A conventional argument of brand historians is that agencies have enjoyed more stable relationships with clients by accepting the condition of exclusivity. The flip side to this argument would be that there are clients at an international level who have softened their stance and either hired agencies that they would not have previously considered (due to conflicting interests) or have consented to their agencies working in some capacity for competitors.
In this era of transparency at all costs, there is nothing that can be considered ‘well insulated’ or ‘watertight.’ Then, does the condition of exclusivity make much sense? Why should agencies not be allowed to juggle conflicting accounts?
Says Pratap Suthan, National Creative Director, Grey Worldwide, “In countries like Japan, there is no such exclusivity pact, agencies are allowed to handle different brands within the same category and consequently, they wind up with sufficient expertise in that arena. As it is, there is a lot of buzz that goes on within the brand arena, and an insulated existence is literally an impossible task. There is also something known as corporate intelligence, through which brands are aware of each other’s strategy. As long as there are independent teams within an agency to deal with conflicting accounts, and a system of ethics inherent in the organisation, I see no harm in agencies juggling conflicting accounts.”
Suthan adds, “If the argument is really on the basis of brand warfare, I guess it doesn’t make sense to put globally competitive and at each other’s throat kind of brands (for instance Pepsi and Coke, HLL and P&G) in the same stable. But for brands that are not as aggressive, or huge, I see no harm in it – at least as long as there is a code of ethics involved in the whole thing.”
However, Prahlad Kakkar, filmmaker, Genesis, doesn’t quite agree. Kakker asserts, “A client-agency relationship is like a marriage. Why isn’t courtship with a third person permitted after marriage? Exclusivity and complete trust play a pivotal role. If agencies were to juggle conflicting accounts, it would only lead to a betrayal of sorts and a leak of vital information. Plus, it could also lead of repetition or duplication of ideas. For an agency to handle conflicting accounts, it could mean a 100% breakdown in partnership and trust.”
Then what is Kakkar‘s take on independent units set in different premises or sister concerns? “As long as they are not in the same premises or in close proximity to each other, I think it’s quite all right. Well insulated units or independent entities are justified in the arena of conflicting businesses,” he argues.
Ravi Deshpande, Head, Lemon Communications, prefers to call it a gray area. “I suppose that there are agencies abroad that have been known to handle conflicting businesses, like in Japan, for instance. If all information is kept watertight, different teams that work on brands exist as well-insulated units, preferably not in the same premises, and a stringent code of ethics and discipline prevails, I see no harm in it. But the fact of the matter is that if an agency is handling competing brands, its integrity would be questioned by one brand or the other at some point. With an increase in privatisation and free play of market forces, companies are getting increasingly wary of each other and therefore would not really allow their agencies to handle the competitor’s turf.”
At a global level, consultants like McKinsey have been known to handle conflicting clients all the time. They create groups that handle clients in the same space, and yet are trusted to keep things confidential. Why cannot the same logic be applied to Indian advertising as well?
The debate, however, persists.