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Spikes Asia 2010: Sundar Swamy, Ajay Kakar & Colvyn Harris delve on agency-client relations

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Spikes Asia 2010: Sundar Swamy, Ajay Kakar & Colvyn Harris delve on agency-client relations

For a 9.00 am session, the conversation on ‘How to get the Best from your Agency’ managed a sizeable audience. The session focussed on the agency–client relationship and the three speakers – Ajay Kakar, CMO, Aditya Birla Group – Financial Services, Colvyn Harris, CEO, JWT India and Srinivasan Swamy, Chairman, R K Swamy Hansa Group – presented the India picture on the subject.

Swamy, who was chairing the session, kicked off the discussion with a few words on the Confederation of Asian Advertising Agencies Association and some views on how agencies were no longer agents but partners and consultants to clients and that it was important for that change to reflect in the industry’s way of working as well. He observed that even though advertising delivered disproportionate, today advertising decisions were taken at brand level. “That needs to change, because you cannot expect disproportionate returns from people who cannot take the big risks,” said Swamy.

Advertiser’s Concerns

After that, Kakar took on the stage and began with the fact that to get the best out of agency, the relationship from both advertiser and agency viewpoint was important. He said, “It takes two to tango. Agencies play a critical and vital role in a brand’s life. This relationship is not very different from other relationships. When there is a pitch in the offing, there is love in the air. When the contract is signed, it is the sentiment of ‘until death do us part’ and after that, things change.”

Laying that as the background, Kakar enumerated client concerns beginning with ‘You have changed, you are no longer the person I fell in love with’. He explained that once the dotted line was signed, all promises were forgotten. He said, “Once the account is underway, you rarely see the people you had seen at the pitch again. You no longer know who is in control of the brand because there is no continuity or consistency of the people who are handling the business.”

His next point was connected with the worst when he explained that after a point in some advertiser-agency relations, agencies no “longer love the advertiser as they did before and no longer have time for the advertiser. “The big future we had thought we would put together is forgotten as the agencies get involved in all the other businesses and may be more pitches,” explained Kakar.

Kakar also pointed out agency’s obsession with doing only television work as a concern. For him, advertisers need partners who are thinking holistic brand solutions and not just delivering advertising on television.

His next concern was ‘Do we even speak the same language anymore?’ Explaining that, he said, where is the big idea that will take my brand to the next level. Your language may be TVCs but my language is sales and results. As an agency, you crave for recognition, but as a client I want effectiveness, and the question is why can't creativity and effectiveness meet? Why can't we speak the same language?”

Kakar’s final point was a question whether it was true that agency-client relationship was for better or for worse. He questioned whether the agency was even taking time out to know more about the advertiser as a partner and know what drives the client in the market place. “Can we be equally accountable? I am to my consumers and stakeholders, what would you like to share?” asked Kakar before he concluded, “Clients can be good or bad but not suicidal. If they get work that delivers in the marketplace, they would like to pay their agency its worth in gold.”

Agencies have Issues as well!

Colvyn Harris took the dais after that to reply with his own five issues with advertisers today. He said, “At JWT India, 80 per cent of our business is non-aligned and keeps me thinking about what agencies should do every day to ensure that the client stays. But there are some serious areas that need attention.”

Harris’ first was ‘Do clients value agencies as their trusted adviser? What do you do to earn that relation and keep that relation alive?’ He elaborated, “We tend to do what is right for a client, what you believe is right and build a relation where you can earn that trust but agencies don't manage the whole spectrum. For instance, agencies manage the advertising but they do not control where on the shelf of a store is the brand.”

He stated his second issue as ‘We have always been the clients’ favourite squeeze’ and pointed out that clients cannot forget that revenue and resources are related. That element of maturity has to come in a client-agency relationship.

Client using creative work to clarify strategy was another grouse followed by the ‘client is always right’ conversation. Harris noted, “But if you put the brand at the centre, and are hopefully able to grow beyond the place where the relation is neutral and not about who is right or wrong, then the conversation can be different.”

His final issue was that today, from the clients’ side, there were inexperienced and unsavvy brand managers who were taking the important decision. Harris said that clients too were facing the same resources problem, and though there was experience at the top, the decisions were being taken right at the bottom.”

Partnership of Equals?

Following this, Swamy spoke to the two leaders on what could be the way forward for a healthy agency-client relationship. He cited example of clients that even asked for pitch fees today, and Kakar’s view on that was the agency must exercise the right to restrain from such clients. He said, “I had learnt this when I was with Ogilvy, to be most valued by those who you value. If the client is not bringing anything to the table, then he should not be with you.”

The panel spoke on remuneration and agencies not getting the rights for IPR of their work. Kakar was quick to remind the panel here that it was agencies that had put themselves in this situation to begin with. The discussion boiled down to the fact that just as there were good and bad clients, there were good and bad agencies but the focus on the big picture was important if the relationship had to create something memorable and ground breaking. If both agency and advertiser managed had to stay true to what they do, the industry was alright.


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