There's a saying in the building-contractor world that goes something like this: There is cheap, fast, and good. At any time, you can have two of those, but you can never have all three at once.
To clarify, you can get something done fast and cheap, but it generally won't be good. You can get something cheap and good, but it will take time. And you can get something good and fast, but be prepared to pay for it.
If only agency relationships in the PR industry could be quantified so easily. Some clients not only expect all three, but also will throw a few more angles into the geometry - none of which are necessarily unreasonable to ask of a PR firm. Discretion, creativity, accuracy, to be sure. Exclusivity is another, though the definition of it will depend hugely on the category.
In fact, navigating client conflicts is a more and more complex function of the increasingly global PR industry. At one time in the not-so-distant past, it was possible to have a firm that worked for one light-bulb manufacturer in Singapore and a different light-bulb manufacturer in France.
Those days are fading fast as businesses look for integrated global messages, want greater competitive advantage, seek centralized strategy, bring procurement into the mix, and make greater demands on their partners of all kinds. The situation has changed, too, as more firms are able to offer truly global service and strategy than ever before. Slim pickings on a global scale before probably made compromise a necessity.
Like several other rigors of client relationships that agencies moan about (think procurement), client conflict methodology has its roots in the healthcare arena. Agencies working within specific healthcare categories will be precluded from working for a number of granular, adjacent categories, which, combined, nearly excludes the agency from accepting any new business.
Technology organizations will work on a more company-specific model. If you work for Dell, you don't work for Hewlett-Packard, for example. While more clear-cut, perhaps, it is no less intractable.
The rules are changing. The landscape is growing more crowded with caveats and exceptions. Meanwhile, clients want highly qualified pros with sector-specific experience to work in their space, which does much to explain the endemic talent poaching that takes place between agencies.
Firms are also expected to apply enormous amounts of rigor to their internal data protection systems and must find ways to apply agnostic judgment to decisions that pit one region of the firm against another in claiming new business because of existing conflicts.
None of this is surprising or even wrong. But like many things, they begin with the large firms and trickle down to smaller ones, big clients to small ones. Conflict problems will only increase, creating the next frontier in agency business development.
And as we saw with Weber Shandwick and Coke last week, some conflicts are even tougher ones to call. Corporate social responsibility, population healthcare issues, environmental concerns, and labor force changes will lay the groundwork for issues-led conflicts that will demand foresight and rigor to avoid.