Why Agencies are like Jack Russell Terriers

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Jack Russell Terrier

I once worked on a large drinks account; we had had the account some time, enjoyed the client’s company, the confidence of doing good work, and a handsome fee.

Our agency’s new Managing Director had an excellent relationship with another competitive drinks company. He had been promised an assignment, with the potential of more to come if we delivered, and we could find a way to manage the conflict with our existing client.

I was dispatched to see my client, the agency’s larger existing client, to ask for permission to take on the competitor.

My client was decidedly old school, military in bearing, jovial but threatening in an understated way that only Aunts, of a certain age, and School Headmasters know how.

I decided to take my client to lunch, for Lobster as I recall, in a restaurant that had served such fare for hundreds of years. I felt as out of place as the Lobster.

Eventually, as main course was finishing and the client had drained the first bottle of Pouilly Fuisse, I plucked up courage to tell him our agency wished to take on the competitive assignment.

He fixed me with a slightly watery, but nevertheless unblinking glare. And, this is what he said,

“Agencies rarely take you to lunch, unless they want something, so I would rather anticipated your request.

I have no answer to your question, but I do want you to know what I have learnt over thirty years of working with agencies.

Agencies are like Jack Russell Terriers.

If you throw a suitable bone, they will fetch it, and protect it jealously.

If you give two of them a bone, they will fight over it.

A dog on heat will try to hump anything and everything. When they come into season it is best to keep them indoors.

To train a Jack Russell you need to give them huge praise when they do anything right, and if they transgress then you give them one warning, then another warning, then – if they do not heed your warning – beat them.

Agencies are like Jack Russell Terriers, that is all I know. Did you have any other questions?”

I have now led creative agencies, media agencies, digital agencies, event & experiential agencies, digital search & performance agencies, and poster buying agencies (well over one hundred across four holding companies) and I realise the wisdom in my old client’s words.

Giving an agency (or agencies) a suitable “bone” is critical. The “bone” is a goal/mission/incentive and needs to be something tangible, and achievable. Beating a sales/awareness/pricing target, win an integrated award, whatever is appropriate. Making it contractual is useful. Do you have the perfect targets, for the right agencies?

If you give two agencies a “bone” they will fight over it. It is important that your agencies know what part of an assignment is theirs, and which another’s is. Ambiguity will lead to in-fighting. Are your agreements with each agency crystal clear? Where do you want them to collaborate, or compete?

An agency that thinks it can win competitive assignments, will try, perhaps at your expense. My client’s advice (to stop Jack Russell’s “humping”), was to keep them “indoors”. In this day of consolidation amongst clients and agencies, it is less realistic to have full segregation than it was previously, but by having clear contractual frameworks in place one can avoid a “humping” and keep agencies “indoors”. Do you have really smart definitions of what is allowed and not allowed, and a contract to reflect this? How else can you keep your agencies focussed on your business, and out the market?

My client suggested giving Jack Russells lots of praise for good behaviour and, after a third unheeded warning, whacking them. Many clients run incentive schemes for their agencies, and some have clear malus schemes too. They are very much part of the benefits that procurement have brought to marketing services, allowing success to be rewarded. Of course getting the right targets and measures is essential. Are yours perfect? Little time is given to non-contractual rewards, daily human behaviours that drive performance. How do you reward people, teams, and agencies? Do you give clear warnings, and do people know what they will lead to? Are any bonuses payable to an agency, personal, or run at a company level? Have you built a non-contractual reward/praise culture?

So, I have realised that agencies are indeed a lot like Jack Russell Terriers, and that the experience I have gained over the past twenty odd years has helped me become a better “trainer”. I have gathered many of the tricks of training through working with the smartest of clients from the likes of Nike, Coke, IBM, Toyota, Diageo, etc etc.

After the story of the Jack Russell, the lunch with my client limped along through another bottle of fine burgundy, before my client took his leave with his parting words ringing in my ears,

“Jack Russell’s my boy, that is the secret. Thank you for lunch, lovely lobster, I very much enjoyed your first warning…”
Funnily enough my agency did not take on the competitive assignment.

If you would like to teach old dogs new tricks, then get in touch, we would be pleased to help.

Contact Flock here.

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