Re-engineering the client-agency relationship

We have seen with increasing frequency how vital, bedrock accounts have been lining up their agencies and putting them on death watches. Some have left, ending long standing and once glorious relationships. But a few others have surprised even themselves by sticking with agencies that had built their brands–a gutwrenching, sometimes humiliating rat maze that forces old, tired agencies to re-invent themselves and respond, not so much with slick new storyboards, but with new structures and relevancy.
The emerging buzzword for all of this is re-engineering. It refers to the rewiring of the structural system upon which a company is based. And it has worked in several highly publicized cases this year and last. The first and most surprising was the Oldsmobile review in which venerable Leo Burnett was able to change and shift and rework itself to hold on to an account that had apparently already closed the garage door behind it. It required shuttering an office in Southfield, Mich. It required dedicating high level people–right up to and including then chairman Rick Fizdale–to concentrate on the account in ways and under structures that had never before existed. And it meant that the tradition-worshiping Burnerr couldn’t spend too much time worrying about how these changes might affect its own agency culture or its image as an unchanging giant. Burnett had to admit that it hadn’t been listening well. It had to move people or let them go and it had to put more energy and focus into this franchise account, because, to its stewards, losing an account was worse than maintaining the status quo.
Another example, although not without some blemish, was DDB Needham’s blitz of re-engineering to retain the GTE account. When word came that the account was in jeopardy, the agency formed a task force of its disparate units in Hawaii, Los Angeles, Dallas and New York and got them all reporting to one team leader, Andy Berlin. Then Berlin formed “an agency within an agency,” Focus GTE, and literally focused its entire efforts on GTE while still being able to draw on Needham worldwide resources if necessary. In the end, GTE stayed with Needham–but as Berlin was in the process of handing off his assignment to DDB Needham Worldwide vice chairman John Bradstock (who had to relocate his family to Dallas), a significant portion of the account went to Temerlin McClain/Dallas.
And then there was the creation of PentaCorn, the new media buying and planning unit for Chrysler. It seems that Chrysler’s top management had assigned some of its young managers to study companies that truly worked, and then come back and tell the big boys what they should do to emulate their success. The recommendation was to tear down the walls and re-engineer the company completely. So the management elite bought into the idea (as long as it started somewhere lower than their floor) and different layers began thinking about how to restructure. Finally, that poor stepchild of modern industry–marketing–was selected to be the first to implement these changes. The result was a call for a media review between Chrysler’s three agencies, BBDO, Bozell and CME. All three shops made some form of razzle dazzle presentation, but, according to one source, Bozell’s Leo Arthur Kelmenson wouldn’t stop harping on what he felt was the ridiculousness of the review in the first place.
What was broke, and why were we forcing a fix? Was this not change for change’s sake? The problem was, it was change that the client believed had to come, and it was the agencies’ job to make it not be just for the sake of change.
The winner turned out to be BBDO, which proposed a joint venture between itself and Chrysler and the other two shops. But the premise was to tear down the walls. Chrysler could see what its independent media buying and planning operation was doing. It was a partner. It had the books. It was based in true partnership, and it guaranteed trust. It was a response to those two fundamental issues that have been gnawing at the soul of the deteriorating client/agency relationship.
Now we watch IBM get into the same shake-it-up with its PC computers account at Lintas. And despite the able talents that are running Lintas:New York, we have to watch with great interest to see if a ship so large, sailing in a holding company sea so vast as IPG, can maneuver quickly enough to reconstruct itself in the image and substance of whatever it is IBM wants and doesn’t now receive.
But you can’t test a recipe when the guests are at your door. What this industry needs is a true test kitchen. There are at least a hundred shops around the country that are on the brink of financial ruin. Shouldn’t the big and the re-engineering-needy shops come together and buy one of them, put themselves on the board and keep the shop afloat as it does reality tests on the different theories of structures for the agency of the future? How else can you research, how else can you decide what road to follow, or what process to implement when the crises of change occur? The only alternative is to wait for the crisis, and then all we will have re-engineered is crisis management.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)