Love’s Labors Lost: Behind the Breakups

NEW YORK In lamenting another failed romantic relationship, a Woody Allen character once referred to the neurotic woman in question, saying, “You always think you’ll be the one who changes them.”

Sometimes that reflection is at the root of short-lived agency-client relationships. Just ask the multitudinous agencies that have filled Coke’s dance card in the last five years.

This past month, two shops that paired with notoriously fickle clients saw those relationships end during what should have been the honeymoon phase.

MDC Partners’ Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami parted with Gateway after just 10 months, and Subway left Omnicom Group’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco after 11 months to consolidate at independent shop MMB in Boston.

Many say there are obvious warning signs of a poor client fit—from management instability to a history of agency churn. And there are advertisers who, because they are beholden to dealers, bottlers or franchisees, are almost certain to have a built-in degree of difficulty.

Aside from the understandable thirst for revenue, why do agencies ignore the red flags, thinking they’ll be the one “that changes them”?

Before landing at Goodby, the Milford, Conn.-based Subway was at Publicis Groupe’s Fallon in Minneapolis for just eight months. It had reviewed its $340 million ad account twice in the past two years, the second time halting the process and handing it to Goodby.

Subway CMO Chris Carroll, who resigned last month after six years with the company, said Goodby’s executions failed to please the conservative franchisees.

“Goodby does great work. Fallon does great work,” Carroll said. “A brand like ours that moves so much faster, when you get the principals of an agency like MMB who are working on your business every day, it just works.”

The glory of heroism is also a factor in why agencies ignore the obvious. Jeff Goodby offered the following explanation when asked last week why his agency wanted Subway, despite indications that the client would likely resist the type of brand-image work Goodby is typically known for in favor of retail-focused, more tactical spots.

“Because I’m a stupid optimist,” Goodby joked. “It’s either optimism or masochism. You always think you’ll get a hold of a client and figure out a way to find an ingenious place to go.”

Goodby cited the surprising success of Miami-based Burger King, which had worked with six agencies in five years before parking its $315 million account at CP+B in 2004.

“It’s always good [if a difficult client] is having business problems, because they’re probably willing to take more chances,” Goodby reasoned, in regard to BK and CP+B. “Subway was a healthy business.”

BK execs were not available for comment.

For all of CP+B’s success with BK, it couldn’t crack the code with Gateway. In a statement, CP+B pointed to differences over strategic direction for the $15 million account-a sentiment the Irvine, Calif.-based Gateway echoed. CP+B executives were unavailable for further comment.

Gateway also had a tendency to roam; it had six agencies in the past seven years, including an eight-month stint in-house.

As for Coke, one source who has worked on the business said agencies are well aware of the punishment involved in creating Coke ads, but that the brand remains irresistible. “Every kid who disappointed his parents by going into advertising instead of medicine or law wants to be able to go home for the holidays and say, ‘I’m working on Coke. I’m working on the world’s most famous brand,'” the exec said. “Besides, anything you can conceive of in terms of a marketing idea, they can do it. You want to put Coke on a rocket ship to the moon? They can do it.”

There are also warning signs telling clients they may have tapped the wrong agency, adds Ian Rowden, who has held senior marketing positions at Coke and Calloway Golf and is now Wendy’s CMO.

Clients usually come to agencies with a clear perspective on their business and a plan to either keep it on track or to develop a “counter track,” Rowden said. “Agencies that don’t accept that tend to fall into relationship issues.” So do those that think they know more about a client’s business than the client, he added.

Heineken USA representative Dan Tearno said that kind of an attitude from agencies can be particularly problematic when a client has other constituencies to satisfy, such as bottlers or distributors. The latter don’t select the advertising, but “they know their own markets very well,” Tearno said, and they’ll demand answers from the company if the product isn’t moving.

Tearno, who also worked for Miller Brewing Co. and Molson USA, said agency executive changes or interagency strife can also put clients ill at ease. Without commenting on specific situations, he noted that Heineken USA has had four agencies in the past 10 years, two of which no longer exist: Wells, Rich, Greene and D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. Publicis in New York now handles Heineken.

As for Goodby, he is philosophical about why agencies chase potentially difficult clients.

“Advertising people tend to believe that, given the right circumstances, everybody will like them,” he explained. “It may be delusional and arrogant, but it’s true.”

—with Aaron Baar and Andrew McMains