Manners still matter in adland

In the wake of BBH's switch from Waitrose to Tesco, Campaign's global editor-in-chief looks at both sides of the agency-client relationship

LONDON — When the news broke last week that Bartle Bogle Hegarty was parting company with Waitrose (adspend: £25 million) to take on Tesco (adspend: £110 million), someone sent me an old quote by David Abbott. When faced with a similar choice – dump one client for a much larger one – Abbott reportedly said: "Well, it would be good for our bottom line, but terribly bad manners."

Did Abbott really say that? I’m not sure, but it seems exactly the sort of thing he would say. And it was a sentiment echoed by quite a few seasoned ad people (not many of them with Abbott’s crowning reputation for decency) as the Tesco news spread. BBH had displayed very bad form by ditching Waitrose.

The simple moral view is that agencies should treat their clients with decency and respect. If they don’t, how can they expect to receive the same sort of decorum from their marketer paymasters? Well, of course. Every time a new marketer swans in and calls a pitch that rides roughshod over a great long-term relationship or courts rival agencies without having the decency to inform the incumbent; every time a client asks an agency to pay to pitch or runs an online auction for its creative account; every time these bad business practices occur, the put-upon agencies rightly call foul.

But the ground gets shaky if agencies can also be accused of bad practice; when agencies treat their own clients poorly, the high ground crumbles. So BBH has done the industry no favous; if agencies chase the money and put profit before protocol, how can they expect clients to be any different?

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. Read Maisie McCabe’s take on the new relationship for the background, but remember this is the first time in its history that BBH has ever parted company with one brand to take on a bigger competitor; it won’t have done that without a lot of soul-searching once the calculator had been given a good thumping. Reputation and respect have always been touchstones for the agency; even after the sale of BBH to Publicis Groupe, I don’t believe the agency would risk compromising this hard-won positioning for a quick (intensely challenging) buck.

Even so, all those who last week privately criticized BBH for "bad manners" have a point, even if it’s not absolutely applicable here. "Good manners" still have a vital role to play in the ad industry if we are to stave off the commoditization of the business and fight for a fair price for quality (in service, output and attitude). Relationships are things to be invested in – by both sides – and partnerships are infinitely preferable to contracts that can be easily ripped up by either party when a better offer comes along. I think – I hope – BBH would agree.

Claire Beale is global editor-in-chief of Campaign.

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