Creating lasting relationships with promiscuous partners

The president of KBS Toronto offers five tips to beat the odds in an age of professional hookups

There’s been a lot of talk about the end of "Mad Men." (Spoiler alert!) And, while I loved Don’s journey to the hill with the Coke, what I’m left thinking about is not the perfect ending to an epic series. I’m thinking about the evolution of the AOR relationship.

The episode was set in 1971 — almost 45 years ago. Even after all that time, Coke is still a client with McCann. In fact, if you check out McCann’s website, it’s showcasing the ad from that episode on its homepage as "new work." Nice move, McCann.

These days, 45-plus year agency-client relationships are next to unheard of. For that matter, any relationship lasting that long is an exception, not a norm.

Some figures: in 1984, the average client-agency relationship tenure was 7.2 years. By 1997 that number had declined by 25% to 5.3 years. Today, the average client-agency tenure is less than three years.

The question is, why? What’s driving the decline in lasting client-agency hookups?

Maybe we’ve become promiscuous partners. Like how Don and Roger Sterling handled their sexual exploits: the thrill of the chase, conquest, then moving on.

Maybe it’s because there are too many of us to choose from, making it easier to see agencies as commodities in which price is the key differentiator. E-auctions, like the one executed by InBev earlier this year — at once criticized by the industry and accepted by the agencies involved — are agency-client Tinder.

Or, maybe it’s that we don’t value the same system of partnering for the long haul – and the inevitable need to work through the ebbs, flows and plateaus.

It’s easy on the agency side to blame our "cheating" client partners on the revolving door of CMOs, whose average lifespan has actually improved to 3.75 years. And maybe it’s those dreaded procurement people, whose sole purpose is to put agencies into race-to-zero-profit cockfights.

Sure, all that’s had an impact on our business. But it can’t all be the clients’ fault. What is it agencies are doing, or not doing, that’s different from our predecessors from 45 years ago and beyond?

For one, we’ve bought into our own revolving door of talent.

Why did clients stick with agencies back in the day? Because clients stuck with people, and for that matter, they still do. They formed partnerships that were lasting, not fleeting. They grew through the ranks together. They had a mutual desire to help each other succeed throughout their careers, and many stayed connected long after. These days, we’re proud to celebrate a five-year employee tenure as a major milestone within an agency.

And maybe it’s more than that.

Like any relationship, time can make you take your partner for granted, hit the gym a little less, wear sweatpants around the house and stop giving them the same level of attention they got during the courting phase. With time, love fades, and the once-loved will start looking elsewhere.

Agencies aren’t monogamous, either. We expect our marketing partners’ loyalty while we go about chasing all the tail we can find, while camouflaging conflicts as "category expertise." Are we always giving our oldest and most loyal clients the attention they deserve?

Anyway, if promiscuity is here to stay, what can we do to encourage our wandering partners to commit to longer lasting relationships?

My top five tips for dating a promiscuous marketing partner:

1. Find out what makes them tick, and make an effort. Every day.

2. Operate in a permanent honeymoon phase. Continue to dote on them well beyond the initial months together. Never let them feel like you’ve lost interest.

3. Never go to bed angry. Suck it up and be the first to apologize after a disagreement.

4. Stay fit, stay sharp and stay healthy. Stay on top of trends, technology, and the latest category insights. Don’t give them any reason to look elsewhere.

5. Most important, listen. Too often we think that because we’re consultants we should talk to showcase value (All. The. Time.). Take a breath for a second and open your ears. You’ll be amazed at the cues you pick-up and how they’ll help a relationship flourish.

Or, maybe I’ve missed the mark and the true key to success is to buy your partner a Coke.

Nick Dean is president of KBS Toronto.

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