by Carl Cardinelli (@CarlCardinelli) Am I the only one who feels as if our industry is being held at ransom? Clients — the very reason we exist — are holding all the cards, creating one-sided, domineering relationships. The trick is to hold an ace up our sleeves. We need a shift, and the time has come to take the power back.

We date clients, but they’re always looking for something, or someone, better

You’ve had your eye on them for a while. You know that they’ve noticed you. You’re fine that they’re seeing five other people when you first meet. You know that you’re going to impress them enough for them to drop the zeros and get with the hero. And when it happens, it’s magical. You get a call. It’s on. It’s exciting. It’s love. You learn everything there is to know about them.

But as your relationship moves forward, your relationship starts to change. You feel that you’re constantly trying to impress your significant other, but to no avail. You question their loyalty. Trust is lost. They look at other relationships and ask, “Why can’t we have that? Look how happy they are. You just don’t understand me like they understand each other”.

The worst part? You have the constant fear that they’re always looking for someone younger; and hotter.

Sad part is, you can count the marriages that have stood the test of time on one hand. I’ve always admired relationships like those of Wieden+Kennedy and Nike (34 years in April). Relationships that have gone on to build the most-successful brands, and agencies, in the world today. A decade ago in the US, the average tenure of an agency-client relationship was about seven years. Now, it is around three-and-a-half. And the trend is spreading, following upon the back of P&G’s very public announcement to slash marketing budgets, and it’s no secret that Unilever, L’Oréal SA, Coca-Cola Co., S.C. Johnson and Visa are following suit. All this to offset “slow growth” with cost cuts.

A vicious cycle

Corporates place increasing pressure upon agencies to perform, and reject their more-creative, brave work for the safer wallpaper option. This results in fewer sales spikes due to ineffective brand work, which leads to clients cutting their budgets. Then, even more pressure is placed upon agencies to perform, this time with fewer rands, despondent creatives and, now, the looming threat that, should the agency “continue” to underperform, they will be fired, along with a significant portion of their employees. Employees who presented the work that stood a better chance at being effective, but were told to “tone it down”. Clients are then obligated to go out for pitch every few years. Why? How is this healthy?

Furthermore, there are organisations which not only facilitate this, but encourage it. Ever noticed how everyone wants you while you’re in a relationship, yet when you break it off, no-one wants anything to do with you? The dating world is a cold, dark place.

We’re service providers — we sell executed imagination

When did we forget this, or allow someone to convince us otherwise? Our products include strategies, creative solutions, communications and little pieces of ourselves. So why is the worth of our product always up for negotiation? Too often, clients take a look at what we do and assume that it’s worth less money. Anyone can write a headline, right? “I can come up with an idea right now; why should I pay you money for a three-week conceptualisation phase?”

We build our careers upon building brands yet, more often than not, the brands (or the ones who control them) fail to see the true value in what we do, the part we’ve played in their existence and success.

Let’s play out a scenario:

Mechanic:  Flux Capacitor is out of Jiggawatts. Won’t be fixed ’til Thursday.
You:  Yeah, that’s not going to work. I’m going to need it Tuesday morning. I’m paying you, so do whatever it takes. Get your junior mechanics to work over the weekend. By the way, I’m not paying what it’s worth. Even better, I’m not paying you at all. If I like your work, I’ll pay. Yeah, that sounds good. One more thing. I’d like you to log all of your hours on this system. It’ll take you an extra three hours to log said hours, but to be honest, I just don’t trust you. Oh, be a champ and round ’em down, will ya?
Mechanic:  [Expletive deleted]

A doctor sells time. Do you pay her what you think her time is worth? Nope. You pay her what she asks for, and you don’t generally question her medical opinion, do you? Yet people who are in no way qualified critique our work. Doctors provide a service. Doctors train for seven years to charge those rates. We never stop. If we did, we’d be left for dead or dying. Not a good place to be when you’ve just lowballed your doctor.

Do you know what a synonym for client is? Consumer. Clients are our consumers. “A person or organisation using the services of a professional person or company.” Key word is “professional”. Point being: clients are not our employers. Mind = blown.

All right mate, have some cheese with your wine. What’s the solution?

Now, to address the elephant in the room. Everything you have read up until now is pretty much a meaningless ramble unless paired with one fundamental fact.

Everything we do, we do for the client.

So how do we break the cycle? The answer is simpler than you think. The answer is no. Say no to unrealistic demands. Push back. Fight for what you believe to be right. Simple? What if you have 50 staff members supported by that one particular client? I’ll get to that.

The trick is not to service clients. The trick is to service brands

PUSH BACK. If we are good at what we do, and I believe that the creative industry in South Africa is among the best in the world, we owe it to our clients to push back. Do what’s right for the brand, not Henry in procurement. We’ve been trained, and read up every day on what’s happening in our industry. Yet procurement still questions the value of what we do. Preaches growth via “trimming the fat”. Well, pardon me, Henry, but the fat is the best bloody part. That’s where all the flavour is.

Create a new cycle

Consider this. Most of us have, have had, or will have that client. The one which demands more (for less), shoots down brave and innovative solutions (for the played-out “well-it-worked-three-years-ago” approach), and treats your entire agency as their own personal workhorse. They’ve taken the power from you. Good. Fine. Let’s play ball.

So you pitch for some medium/large business. It’s exciting. Scary. You’re brave. You eat pizza. Sometimes, double folding. You win the pitch. But get this — not by producing stuff that worked three years ago, but work you’re proud of. The work that makes you remember why you got into this business. Euphoria. So you contact HR and begin the interview process. Time to staff up, right? No. Unless you want to restart the cycle, absolutely not. You’re just giving more of the power away, this time when you have an opportunity. To take the power back.

“We need to talk”

Call up said client. That person. Then put the pressure back on him or her.

In short, if things don’t change, respect isn’t given and, most importantly, trust isn’t given, it’s time to part ways. Rather have a stable of brands that you are proud of, and that your employees enjoy, than more money. Because some things are worth much more than money, and if you don’t believe that your staff’s happiness, satisfaction and pride tops that list, well, you deserve the date from hell.

Come to think of it, if you’re the head of anything, and you aren’t fighting tooth and nail for your team, your agency, yourself, the power is already lost.

Standing up

Every time you’re pitching, presenting or meeting with clients, collaborators or partners, ensure that you have an executive in the room who is prepared to fight for what is right. And fight hard. Don’t present on a conference call. Don’t take feedback via email. Account directors: remember who your real employers are. Where your loyalties lie. Involve clients in the process. No one knows more about their brand than they do. More so, make sure that no-one understands branding more than you. Whoever you are, if you’re in a position of power — the responsibility lies with you.

The year of the agency

Let it be said that, for the few bad apples, there are some phenomenal belters out there. Clients which place their trust in you, and get rewarded for doing so. In the meantime — kiss the frogs, date the good ’uns. Work harder on the brands which value and appreciate what you do. The clients that run your bold, creative work, rather than letting it die in an inbox.

We need to start evaluating what we do above an hourly rate. Is a positioning line developed in a couple hours that goes on to effectively position a brand with killer creative for the next 10 years work R1000? Certainly not. This is a call to arms. Fight against the twisted sense of Stockholm syndrome. Fight for your agencies. Fight for your employees. Importantly, fight for the brands you serve.

Take the power back.


Carl CardinelliCarl Cardinelli (@CarlCardinelli) began his career in branding and communications in 2003, spending the better part of six years establishing himself in London. Upon his return to South Africa in 2012, he was selected to lead Utopia, the “screw-the-line” agency based in Cape Town. When not heading up a team of unruly young admen, he can be found brewing his own beer, picking out a new pair of sneakers or travelling the globe in search of live music. Carl contributes the new monthly “The Adtagonist” column, in which he will be challenging perceptions of the advertising industry and its practices for the next generation of marketers, to

— MarkLives’ round-up of top ad and media industry news and opinion in your mailbox every Monday and Thursday. Sign up here!

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist