most successful agency leaders around the world have usually been brilliant self-publicists, and this is as it should be; if an agency cannot publicise itself effectively, can it be any good at creating publicity for its clients' brands?

Petr states that Lemonade will not enter pitches. I applaud the sentiment. It is a perennial puzzle why agencies around the world seem to constantly expend their energy on pitches, often neglecting their loyal existing clients, who pay the bills. No other professional services companies constantly give away for free in pitches their most valuable service - creative ideas. If more agencies followed Lemonade's example, it would unquestionably be a good thing. He further states that Lemonade will not negotiate fees with procurement departments, because he feels that they do not know how to assess the value of his agency's services. Again, his stance has much to commend it.

But how in practice will Lemonade ‘choose' its clients? After all, it is the client which must decide, as it is the client which owns the brand and the budget. Petr is of course relying on a truth which is global. Good personal relationships between the client and the agency have been a pre-requisite for good campaigns everywhere. A classic example of this in the Czech Republic was the relationship between Vitana and Leo Burnett in the 90's (featured in the "Velvet Evolution" film). But when the marketing director went home to Scandinavia after 8 years, the relationship quickly deteriorated. Why? The products were the same. The market had not changed much. The agency team was in place. But there had been an unusual level of trust between Thomas Schuller of Vitana and both Josef Havelka and Robert Penazka. They enjoyed working with Thomas, and perhaps gave more time and thought to Vitana than was justified by the budget alone. He left, and suddenly Vitana became just another typical FMCG client with conservative views about the kind of advertising that would be effective.

I have the impression that Petr will choose clients which have already decided that Lemonade always comes with brilliant campaign ideas. Petr is understandably tired of the master-servant relationship which is so common here, but may be trying to go too far the other way. "The campaign must be brilliant, because it comes from Lemonade" ; this would appear to be the only acceptable client attitude. You know, it may actually work in some cases. I fear that there will be some clients who will believe that just choosing Lemonade says something about them, just as they mistakenly believe their chosen brand of car or cigarette does.

But the best clients are marketing professionals, driven by business results. In the Vitana - LBA relationship there were arguments; there were TV spots completely re-made at the agency's expense; there were tense meetings where market research results were presented. If a client like Thomas Schuller were back in this market, how would he react to an email from Petr informing him that he has been "chosen" by Lemonade? He would probably treat it as he treats emails telling him that he has won millions in the Euro -lottery. For sure, if he were looking for an agency, he would know that he is looking for a team of people with whom he can co-operate on a long term basis; he knows that choosing the most pretty picture in a speculative creative pitch is not the way to choose such a team; and he would certainly direct his procurement team to ensure that they understand how agency services are remunerated. But he would still be looking hard at what an agency has done for previous clients; can the agency demonstrate that the campaign built business results for the client? Are the people who created those campaigns available to work with him? Does the agency understand his business?

That's the reality, Petr. The "best" clients have an overall goal of delivering long-term profits for their shareholders. If you assist them in achieving this goal, you may have fun and enjoy it. But the results take priority over the enjoyment. Because Petr, it's their money. Not yours.


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