Is resigning a client ever the right thing to do? It can be when I think about Wrangler and Virgin

In business it’s often difficult to see the wood for the trees. In the agency business the trees are often ‘business’ issues themselves, the wood is creative output.

Let me put this into today’s context.

Recently I’ve talked with a number of agency people, all operating in the first division of the advertising sector.

The common points were a) the fun and colour has gone out of the job, b) there is less and less inspirational work around and c) clients generally are becoming more and more process and procedure driven. I would guess these are all related issues.

The obvious response has to be about the macro economic environment which is making everyone very focused on profit, collections, cash flow, banking etc. These issues feel to me as though they have become a dominant force for most people, pushing to one side the more esoteric (for some) issue of creative output.

If this is true then the once dominant creative director, the heart of the agency and usually the ‘colour’, is being forced to get back into his or her box and toe the line because of commercial considerations. I had a lot of profit before tax and margin chat with someone the other day who is essentially a creative. I don’t think we talked about creative work.

I know first hand of the trying relationship between one of the global groups and a large global client where the agency gets messed around all the time and the client seems to have scant regard for the quality of the creative output. The agency concerned though rolls with the punches and gets up smiling every time; the value of the business in income terms seems to override whatever is thrown at them.

So what do you do?

Resigning business in the best of times is very hard to do, doing so in tough times is treated with astonishment, along the lines of are you mad?

BBH did this in recent times with Levi, very brave after a very long relationship. We did it at Simons Palmer with Wrangler funnily enough. We took the decision after a lot of soul searching over many months because Wrangler had been great for us, the work had been critical to us winning other clients, in particular Nike, but in the end the interference from the US parent became untenable.

After years of being hands-off they did a 180 degree turn and began to be prescriptive in a very non-PC way. I can’t reveal the detail just in case I get in to trouble. Oh go on, I hear you asking.

A very brief summary. The brand had been a ‘me-too’ in terms of creative output and had also lost share steadily for years. Leaping forwards the creative work such as ‘Crosstown Traffic’ created clear blue water between Levi and Wrangler. The line ‘Be more than just a number’ was obviously a dig at 501 as well as the Apple thought of ‘Think Different’.

In terms of execution all the work was gritty, real life New York and Los Angeles and edgy in terms of music. Sales went up, profits went up and Wrangler started to be featured in fashion magazines, unheard of a few years earlier.

We were asked to host a meeting with the owners from the US, an apparel company called the VF Corporation from the mid-west. We thought we were about to get some gong for helping to turn the brand around but the elderly boss in his blue suit, white shirt and tie turned to me at the end of our presentation and said “Why have you got black people in the advertising”!!!

I didn’t know what to say, looked around the room for help, then attempted to explain the strategy all over again but it all fell on deaf ears. It all went downhill after that and we were under increasing pressure to create work that was portrayed the US as a white only zone and used The Eagles as a backing track.

We did try but eventually gave up and attempted to walk away with goodwill and dignity. It was the right thing to do at the time and the impact on our business was incredibly positive. Not wishing to sound like sour grapes but the ouptut afterwards became sterile and deteriorated until it vanished off the radar.

Some time later we were working with Virgin Atlantic and produced the first proper TV campaign for the airline, launching Upper Class. Everything went brilliantly until some creepy, political muppet on the client side sent a rough cut of the main film to Richard Branson at his Virgin Island hideaway.

He didn’t like what he saw. I can understand that as it was rough, rough, but I was called back from my family holiday to go and see him when he landed from the Caribbean. Well it was a mess, frantic re-editing, lots of argument but it eventually made the air date.

Then we couldn’t get paid for the production, about £500,000. Our FD at the time said we can’t pay the salaries next month if we don’t get this money!!!

Jesus, what a nightmare all round. Our lawyers told us the only course of action was to send Virgin Atlantic a winding up order to get our money back, i.e. force them to sell an asset, such as a 747, to pay us. As you can imagine it went nuclear, the airwaves were red hot. We were paid the afternoon of the day they received the winding up order.

Well that was that, goodbye to a lovely client with a fabulous brand but what else could we do? It was us surviving or not. The business moved to another young start-up called Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalf, where it has remained to this day. I gather through the grapevine that Robert Campbell spent a lot of time down in Holland Park with Sir Richard talking through the work.

Taking my hat off to them they did produce some outstanding work for Virgin, the 25 year film is just superb. (Oddly enough the track is on Absolute as I am writing, spooky.)

Now bear in mind these two anecdotes took place within ten years in the life of Simons Palmer and if asked I’m sure we would all agree we would have, without any question, preferred them not to happen but as someone has said ‘shit happens’ and needs dealing with. There was no hint of any kind of misplaced bravado in either case, we agonised and agonised but with your back to the wall someone has to make a call.

The curious point of course is clients can review their agency relationships and we are all supposed to behave like grown-up, intelligent and responsible people whereas if a client is ‘reviewed’ it doesn’t receive the same response.

Anyway that’s drifting away from the beginning. The people I’ve been talking to all appear to be under the cosh and the notion of resigning a bad client relationship is clearly not on the agenda. Maybe, just maybe, it would be a good thing to consider for the health and morale of the agency but only, and I stress only, if it is a well-considered act.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.
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