Mad Men, relationships, results May 14, 2015

(NO SPOILERS)

If you’ve recently been enjoying the dying strains of Mad Men, perhaps you too have been one of those fans that has revelled in the journey we’ve taken with this great set of characters in the last few years. Not that any TV show should be blithely accepted as an historical document of course, but in the Mad Men timeline from the 50s to the 70s we’ve witnessed fascinating, seismic changes in the politics of gender, race, war, and sexuality, and cultural changes around food, tobacco, health, and of course, advertising. On a professional level, I have marvelled at the level of hard drinking that goes on at meetings before 10am, and the size of expense accounts where – literally – anything is allowable in pursuit of the client’s happiness.

On a serious note, I’ve also been very impressed with Sterling Cooper’s ability to foster enduring relationships with their clients, a throwback to the halcyon days of retainers (now a rare commodity). We are in the privileged position of working with two clients on an on-going retainer basis, and it has me wondering why this model has diminished so dramatically over the years.

You’ve probably spent a very long time working with your marketing team to define your brand, and you’ll no doubt know what sort of biscuit your brand is, how it takes its coffee and what it would wear to church (and, in these post-Mad Men times, mosque/synagogue/temple/other places of worship are available). It seems odd that all this work is then put at risk by allowing a succession of suppliers to work on a ‘per project’ basis; of course, there are brand guidelines to follow, but these tomes tell only a fraction of the story, and give no context to the supplier about the brand’s journey, or its next destination. There is no substitute for a relationship – one in which your provider gets to learn about your plans for next year (not just next week), and is able to offer useful expertise and contribute to your success.

In these austere times, procurement departments are very keen on supplier relationships that can be picked up and put down as and when required. The argument goes that it keeps levels of competition high among suppliers, retains cash until it absolutely needs to be spent, and prevents complacency. I fundamentally disagree with all of these premises.

The competition argument is a little weak, since retainer clients (certainly ours) get hefty discounts and economies of scale; it’s also true that people try harder when they have something tangible to lose, and without a doubt our best deals are done for those clients who have rewarded us with their loyalty. As for retention of cash in a business, this is also a fallacy. A well-constructed retainer agreement allows clients to ‘spend ahead’, front-loading much of the work and reaping the benefits months before the money is handed over. Retainers also give a degree of predictability of expenditure, as they tend to be re-balanced every twelve months.

And does having these agreements in place make us complacent, do we take them for granted and take our foot off the video gas? No, we do not. We have a greater obligation, greater relationship, and greater sense of loyalty to the people with whom we talk every day, whose brands we truly understand, and whose creative work we love to conceive because we can get excited about the context in which it will work – a context we understand deeply because adequate time has been spent discussing it over many months.

Of course, in the interests of full disclosure I will point out that this is not entirely altruistic. We are a business, and getting any degree of predictability of revenue is great news for us. But it’s also true that we love making films, and love it when those films are well received by clients and audience. The fact is, most of the best work we’ve ever done has been for retainer clients, and it’s just no coincidence.

Our most enduring retainer relationship – 8 years – has been with global cloud hosting company Rackspace. We know the brand, we know the people, and rather than merely reacting to their undulating marketing activity, we are permanently involved in long-range planning – advising on types of content, the most effective means of deployment, the best ways to get results. Here’s a brief testimonial from them:

 

So, even though Don Draper is slightly too driven, slightly too selfish, and, let’s face it, slightly too good-looking, he does understand the benefits of a productive, on-going relationship with his clients. And, I’ve never walked out of a client meeting because they didn’t like my first idea.

Mark Burgess
Managing Director

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