At This Rate, The “Partner v. Vendor” Debate Is Academic

Clients are slippery. That’s what the numbers say.


According to Ad Age in 1984, the average client-agency relationship tenure was 7.2 years. By 1997, that number fell 25% to 5.3 years. Today the average client-agency tenure is thought to be less than three years.

“As an industry, it feels like we have lost sight of what it means to have a relationship,” said Elizabeth Zea, partner at JUEL Consulting. Ad Age also notes that agencies these days often learn about cracks in their client relationships via phone calls from reporters, or discover that their accounts are going into review from media reports.

When you see how poor communications and weak relationships are endemic to the communications field, it is puzzling and often maddening. How on the one hand can you go into a meeting with a client and define a strategy that will deliver better bonds between the brand and its customers, while these bonds which are fundamental to any successful partnership, dont’ exist among the decision makers in the room?

The problem compounds when you consider how people need to invest in one another to truly care. This is central to business and to life. And agency staff in my experience want to care. But will enlightened brand teams let them? I can see how some client-agency relationships simply lack the proper chemistry to last. Then there are others built to last, but needlessly disrupted by poor management and power grabs on both sides of the table.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.