Client conflicts: trust, case studies & new business

May 1, 2014

TBWA CMO Laurie Coots recently wrote a good article on the client conflicts issue in AdAge. Specifically, requirements that agencies not work on any competitor's business, often including their unrelated businesses.

I agree with Ms Coots: The conflicts requirements seem to go beyond reason, especially when compared to other creative, consulting or service providers (vendors). Even within advertising we have vertical-specialty agencies where category conflicts are not an issue. You also see it in direct, design, SEO, etc. But when it comes to advertising or the big stuff, it's generally a problem for clients. And agencies.

Ms Coots identified the key issue: Trust. Clients don't trust agencies. But, why should they?

Confidential client strategies and data are shared for the asking. Or even without the asking. Search consultants like SRI advise agencies to develop detailed case studies, which, by definition require sharing confidential information. RFPs ask for "billings by client." Do consultancies or lawyers share billings billings by client? Of course not.

So the recommended solution is to gain trust by protecting confidential information, and in Ms Coot's words, making it "non-negotiable." (It's negotiable?) OK, that's easy to agree with, in theory. ("In theory," because most agencies don't, but more on that in a sec.)

I don't, however, agree with Ms Coots' physical separation as a means of ensuring that protection. Yes, for Nissan-sized clients that could work - building out separate space, systems and duplicating staff (when agencies actually do duplicate staff). But not for smaller clients, and most clients are much smaller. It adds costs that need to be covered, meaning the client will pay more to enable the agency to enjoy the extra business gained by creating agencies within agencies. Good for agency; pricey for client. Besides, when it comes to big clients, aren't there enough agencies to go around?

We agree that the best solution is trust, but I suggest that trust starts by taking close look at an agency's willingness to share client problems and results (aka case studies, aka confidential information) as part of the new business process or otherwise. If it hasn't been reported by the client to the public, it's off-limits, proprietary, confidential. Agencies should just say no to requests for detailed case studies. And billings. How better to prove trustworthiness, especially to a new client, than to walk the walk?

Some prospective clients and all pitch consultants will get annoyed at this honoring of other clients' strategies, tactics and data. But a reminder is in order: If an agency shares other clients' proprietary data and strategies, it will share yours, too. 

Let's face it, the whole agency pitch process is where the distrust begins. But it's also fairly easy to figure out who to trust.

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