Why do marketers really fire their agencies?

Human beings are notoriously emotional and often irrational. But we would like to think we are totally rational.

Marketers are no different. In fact, rational feedback and reasons are often provided to justify what is largely an emotional response to a relationship. Being able to read between the lines on what is being said is insightful into understanding what is really happening underneath. This takes either incredible emotional intelligence, or being a pitch doctor on the inside, or both.

It is all about the relationship

Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying. It is a people business and what happens between the marketer and their agencies is relationship driven.

You see marketing, and especially marketing communications as a profession, is inclined to attract people who are very people oriented. This means that relationships are important to them. So when a marketer tells their agency “We have outgrown you”, is it usually code for “We have fallen out of love”?

Proof of this is seen in the reverse situation when a new CMO is appointed. If they do not instantly fall in love with the incumbent agency, often one of the first things they will do is fire the incumbent and appoint a new agency. Of course this will be perfectly rationalised by stating that they need a fresh team aligned to their fresh idea for the brand, but this happens before the incumbents have had a chance to prove themselves.

And in discussing the need for a pitch, we will hear a litany of perfectly valid reasons for undertaking a pitch, and one of the key areas we explore is the relationship with the incumbents. Here is where with probing you find that the sum of the parts equals an underlying whole, which is they no longer feel the love and commitment.

The challenge for marketers

The issue for marketers is how to articulate this in a professional business environment. Saying, “I feel like you don’t love us anymore” or “I don’t love you” or even “I love someone else” feels more appropriate in a daytime drama than in a corporate office. Therefore feeling constrained in having these conversations, marketers will resort to more rational (and acceptable feedback) for the agency.

The problem is that the agency will often respond to the specific feedback and not the underlying cause. This will exacerbate the marketer’s feeling because they are now left feeling misunderstood and that if the agency was truly aligned to the needs of the brand / business (read their needs) the agency would know what to do.

Proof is in the marketer’s denial

If you ask a marketer about this, it is most likely they will deny it. Often we find ourselves having these conversations with marketers, only to have them resort to more rational excuses and feedback when confronted by the incumbent.

The cause is two fold: The first is that it requires a high level of trust to be able to have these discussions and provide this level of feedback. The second is that marketers will feel that the more emotional feedback would be embarrassing and difficult for the agencies to hear and they are protecting their agency with more rational and tangible feedback.

I have personally been involved in a situation where the marketer was unable to share with the incumbent the real reason the relationship had faltered, which was the fact that the new executive creative director was inclined to be dismissive and diminishing of the marketing team.

The feedback provided was that the creative work was substandard. The agency was in disbelief as the only change to the creative department was the ECD appointment and the ECD had a world-class reputation.

When I shared the real reason with the agency, as per the agreed strategy with the marketer, they denied it when confronted over the issue by the agency CEO and resorted to talking about the creative standard. It was more acceptable than facing the reality.

The critical relationship moments

It is interesting that these situations occur at very specific points in the marketer / agency relationship.

First, as mentioned, is the appointment of a new lead. Here the agency must rely on having the person fall in love with them. This can be hit and miss as you already come with the baggage of being the incumbent. But some research and the right appointment of staff on the front line of the account can help.

The next critical time is following the appointment. After a year or so, sometimes unfortunately less, the honeymoon period will end. This is a critical time and one that can be minimised by entering the new relationship the way you want to continue it. Rather than rely on the good intentions of the honeymoon, start the relationship management from day one with reviews, feedback, proactivity and openness.

The next is quiet periods, when there is little or no work on the account. As an agency you need to stay in touch to stay top of mind and relevant, but not look like you are wasting money by killing time.

And finally is when a result is bad and the marketer is under performance pressure. Any weakness in the relationship can leave the agency open to being the scapegoat for the poor performance.

What can agencies do about it?

Ultimately it is about setting up the relationship for success and realising that nothing stays the same forever. It requires building a high level of trust and emotional alignment. Agencies need to be able to understand both the rational and the deeper emotional relationship. But of course there is a time when even that is not enough.

An abridged version of this post first appeared in SoDA Report 2H 2014 and on Slideshare here.

It also appeared on MediaPost November 5, 2014 here.