The state of client-agency relationships has been on the decline for several years. Whether measured in terms of longevity, the increase in project-based work versus retained relationship commitments or the waning level of advertiser trust in their agency partners, all of these important partnerships are under pressure.
Regardless of the reasons behind the current situation, this is not a healthy dynamic for either advertisers or agencies. The result has been shorter, more volatile relationships, higher levels of agency personnel turnover and some would argue less effective, less efficient advertising outputs. Reason enough for both sets of stakeholders to thoughtfully assess the current situation and seek corrective action.
There is, we believe, a clear starting point for improving client-agency relationships. It involves a return to the tried and true “principal-agent” business model that once formed the basis for relationships between advertisers and agencies. The woes currently besetting these partnerships and driving advertiser concerns over transparency and trust are direct outcomes of the industry’s deviation from this important principle and the resulting practices that are averse to this model.
A basic tenet of principal-agent relationships is that the agent is bound to make decisions and to take actions that are in the best interest of the principal…always. This, in turn, guides interactions between the parties in a manner that achieves the highest possible degree of accountability and ultimately trust.
It wasn’t long ago that all client-agency agreements contained language establishing the principal-agent relationship, the need for agencies to provide unbiased counsel and the resulting fiduciary obligations of both parties.
Sadly, agency compliance with and commitment to this framework began to wane within the agency community. Some may remember the controversial comments by Irwin Gotlieb, once CEO of WPP’s Group M who opined at the 2015 “Agency Financial Management” Conference hosted by the ANA: “Those relationships, rightly or wrongly, don’t exist anymore” he said, adding that “You cease to be an agent the moment someone puts a gun to your head and says these are the CPMs you need to deliver.” Blaming advertisers for the bad practices adopted by some agencies was inappropriate at best.
Even with contractual safeguards in place, problems occur when “agents” have hidden agendas or substitute their interests over those of the principal. This is why the topic of “media rebates” secured and retained by media agencies, without client knowledge or approval proved to be such a lightning rod topic when it initially surfaced.
Fast forward to the present and certain revenue-generating practices that are pursued by many agencies such as principal or inventory buys (media arbitrage), acceptance of incentives from third parties (i.e. rebates, value pots, EPI’s, etc.), agencies awarding work to their holding company affiliates without a competitive review or client authorization, and the application of non-disclosed, unauthorized mark-ups.
Whose interests are being served by such practices…certainly not the advertisers. To paraphrase Shep Gordon, Hollywood producer and talent manager:
“I think a problem for most people in a fiduciary capacity is to eliminate self and greed and all those things so that they can actually be in a fiduciary capacity where the client comes first, whoever the client happens to be.”
Advertisers must protect their legal and financial interests by crafting contract language and implementing the appropriate controls, including performing periodic audits. How else can they ensure that they have the transparency they seek in the context of their agency partners’ financial stewardship of their advertising investment and the confidence that their agencies are acting in their best interest?
On the topic of principal-based buying specifically, we have a contrarian perspective and don’t believe that it is ever appropriate for an agency to purchase media inventory in its name, mark it up by some undisclosed amount and re-sell that to its clients. Yet, these non-disclosed buys have proliferated as programmatic digital media buying has exploded. While the 4A’s issued guidelines to address this practice including documentation requiring client opt-in, explanation of an advertiser’s audit rights (if any) and access to the underlying costs, oftentimes agreement language is silent on these recommendations or they are simply not followed in actual practice.
Thus, if both parties want to establish trust and rebuild the client-agency relationship, begin by eliminating the risk of bias in an agency’s recommendations and or actions and reinforce the principal-agent framework in agreement language.