Lessons From Allstate, Burnett

CHICAGO Earlier this month, Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett and Allstate jointly hosted a lavish party at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium to toast (several times) their 50-year relationship. At a time when marketers such as Domino’s declare that five years is a lengthy client-agency tenure, the celebration was a worthy one.

But as with any long-term relationship, the road had its bumps. In 2003, the two parties nearly split, after a daylong meeting in which Burnett presented several ideas for a new advertising campaign, after years of what both agency and client executives said were lackluster results.

At that meeting, Allstate vp of integrated marketing Lisa Cochrane stood up and said: “I’ve heard everybody’s ideas. It comes down to this: You don’t love us and we don’t love you. We can change this relationship or we can part.”

Obviously, they didn’t part. But the road to recovery wasn’t easy, and it required soul-searching and compromise on both sides. A week after the celebration, Cochrane and Burnett evp of account management Nina Abnee reflected upon the five things they learned from the experience.

1. Be Honest and Commit

With her declaration, Cochrane’s statement opened up a new level of honesty for both the agency and the client. By naming the problem and assuring Burnett that she was willing to work with it, both agency and client were able to move beyond defensive strategies and finger-pointing, she said.

“There was a movement afoot about maybe we should get some new hot shop,” Cochrane said. “[But] I knew we could do better with Leo Burnett than from reinventing the wheel. … I made it clear to Leo Burnett as our largest agency that they were solid and I believed they could do it.”

The expression of commitment gave the agency confidence that it could make drastic changes to the way it approached the business. “I don’t believe clients get their best work when agencies have a gun to their heads,” Abnee said. “When that happens, clients get what they want.”

Today, when presentation meetings roll around, the agency feels free to say it is not ready without fear of being penalized, Cochrane said. Burnett is also comfortable enough to show incomplete or questionable work. The agency even has been known to scrap campaigns at the 11th hour because it simply wasn’t ready. “Lisa can call and yell at me,” Abnee said. “We have to be honest and say, ‘You know, you’re right.’ What’s bad is when that honest conversation doesn’t happen.”

2. Accept Responsibility and Rebuild Trust

When a relationship goes sour, both sides are quick to blame the other party for being at fault. But it’s important that both sides own up to their respective failings, said Abnee and Cochrane. “We needed to look at ourselves and not just blame the client,” Abnee said. “This had to be partly our fault. We had to own that we had responsibility to this relationship.”

But Allstate also needed to accept its share of the blame. “This is a 50-50 proposition,” Cochrane said. “Clients get what they deserve. Somebody approved the lackluster work. The briefs were written by Allstate.”

Both sides also had to accept responsibility for letting Allstate become a graveyard account, where no one wanted to work. Some of the blame lay at the agency, which had let staffers get complacent on the brand and lose sight of its essence. But Allstate also had to come to grips with its reputation inside the agency. “I knew it was not the hit account to work on,” Cochrane said. “It was my personal goal to change that. I knew that if I could get there, we would get a renewed commitment from the agency.”

Ultimately, the two sides agreed to change their relationship. Prior to the process, Burnett created advertising for Allstate and not much more. But with new staff on both sides of the account, they were able to move the relationship to one that’s more of a partnership, with a compensation structure that was based more on business growth rather than buying and selling advertising. “We’ve moved to evaluating ideas, where we can put them together and how we can bring it to life in the marketplace,” Abnee said. “Lisa’s always encouraging us to have more and more ideas.”

3. Listen … and Make Your Needs Known

Once both Allstate and Burnett committed to improving the relationship, it was important for each to understand what the other party expected and needed. “It required a lot of listening,” Abnee said. “If there was one thing the agency needed to do, it was listen hard. Based on that listening and learning we re-engineered the relationship and working together.”

Some of the solutions were simple. Cochrane wanted more dedicated staffing on her account, and requested that Burnett employees work much more closely with their Starcom compatriots, who handle Allstate’s media. “We didn’t have a strong enough partnership where we could do what we do best, which is dig into their business,” Abnee said. “The point was we needed to get more engaged in their business.”

But Burnett had some issues of its own. “Allstate needed to listen as well,” Abnee said. “We said we needed better direction, we needed better strategy, we needed a smoother creative approval process.”

As a result, Cochrane overhauled staffing on her side of the account. She also streamlined the decision-making, keeping things from getting bogged down in process. She also understood that the company needed clearer measurement systems upon which to judge the agency. “I had to put systems in place to prove the communications were working,” Cochrane said. “My team had to match the Burnett team in commitment and talent and experience.”

4. Set Aside Time for Each Other

Both Cochrane and Abnee said they put a heavy value on frequent face-to-face meetings. “It’s a little like we had to start dating again,” Abnee said. “We needed to have a relationship beyond just a [strategy or creative presentation] meeting. We were doing too much that wasn’t face-to-face.

So, they implemented weekly meetings to view all the work that’s in various stages of development. An earlier view into some creative development gives everyone a better idea where things are headed (and prevent potential problems), as well as expand upon larger strategy issues. “You have to be able to have informal conversations about the work,” Abnee said. “You have to be able to ask, ‘What keeps you up at night?'”

They’ve also implemented monthly dinners (client and agency take turns paying) with a core group of six to eight people on both sides of the business, as well as other agency and client personnel. “I want to know our senior management,” Cochrane said. “I want them to know our head of distribution. And I wanted my colleagues at Allstate to be proud of Burnett as well.”

5. Have Fun
It sounds like a rule you give a 5-year-old’s baseball team. But both Cochrane and Abnee said that when people are clearly having fun at work, it makes the relationship easier. “We always look to see if we can add some fun to a meeting,” Abnee said.

It’s a tradition that was started by none other than Allstate president Tom Wilson shortly after that 2003 meeting. At the next meeting between the agency and client, Wilson said he sensed some tension in the room, and wanted to do something about it. He then produced bags of candy, Cochrane said. “It took the tension out of the room,” she said. “We don’t have that kind of tension today, but we always look for something that’s fun.”

Despite the 50th anniversary love fest, Cochrane and Abnee are quick to admit that maintaining the relationship requires hard work. Meetings are still fraught with pressure, feelings can get hurt and people will sometimes say things they don’t mean. But both Cochrane and Abnee said their commitment to the relationship is strong within both organizations, and the relationship is much more stable than it was four years ago. “There were a lot of people before us, and there are going to be a lot of people after us,” Abnee said. “At some point there has to be a core commitment to the brand.”