Should clients be more understanding about potential account conflicts?

With three PR agency giants now reporting more than $500 million in revenue, client conflicts will increasingly be an industry issue going forward.

Yes

Clive Armitage, CEO, Bite Communications
Began his career in tech communications in 1990. He cofounded Bite in 1995 and became global CEO in 1998.

Having been on the agency side for more than 20 years of my career, I should be old and wise enough to accept gracefully that, when it comes to the issue of perceived conflict, clients will always have the last word - even when that last word typically results in a staunch refusal to countenance the agency working with anything deemed close to being a competitor. 

I guess you could even say I've personally benefitted from that attitude. After all, Bite itself was originally created in 1995 to solve a conflict issue between Microsoft and Apple. 

Yet I can't quite get over the feeling that, in too many instances, the refusal to allow an agency to work with a competitor is driven simply because it's easier to say "no" than to say "yes." In my experience, "no" is easier because it means less work for the client, less justification internally, and less risk all around. 

Are these really good enough reasons? Not to me. I'd like clients to be more sensitive to the fact that managing conflicts maturely and professionally is something they can trust their agency to do and is, in fact, essential if their agency is to thrive. Clients need to ask the fundamental question about why an agency would want to compromise its reputation by handling competitive work in a way that may impact client relationships. 

Sure, sometimes there will be conflicts that are just too close that coexistence wouldn't work - Coke and Pepsi anyone? In reality though, the perceived competition is often at the edge of a client's business, not at the core. Yet still we get told "no."

Agencies aren't run by dumb people. They understand that if they work with clients in competing fields, they have to ensure nothing compromises the work for either client. Ever. 

Frustratingly though, all too often, we don't get the chance to prove we can do so.

That is even more galling when one makes a cursory check of the client lists of firms in the legal or financial fields. If a client is prepared to accept that their outside legal and financial advisers can work with conflicting brands, why not in PR and communications?


No

Dave Samson, GM for public affairs, Chevron
Eight years of public affairs leadership at the multinational energy corporation

A few years back, during my agency days, my boss' line about pursuing new business was: "There are no conflicts." I didn't share her view then and I don't share it today.

During my career, I have held senior communications roles at six companies - all of them viewed conflicts seriously.

In all industries, companies vie for ideas, talent, and new opportunities. Think about it. Nike battles Adidas to woo the next generation of consumers. Ford fights daily to gain market share from GM and Toyota. Visa wants its payment cards - not MasterCard's or American Express' - in your wallet.

Communicators must motivate stakeholders to take action in the interests of our business. Our partners in this process are our PR firms - who are optimally an extension of our team.

Our agency partnerships are built on trust, candor, and transparency. We often share confidential information. If a firm is going to represent multiple businesses within the same industry - particularly a direct competitor - the likelihood for conflict is always there.

Does this mean a firm should never represent other companies in a given sector? Absolutely not.

Within days of the Gulf oil spill, I was contacted by one of our agency partners who had been approached to assist in the spill response. In the normal course of business, this could have been a conflict. But what was happening in the Gulf was impacting our entire industry. It was clear that the interests of Chevron were best served if the response in the Gulf was handled as best as possible. This is an example of a firm that addressed a possible conflict up front and responsibly.

The bottom line is that an agency needs to think carefully about the message it sends to a client when it purposely pursues that client's competitors and stridently pronounces that conflicts don't exist. It says that my company's interests are secondary to those of the agency. It says that, as a firm, you're willing to flip my business to the next highest bidder or a more prominent brand. And it suggests that you're only interested in a transactional relationship, not a lasting partnership.


PRWeek's View
With three PR agency giants now reporting more than $500 million in revenue, client conflicts will increasingly be an industry issue going forward. Agencies must find a way to handle them that is acceptable to clients.

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