Pulling Teeth: or, why all agencies should be more like dentists.....

Posted on 29th January, 2014

“….the main responsibility”, asserts the brilliant Ian Priest in the IPA’s booklet A is for alliances: Less pitches, more partnership, “lies with client marketing and procurement”.


He was writing about the quality of client-agency relationships, and – in particular – the way that new business is conducted. This is all part of the IPA’s laudable attempt to address this significant challenge for the sector.


The problem is, it’s not just the IPA’s grammar that doesn’t quite hit the spot. The content of the booklet is, to steal from the language of the business schools, necessary but not sufficient.


Because whilst it would be naïve to suggest that client behaviour is irrelevant, in the main the fault lies with us; the agencies.


In 2013, the pantomime baddies in agency-land were GSK, who allegedly asked those pitching for a place on their global digital roster to offer not just a percentage rebate but a sign-on bonus too, and Premier Foods, who were accused of trying something similar.


“How dare they?” we thundered, collectively; “who do they think they are?”


Secretly, of course, the smarter people in agencies know the answer. But to admit to that is to admit complicity in a decades-long, deeply-entrenched and ongoing strategic blunder, leading us, unceremoniously, to where we are today.


It’s true, of course, that the structure of our industry doesn’t help: there is no ‘barrier to entry’, for a start. So for as long as it’s cooler to say “I run an agency” than “I work in a big corporation’s marketing department”, the supply of agencies is always likely outstrip demand for them.


But consider then what agencies choose to layer into the mix over and above that. Because the industry that GSK, Premier Foods and their counterparts all too often see:


- seems content to accept a transactional, order-taking set up with junior channel managers, as opposed to developing longstanding, senior partnerships

- talks endlessly about ‘insights’ and ‘thinking’ but too often delivers irrelevant and identikit thought leadership

- hires too many of the wrong kind and too few of the right kind of people

- jumps gleefully through ever-increasing procurement hoops, professing incessant ‘appreciation’ and ‘gratefulness’ along the way

- slashes fees at the drop of a hat

- does all its work up front, on-spec – and for free


Would any of us, in our personal lives, afford any respect to any business or person that presented themselves in such a fashion?


A colleague of mine often speculates about what would happen to the dental practice that took an agency approach to business development – endlessly showing prospective patients their qualifications, certificates, toothy photos of previous happy cutomers etc, as opposed to simply prodding and asking, pointedly: ‘does that hurt?’.


According to the 175 participants in the IPA’s ‘Alliance Adaptathon’, the word that best expresses ‘win-win’ relationships between agencies and clients is ‘trust’.


Trust is engendered through mutual respect.


And mutual respect, in turn, depends on self-respect.


Unless and until agencies are ready to demonstrate – visibly, noisily if needs be – the value that we ourselves place on our abilities and our skills, why should we should we expect anything different from our clients?


The IPA’s efforts are great. I support them and appreciate them. But the real answer lies much, much closer to home.


Because ultimately, and with the greatest of apologies to William Henley -


We are the masters of our fate;

We are the captains of our souls.


- this piece first kindly published by Campaign Magazine at


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