Why Some Ad Agency Relationships Stand the Test of Time

The pressures that wear on relationships between advertisers and their advertising agencies are increasing. Today’s growing focus on immediate results, instant return on investment, cost-cutting, and purchasing department attitude about advertising creative has changed the character of the advertising industry over the last decade. Many industry insiders worry that agency/client relationships are becoming less strategic as a result. Ad agencies are increasingly seen as providing commodity services best handled by the lowest bidder.

For those who take advertising seriously, these trends threaten agencies’ ability to manage client brands long term. In order to do this, agencies must be seen as trusted stewards of companies’ external messages. Relationship longevity between advertiser and agency is important to building unbreakable bonds of trust.

Locally there are great examples of advertisers and agencies that have journeyed together for decades. The local poster-child is DDB Seattle and its decades’ long relationships with McDonalds, Holland America, and Jansport. Founded in 1981 as Elgin Syferd, the agency’s first important account win was with McDonalds the same year. This was followed in 1983 with the Holland America account. It was clear at this point that Elgin Syferd was not an ordinary start-up, but a break-out agency and a local industry leader. The Jansport business followed in 1987. In 1990, the agency was acquired by DDB Needham. More growth followed.
When asked what makes these relationships last Ron Elgin said, “We took our lead from McDonalds Founder Ray Croc. Kroc built McDonalds believing that no matter how well McDonalds served customers each day, they may not show up tomorrow. He focused his crews each night on making things sparkling fresh for the next day.”

Elgin added, “To keep clients for the long term, you need a great deal of paranoia and to keep in mind that no matter how well you have done, it is never quite enough.”
Well said.

Let’s not underestimate just how difficult it is to keep accounts over decades. This time span covers recessions, new marketing administrations, terrorist attacks, successful ad campaigns, some less than successful campaigns, cost-cutting, major growth, and continuous attempts by bigger agencies to win the business. Holland America decided in the late 1980s to Non Profit Growth hire FCB West to handle broadcast advertising, relegating Elgin to an important, yet smaller role. This lasted one year. Then, all the business snapped back.

Sedgewick Road has been doing a superb job for Washington Mutual for over a decade. Copacino + Fujikado has been working with the Seattle Mariners since 1996, and Jim Copacino’s creative leadership on the account dates back to 1990. HP and the Washington Forest Protection Association have counted on FCB Seattle since the mid ’90s.

Great advertisers reward their agencies’ hard work with fidelity, trust and stability for a number of reasons.

o Advertising is not about clever headlines and trendy slogans. It is about a group of craftspeople understanding the heartbeat of a client company and translating this in a way that is compelling to consumers over time. This can’t happen with short term agency relationships. This requires trust between agency people and client leadership.

o Agencies become more efficient as they learn to chart courses through client organizations. Well oiled relationships take labor out of the process of creating advertising. Ultimately, this is the best way to keep unnecessary costs out of the advertising mix. Repeated change in agency relationships means new learning curves, inefficiencies, and higher costs.

o Client industry knowledge and expertise at the agency grows in direct proportion to the stability of the client agency team. As outsiders, agencies become indispensable resources to clients in providing competitive intelligence and industry opportunities that can be exploited through great advertising.

There are few shortcuts in achieving financial success in American industry. No matter how hard we try to get more and more efficient and to ROI every little action we take, real success may lie in taking a longer view of what we are trying to achieve in running our companies.

The least expensive way to succeed in advertising may be to build lasting teams. With longevity, teams grow in knowledge, wisdom, determination, and efficiency. Smart advertisers work with agencies that provide stable environments and retain their people (thus retaining client industry wisdom). They insist on continuous improvement, yet are realistic in what they want to achieve and how long it will take to get them there. Most importantly, they are in it for the long haul. For agencies, the best way to win is to have a healthy dose of paranoia that you haven’t done quite enough to earn your clients complete and total trust.

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