Three-quarters of clients stay with their agencies for more than three years, according to research by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA). Some stay far longer - Unilever and J Walter Thompson's alliance is 100 years old this year, for example.
At the other end of the scale, however, one-quarter of advertisers work with agencies they have known for fewer than three years. And for some the shoot-through rate is much speedier. Men's retailer Peter Werth managed to get through three agencies in 15 months, and Gossard recently notched up its fourth appointment in just over 12 months. These are the serial clients.
That agencies suffer in these situations goes without saying. The toughest economic period since the early 90s means that agency new business directors must chase every potential new account, even if they suspect that a fruitful long-term relationship won't be coming their way.
"In this climate, agencies will forgo safety for opportunity," says Justin Cernis, managing director of Barrett Cernis, the first in the chain of shops to service Peter Werth. "Most agencies are willing to take the risk if there's a chance of some incremental revenue."
Clients also suffer the consequences of short-term relationships with agencies. Significant amounts of time and money are spent on reviews and clients must accept a period of 'bedding-in' with every new agency while account staff learn about the client's business. ISBA research 'Evaluating Advertising Agency Performance', 1999 shows that relationships of between three and ten years yield the best levels of agency reliability and responsiveness, as well as honest communications between the two sides.
But there is an interesting caveat to the conclusion that long relationships are the best. ISBA's study also discovered that agency/client relationships of fewer than three years are characterised by much higher levels of creativity by the agency, providing some justification to clients that review when they feel the creatives are no longer firing on all cylinders.
Switching agencies to maximise creative firepower might sound like a reasonable proposition, but clients that hawk their business around town on a regular basis will lose one very important element of good branding - consistency.
"Agencies have a congenital desire to do something different," says Hamish Pringle, director-general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). "The chances are low that they will want to continue with the same brand handwriting that the previous agency has established. But you veer away from creative consistency at your peril. Customers actually like relative consistency and will react badly to an advertising identity that chops and changes."
There are various reasons why the advertising accounts of some clients are moved around so often. The need to switch agencies can be driven by a highly dynamic business environment. Vodafone doesn't fit the classic model of the serial client, having worked with BMP DDB for five years until February 2001. But it appointed WCRS for what turned out to be a relationship of little more than a year, before bringing in J Walter Thompson for the global account. Similarly, Wieden & Kennedy was brought in for the international business in May last year, only for JWT to supersede it a year later.
A Vodafone spokesman emphasises that the company is keen on long-term relationships, but points to the swift changes it has gone through during the past two years, making major acquisitions in the US, Japan, Germany, China and Spain. Put simply, the Wieden & Kennedy appointment was made when Vodafone needed an agency with a hot creative reputation. One year later, with the company swelled by more global acquisitions, it needed an agency with the network resources of JWT.
More often, however, swift agency changes are made for much less strategic reasons.
Media clients are notoriously impatient about the work their ad agencies produce and are apt to up sticks at the merest hint that the creatives have lost their zing or the account management is less than 100% responsive.
In its frustration at losing circulation, the Daily Express tore through four agencies in just over a year in the late 90s. The battle was always between the editorial department wanting to promote the latest scoop and marketing wanting a more brand-led approach. Caught in the crossfire were the agencies, trying to please both sides and inevitably ending up with less than satisfactory ads.
Media clients often harbour an aggressive internal culture that can mean agencies are kept on very short leashes, with little possibility of developing trusting relationships.
"It was so focused on the quarterly sales figures," says one agency new business director of his former broadcast client. "If it missed the target the agency would be out, even though there were all kinds of reasons that the sales might have been off."
Retailers also have a reputation for regarding ad agencies as they would their suppliers of fixtures and fittings. With marketing often of less seniority than operations and buying, advertising tends to be bought in as an after-thought. That many SME retailers are owned and managed by the entrepreneurs that founded them doesn't help.
"When you have one decision-maker who doesn't have to justify himself to a board, and you're spending their money, it increases the chances that that they will hire and fire on a whim," says a new business director whose agency worked on a high street fashion retail account for three months. "He never seemed that comfortable with the idea of working with an outside agency." The account subsequently went in-house.
The single most common reason for a serial client is that the account changes every time a new chief marketer joins. "So few marketing people make it to the main board that their careers are made by moving sideways," says Pringle. "Few marketers seem conscious of the history of their brand. There's a strong sense of 'history begins with me'."
Part of the problem in this case is that the influence of the 'old mates' network is strong. And this trend has been taken to extremes. Richard Desmond's friend Jeremy Beadle was brought in early last year to film a TV ad for the Daily Express, while dot-com insurance brand Esure is currently running TV ads made by Michael Winner, a friend of Esure founder Peter Wood.
When a marketing chief takes over a relationship heavily based on personal ties, there is often trouble. After bringing in Partners BDDH to replace Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO on the Gossard account, chief executive Brian Duffy lost patience with the agency after three months. TBWA was brought in, without a pitch, solely on the basis of the strength of his relationship with its creative director Trevor Beattie. Beattie's creative team was responsible for the iconic 'Hello Boys' ads for Wonderbra, reporting to Duffy at the client.
But new Gossard marketing director Shaeren McKenzie had had no say in TBWA's appointment and inherited the relationship when Duffy left Gossard the following March. McKenzie and Beattie had differing views of how lingerie should be marketed and TBWA was soon replaced by WARL. "Gossard is not Wonderbra," says McKenzie. "There's no point using the same strategy."
Using personal contacts to make agency appointments is inevitable and understandable, but it works better in PR, where individuals will be working directly with the client. Most personal contacts in the ad world are between marketers and agency directors - who will have little day-to-day contact with the account.
"Marketers will be disappointed if they make an agency choice on the back of a couple of people they know, only to discover that the agency doesn't have the right competency," says Andrew Melsom, managing director of consultancy Agency Insight.
Many reasons and a few benefits
Applying a less than rigorous approach to agency selection may be a big contributor to becoming a serial client, but sometimes it is in an organisation's interests to be a serial client. Coca-Cola, for example, is known for giving bits of its ad business to creative hotshops, not only on the basis that it can benefit from new creative thinking, but also so that competitors won't be able to work with them.
Likewise, some clients are suspected of making agency changes when under financial pressure. "It's a visible, easy way of demonstrating to the City that you're making changes," says an agency insider.
Martin Jones, managing director of the AAR, believes part of the reason why some client/agency relationships don't last is that the burgeoning number of types of ad agency make it more difficult to decide which is most appropriate for the business.
Either way, thinks the IPA's Pringle, the increasing role of purchasing people in the appointment of agencies will iron out some of the less well considered agency appointments. But will it? Others think that, with their minds fixed more on costs, purchasing people could encourage agency switching in order to push down fees.
McKenzie is indignant about the publicity that Gossard's spat with TBWA generated. "It annoys me when people say Gossard can't make its mind up," she says. "Why don't people consider that the agencies weren't getting it? Getting good work from agencies isn't easy."
WHY WE TOLERATE SERIAL CLIENTS
Trevor Beattie, chairman and creative director TBWA/London
All the best advertising is born of long, strong relationships, right? We all know that. And if we didn't, we could always call The Economist, PlayStation, Levi's, John Smith's, fcuk, Stella or VW and we'd have it confirmed in a heartbeat.
Why then do us 'umble agency folk constantly fall for the fatal lure of the promiscuous trollop (to coin a business metaphor)? Are we mad? Do we never learn? Nope and nope.
We're optimists, plain and simple. That's what keeps us going.
How could you ever fully commit to a pitch if you didn't believe, deep down, that you'd be the one to change them, even though their track record suggests they change their shops more often than they change their pants?
We have to believe. We're in the belief business.
That even extends to the faint belief that the agency inheriting the account from you might one day do something, anything, special.
And that's because we know in our hearts that life with a serial client is about as secure as being dangled by your head from a fifth-floor balcony above a bunch of screaming Germans.
HOW NOT TO BE A PROMISCUOUS CLIENT
Suki Thompson, managing director Haystack Group
First, be explicit about the tasks you want the agency to perform and the relationship it will have with your company. If the relationship is a new one, give the agency a chance to prove itself, but when you decide a review is needed, don't keep the incumbent agency in the running for the sake of it.
If you want to work with a mate from your past, that's fine - just move the business. Don't put agencies through a long, expensive pitch process if you have a desired outcome but need to be seen as 'fair'. It's not fair.
Look at your own business. If the internal processes, people and communications are better than the external relationship, find an agency that can complement your team. If you believe you can improve the way you work internally, it may be better to work on this first before attending to the external agency relationships.
Pitching can be a great way to help change your direction and can help provide focus for your team. But pitch promiscuity is damaging the industry.
It gives clients a bad name, it's time-consuming and expensive for agencies (and for clients) and often ends up leading to another pitch 12 months later.
THE AGENCY MERRY-GO-ROUND
Jan 1993 - June 2001 Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
June 2001 - Oct 2001 Partners BDDH
Oct 2001 - Jul 2002 TBWA
Aug 2002 - present WARL
Dec 2000 - Dec 2001 Barrett Cernis
Dec 2001 - Feb 2002 Clemmow Hornby Inge
Feb 2002 - Mar 2002 Malcolm Moore Deakin Hutson
Mar 2002 - present Ads created in-house
Jan 1996 - Feb 2001 BMP DDB
Feb 2001 - May 2002 WCRS
Jan 2002 - present J Walter Thompson (appointed for
European account, extended to global
account in May)
Jan 1994 - Jul 1994 Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Jul 1994 - Sep 1994 Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters
Jul 1994 - Apr 2001 Clinic (formerly Design Clinic)
May 1996 - Dec 1997 Branded
Jan 1998 - Feb 1999 M&C Saatchi
Aug 1999 - Feb 2001 St Luke's
Feb 2001 - present Bates
Oct 1998 - July 1999 TBWA
Jan 2001 - Dec 2001 Delaney Lund Knox Warren
Mar 2001 - Mar 2002 BMP DDB
Mar 2002 - present Mother
Feb 1997 - Apr 1998 Lowe Howard-Spink
Apr 1998 - Dec 1998 Leo Burnett
Jan 1999 - Dec 1999 St Luke's
Jan 2000 - Dec 2000 The Bridge
This article was first published on Marketing