Conflict Cuts Both Ways

When I helped to start Lunar BBDO, it was created to be a ‘conflict shop’ for AMV BBDO. They had the account for The Phone Book, but also Yellow Pages, two broadly identical products, so we handled the former, allowing them to keep the latter.

The idea is that an agency shouldn’t have advertise two products in the same category because that will create conflict regarding which insights and ideas they might use for each one. In addition, the research and competitive knowledge they would have on each of the businesses could potentially be quite damaging for one or the other. For example, if the Phone Book’s account team knew that Yellow Pages was about to go entirely digital, that would give them a massive advantage over their biggest competitor.

So whether it’s cars, chocolate bars or travel agents, companies tend not to choose an agency that helps their competitors.

That said, when I worked at AMV, they were the biggest agency in the country, which meant they already had an account in most categories, limiting their potential for growth. This is where some enterprising thinking could suggest that similar products were in fact different. Perhaps one chocolate bar was aimed at the premium market, while the other was more everyday, and thus not a true competitor. I don’t know how many companies accepted such sub-differentiating, but it was worth a try.

I was thinking about this the other day, when it occurred to me that we never really consider this issue from the other side: clients often use several advertising/marketing/PR agencies, whose skills overlap. That would suggest that they are in competition with each other, and that often means problematic consequences.

Here’s an example how it works on the surface: client A has three roster agencies, X, Y and Z, providing help in publicising what they do. X, Y and Z have different core abilities (eg, social, direct, events), so they are briefed on different tasks, but when a big campaign needs to knit that work together, they are expected to be very mature about it and play nice with a good old handshake and a friendly pint after it’s all over.

In reality, as almost all of you know, it does not work anything like that. Advertising offerings are now so disparate and amorphous, and agencies are now so desperate to gain and retain any part of the pie, that everyone claims to be able to do everything. Digital agencies do design; design agencies do PR; PR agencies do brand audits etc. 

If you’re a client, not only do you now find it difficult to truly separate your roster of publicity vendors, you probably don’t want to. The competition leads to desperation, which leads to more work produced for less money, just on the off-chance that agency X can be given some of the budget and work that would have gone to agency Z. In many instances, it’s survival of the cheapest and most craven, accelerating a race to the bottom. 

Clients don’t really want to stop their agencies trying to one-up each other, and even if they did, no self-respecting agency would stay in their lane if they happened to have a good idea that belonged in someone else’s. 

And this isn’t even a new situation. In 1999 I worked on a Millennium Bug campaign (Google it, kids), which we were to present alongside complementary work from our direct marketing agency. When we turned up to the meeting with them, they had also come up with some TV ads, the very thing we were supposed to contribute. In those days you could ask them what on earth they thought they were doing; these days, colouring outside your lines is almost expected.

So now competing agencies have to decide who is leading a joint presentation, designing the deck, choosing which work lives or dies and what order it all comes in. This obviously adds extra stress, work and time to the process, particularly as there is often no definitive right or wrong. Eventually a decision must be made, and when the meeting arrives, one agency might try to undercut the work of another, while always looking as if they are actually best pals.

It’s the very definition of the conflict clients seek to avoid. One agency’s endline might now be the backbone of another agency’s TV campaign, but how does the first agency claim its credit for the contribution without looking petty and grasping? If agency X has an amazing insight that leads to fantastic work from agency Y, is it fair to just use that work for free? The clients would say, ‘Sure, one team one dream’. The agencies might ostensibly agree, while thinking, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me’’. 

At the end of the process, does it make the work better? One on side the sharing of insights and ideas should improve the overall end product, with everyone allowed to select from the best ingredients. On the other, no agency wants to make the other one look good as it could genuinely cost them the whole account. So they might push their own lesser idea that much harder, giving it lots of expensive craft to lift it above the others. Worse work? Perhaps, but at least it’ll be our worse work.

In the end, it becomes a kind of frenemy situation that must be managed with kid gloves. Each agency knows the other has a direct line to the client, so they must be on their guard 24/7. 

How can this be avoided? Well, you’d be asking a client to turn down the extra effort that is born of competition, which is basically free work. Better for them that agencies live with the conflict, no matter how serious the injuries that result.