Paul Simons: the Ford/GTB affair – getting too close to the client nearly always leads to problems

Not matter whatever is said publicly within the WPP world and GTB, the outcome of the Ford review with be hurting a lot of people. Not least because the flagship “creative” account is going to BBDO with Wieden+Kennedy as the ‘burr under the saddle’. So the conclusion of the review is Ford can get ‘better’ creative work elsewhere; well I think many of us could have told them that without forking out big fees to Flock Associates.

What is particularly interesting is the client isn’t proposing major changes themselves (apart from more in-house people) so BBDO will be working with the Ford marketing management who approved the less good creative work coming out of GTB. The dynamic I suspect former WPP boss Martin Sorrell has never really understood is that getting too close to a client can lead to the agency team going native – which is a dangerous place to be. Usually this leads to a declining quality of creative work.

Some years ago in my Ogilvy days we were having some kind of problem with a client that led to a discussion with Martin. His grumpy solution was “give them what they want.” What they wanted was rubbish and, as night follows day, the agency would get the blame for rubbish work appearing and not the client.

The reason why going native is dangerous revolves around the communication objective, i.e. the brief. It is natural for a client working full time on their product or service to understand the nuances and want to shout about them. I have had many difficult conversations with clients over the years eliminating such product points so the brief is focused on a single-minded idea relevant to the product.

It is very difficult to have this discussion if the agency is too close to the client because it forces an uncomfortable situation, maybe confrontational.

WPP does hang on to media, dealer advertising and production all of which delivers significant revenue and income so there is some compensatory goodwill remaining for parts of the group.

Losing a major client is always a cathartic event due to emotions. In my time at Simons Palmer biggies that have got away include BT to AMV/BBDO, which was followed by a nice note from David Abbott saying how pleased they were to win the the review yet sad it was our loss, and Nike to W&K’s new office opening in London. At Ogilvy MORE TH>N moved after the hugely successful launch of the new insurer.

We saw the first two coming and were prepared but not the third. In all cases income was recovered by successful new business activity but it does feel like three steps forward and two back. I bet every agency boss recognises that feeling. Mark Read almost certainly will.

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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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