Pitching: when is it time to walk away from a long-standing relationship?

What better time than on the eve of Valentine's Day to ask when should an agency break up with a brand when the latter calls a review?

One of the most high-profile agency/client relationships has suffered an acrimonious break-up in the form of Virgin Media and Bartle Bogle Hegarty London. 

BBH has declined to repitch for the cable TV and internet provider’s ad account, with an agency spokesman plaintively expressing being "surprised and disappointed" by Virgin Media’s decision to call a review

It follows recent refusals to repitch last year from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which split with Twinings, and BMB, the incumbent for AG Barr’s Rubicon.

In a fiercely competitive market, how do agencies decide when it’s worth giving up on an account without a fight? 

A media agency leader tells Campaign that a decision to not repitch comes about when the agency believes it has "no chance of retaining the business".

He explained: "Almost always, it’s because of a complete breakdown of relationships – either agency-specific (aggressive non-transparency, continuous stream of crap work, too much bullshit, painfully poor servicing) or client side (crap fees, dysfunctional internal decision-making, a brand or company in huge competitive distress but unwilling to admit it)."

But is this always the case? What are the signs of optimism to look for that may suggest a relationship could still be salvaged when a brand calls a review?  

Martin Jones

Managing partner, AAR

Agencies are an optimistic breed, but if a client has suggested that they want to see other people, they need to ask two questions. Do they genuinely want us to win or are they just being "polite"? We know that some clients will ask agencies to repitch as a matter of "courtesy", with no intention of retaining them, so agencies need to have honest conversations with their clients and themselves and trust their instincts – a much undervalued skill.

Sometimes, relationships run out of steam and you agree to separate on good terms, rather than stay together for the sake of the children.

Sara Tate

Chief executive, TBWA\London

"And it's too late, baby now, it's too late, though we really did try to make it," the ever-insightful Carole King sang.  Around Valentine's, we can all recall treasured relationships that we were highly committed to but didn’t last forever. In client relationships – as in life – things change.

Market forces switch, competitors shift, businesses evolve, teams switch over. Sometimes these changes mean the client and agency are no longer the perfect match. And when the relationship itself gets in the way of creating the best work and results, it’s time to "consciously uncouple" whilst remaining grateful for the good work, the good times and the good memories.

Suki Thompson

Chair, Oystercatchers; executive director, Xeim

It’s not just about adjusting the rate card, it’s about wholesale change. The traditional roster agency set-up has long gone; now brands increasingly need to be forward-facing, with multichannel solutions.

Today’s complex brands need to work out what they need to insource, outsource and co-create, and where true creative genius and strategic thinking play a role.

Some clients and agencies have manged to evolve together; others need a sharp intake of breath to drive change. If the underlying relationship is strong and both sides have a desire to change, then they can still be bedfellows; if not, then both sides should walk away. There are, after all, other fish in the sea! 

Neil Munn

Chief executive, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London

Nobody likes to walk away from a relationship, especially a long-standing one. Pride can be an unhelpful wingman, as can the added pressure of a deadline. But today we have two particular responsibilities as leaders. We must defend our agency’s value and we must instil our business with confidence and conviction.

Uncertain times demand this. It is not easy, but it is the right decision if you want to go the course. If a relationship is going to be a burden, then let it go, say thank you and move on so that both parties can prosper.

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