Last week Adweek published an article titled Shortcut to a Long Relationship in which they commented on the $400mm Volkswagen advertising account going to Crispin Porter + Bogusky of Miami without a review. The authors pointed out a small trend to this type of account movement and explained it away with a comment on the importance of relationship. They got it wrong.
“Volkswagen’s sweeping shift last week… reinforces once again the notion that advertising, rather than being “all about the work,” as some say, is first and foremost a relationship-driven business.”
-Adweek, September 12, 2005
I remain perplexed at how rarely we in this industry scratch below the surface of relationships, chemistry, and rapport to examine what is really going on when clients and agencies come together. Typically when large accounts change hands the client asks competing agencies to solve their problem in the buying cycle as proof of the firms’ ability to solve the problem. Clients make this request as a means of seeking reassurance that they are hiring the best firm for the job, and most agencies are eager to offer reassurance in this manner for reasons I have discussed many times (and will not belabor here), even though to do so is expensive, can be frustrating, and is sometimes down-right demeaning.
The Real Trend
While it is interesting to note that large accounts have recently changed hands without public competition ($2.7 billion in annual billings moving without review in the last 21 months, most of it going to CP+B and BBDO, according to Adweek), the real trend of significance here is that they are changing hands without the client asking the agency to solve the problem before they are engaged. Understanding the importance of this distinction and how it is being done offers some insight into how to win without pitching.
Missing from the article’s message is the subtle yet vital point that the relationship is only a vehicle for something more important and less understood: reassurance – the reassurance that prospects always seek as a means of combating buyers remorse late in the buying cycle. In the CP+B/VW example the client is reassured not through having the agency begin working on the account before being financially engaged, but through the surrogate of previous experience with the firm. My point is: it is about the work. VW is highly reassured not that they will like or get along with the folks at CP+B (although that may be a bonus) but that they will produce work that will build the brand and move the metal. They know it because their marketing director has seen it first hand via her five-year experience with the agency on the Mini account. The people at CP+B would be right to be perturbed by the implication in the article that they are being handed this business based on friendship or the murky, often-cited but never sufficiently explained ‘chemistry’.
The Mythology of Chemistry and Relationship
Three years ago I got a call from a prospect I had spoken with previously. In this call she said, “I’d like to hire you. I thought the last time we spoke we had good chemistry.” I winced and responded without trying to hide my irritation. “You are not going to hire me because of our chemistry. You are going to hire me because you believe I can help you in a way that nobody else can. To tell me you’ll hire me because you like me is to dismiss my expertise and insult me.” There was silence. (Our chemistry wasn’t so good anymore!)
No, she didn’t hire me that day, but I made my point that chemistry, like relationship, is often a word we use in place of quantifying what is really happening. (And yes, she did hire me two years later.) Chemistry and personal relationships might get you a few more minutes of attention early in the buying cycle, and they do become tie-breakers late in the buying cycle when the ultimate variable – your expertise – is seen as equal to your competitors. But you want the business sewn up before you get down to tie-breaking metrics of relationship, chemistry, and even price. Accounts are won everyday based on these tie-breakers, but there is nothing like winning on expertise to drive your cost of sale down and your margins and even your dignity up. (It’s hard to feel dignified when you’re trying to sell your expertise by giving it away first, isn’t it?)
Inspire the Interested; Reassure the Intent
Inspire early in the buying cycle to help form intent, then reassure late in the buying cycle once intent is formed and fear is creeping in. As inspirational as I’m sure the marketing director’s co-workers at VW found the CP+B reel, it was the reassurance of their ability to get it right, to nail it, to understand the category, to not screw up, that got them handed the business without having to part with their thinking on the brand first. The inspiration – the emotionally arousing Crispin reel – got them consideration; the reassurance got them the win without the pitch.
Pervasive in the marketing communication agency industry and the large ad agency world in particular is the default assumption that one firm’s ability to help the client sell more product is no greater than that of the next’s. If you share this perspective on the homogeneity of the industry then you likely view the relationship as the tie-breaker that secured the VW account, as the Adweek authors do. Yes the relationship between VW’s marketing director and CP+B was instrumental, but clients ask agencies to part with their thinking uncompensated because they are afraid. If you can understand the distinction between the reassurance received and the relationship that delivered and masked that reassurance then you can understand how to win the business without parting with your highest value product first. Simply substitute other forms of reassurance.
While our revolt is not yet a revolution, I am encouraged by the number of well-positioned agencies that are increasingly employing process-framed case studies, phased engagements, opt-out clauses, money-back guarantees and other tools I have addressed in this space to secure engagements without devaluing their offering. I’m equally encouraged by the number of large advertising accounts changing hands without speculative thinking on the brand, even if those on the receiving end might not fully comprehend the subtleties of how it’s being done.
A Final Observation
At any point in time in the large ad agency world there seems to be a hot shop or two that wins without pitching – for a while. But it’s interesting to note that unlike smaller firms or practitioners of other marketing communication services, none has been able to dig deep enough to into the how’s and why’s to be able to institutionalize this success and buffer themselves from the great levelers of time, growth, defection, and imitation. It’s only after the glory of being the hot shop has faded that the idea occurs that perhaps success could have been better understood, and therefore perpetuated. But in the middle of the heyday, at the height of the glory, very few believe that it will not always be as good as it is at that moment.
As always, I’m happy to hear your feedback on this article.