Partner or Vendor? What Agencies Mean to Clients

C’mon everybody, let’s get real. Neither media buying agencies nor their supposedly more glamorous counterparts at creative agencies, nor even their much-derided cousins at the big consulting firms, will ever enjoy true partnership status with their clients [Art & Commerce, June 4]. And why should we? Partners share both rewards and risks, and not even the most progressive performance-based compensation agreement would include the possibility of a negative number in the agency fee line.

For that matter, why would we even want to be our clients’ “partner”? True partnering would force us to lose objectivity.

No, the sooner we accept the fact that we are indeed vendors providing a service, the sooner we will start providing services clients really want to buy. All too often, we believe we are in the business of selling ideas, while our clients believe we are selling their execution. And therein lies the rub. It is not so much “partnership” that we want; it’s respect. We want the opportunity to offer our ideas and to have our ideas heard. We want to feel important, to make a difference, to create change. So we whine about wanting a “partnership” because “vendor” carries the connotation of commodity products and we are justly worried about clients putting “ideas” in that bag of tricks.

The client knows only that it needs to acquire new customers, or minimize customer erosion in a competitive onslaught, or support their sales team, or get more media exposure for their dollar. And we’re busy trying to nose around in their business looking for the Big Idea! Sure, we’ll probably find it … but is it any wonder that most clients prickle at our request to be their “strategic partner”? We presume to do our job and theirs too!

The partner/vendor debate is nothing new. Isn’t it time we got over it? While we’re looking for a new word to describe our role, let’s also look for better ways to promote, package and provide services that maximize our idea-generating capabilities in ways that are meaningful to our clients. And that’s the way to a respectful relationship.

Penny Vane,

President, Vane&Friends

New York City

In “Spin Citi” [May 14], Albert Einstein was not one of the historical figures used in Citigroup’s corporate-image campaign by New York-based Merkley Newman Harty & Partners.