“Codifying Human Values: A Constitution Can Strengthen Client-Agency Partnerships” by Arthur Anderson, Adweek

Published March 6, 2006

Accountability and metrics are the calls to action today between clients and agencies. And while this is not a bad thing, it troubles me that there is little attention paid to those qualities on humanistic scales for which there are no measurements: loyalty, commitment, respect, dignity and the absence of ruthlessness and insensitivity. These are qualities we expect to give to meaningful and valued.

More than ever, clients must pay deeper attention to those elements that characterize and underpin healthy and successful client-agency relationships. Why? For some salient starters, we offer the following:

Fact: The annual global investment in marketing communications exceeds $1 trillion.

Fact: 80 percent of ineffective and inefficient work practices, such as those stemming from the weak structure of marketing communication groups, are client-driven.

Fact: Client-agency trust, loyalty and confidence are at an all-time low.

Fact: The tempo of agency reviews spins rapidly in a never-ending spiral as clients change partners and agencies lose and win clients—a very expensive practice, to be sure.

Fact: Heading the list for the 10 most threatening unresolved organizational issues is “poor communications.”

The inherent flaw in all agency reviews is that the process, by nature, is artificial. It cannot capture an essential ingredient that develops, or should develop, between a client and its agency over time.

This ingredient is the space that exists on the edge of what is and what is to come. It is where humanistic values reside in the partnership. It is a fragile space, and the only space in which creativity lives. It cannot be managed with metrics and linear thought alone.

If respect for this space is not honored or is abandoned, innovation will not thrive. Mediocrity and sameness will rule in its stead.

So, what do we do? Frame a constitution for the client-agency partnership.

Clients and their agencies need to take seriously the framing of a constitution for their partnership. This is neither a mission statement nor a feel-good document. The Partnership Constitution should:

1. Be mutually created and written to express guiding principles, checks and balances, philosophy, ideology and corporate governance tenets.

2. Clearly articulate the needs and expectations of both client and agency for one another.

3. Articulate “how we will work and how we will behave,” in pragmatic and humanistic terms.

4. Commit to individual and organizational responsibility for not playing victim, not pointing to the “other” no matter what the problem, but always strive to be part of the solution. “Each partner must assume 100 percent of the responsibility in the partnership.” Though this doesn’t work mathematically, it is an emotional and philosophical commitment to one another.

Further, we must make the Partnership Constitution actionable.

Work practices should be client-driven. Clients need to look honestly and without bias at how well (or not) they manage their agencies. Client work practices direct agencies; agencies must react. If the work-practices are not best-in-class, then improvement is necessary. Ineffective and inefficient work practices cost both the client and agency time and money.

Put an accent on accountability. Today, almost everyone has a performance evaluation system. However, it is vital to consider the true effectiveness of the program in helping both client and agency improve performance and innovation. Equally important is the level of the partners’ commitment to the process—is it a task to be dispensed with, or an important tool for continuous improvement? Also, how modern and user-friendly is the process—is it a cumbersome paper-based system, or is it Web-based? Finally, is the process fair and equitable to both parties?

Strive to renew the partnership. If a client has not taken the steps of framing a Partnership Constitution, whatever poor behavior, work practices, organizational structures and processes that are not improved in the current partnership will be perpetuated in the new one.

If a client has looked at all possibilities for staying with its agency, and the relationship is still not working, the protocols of framing a Partnership Constitution and anchoring the management of the new agency with “best practices” are as critical to the success of the agency review process as they are in maintaining a healthy, productive established partnership.


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