A friend and industry colleague, recently posed this question on LinkedIn:

“If agencies can have Chief Client officers, why can’t Clients have Chief Partner Officers! When so much is changing in the world, shattering norms, why can’t the agency client relationship evolve! Thoughts?”

This got my mind racing on a subject that troubled me for years, and eventually led to my leaving the agency-client dog-fight and start something of my own.

Firstly, if you note the grammar and punctuation, her statement isn’t really a question (?), but more of a resigned acceptance of reality (!).

To address the first point – Clients don’t have Chief Partner Officers (lets call them CPOs) – is because they don’t consider Agencies their Partners, but Vendors.

And since agencies have for years now behaved exactly like hit-and-run “vendors” the relationship isn’t about to be redefined.

The closest Clients have to a CPO, is the CMO, who will insist that he or she is the single decision-making person in the company, which won’t be true for many reasons.

Despite all their claims to the contrary:
a) he or she will always be answerable to the Sales head, the CFO, and of course, the CEO; and
b) he or she will front half a dozen underlings to engage with the Agency.

Then, unfortunately, most of the folks in the marketing team will be unqualified to do the job, having earned an MBA from one of the many wannabe “management institutes” in the country.

To say that most marketing teams in India, especially those in large “Client” organisations, are over-staffed and under-qualified, will be bang-on correct.

Quite like how I’d describe Agency teams as well – over-staffed, under-qualified, and with the added tag of hyper-attitudinal.

What Ails the Marketing and Communication Industry?

The problem with the business of marketing and communication is, that most of our people are Technically and Intellectually Challenged, especially the younger lot of those who have been in the business of less than 15 years.

Sure, they’re clever, dress sharp, speak cool, and even have street-smarts… but they don’t have the knowledge or experience that comes with proper training and time spent on the job, and under good teachers and mentors.

They are professionals born in the cusp of our economic boom, immediately post liberalization. Companies grew, and so did the demand for jobs.

In order to meet the demand, marketing schools mushroomed all over the place, but communication schools didn’t. Thus began the first great intellectual divide between Client and Agency, where the so called qualifications and capabilities between the two weren’t seen as equal.

So today, we have a bunch of people managing large budgets for large clients, despite having no real experience. And large teams of agencies with huge egos, attempt to “partner” the above, despite having no real skills.

Add to this, the hype around employee happiness and the problem of talent attrition – and we end up treating mediocre people with kid-gloves and promoting them to designations they can never live up to.

And few will acknowledge this reality, because Agencies chiefs need warm bodies for billing to head north, and Marketing heads need fall guys when things go south.

The reality is, as our economy grew, the government and private sector laid great emphasis and spent money on knowledge and skilling in the manufacturing sector, not so much on the service industry, and none at all for the marketing and communication business.

The exceptions of course, are people like my aforementioned colleague, who, like me, grew up in the business of communication from bottom up, and by getting our hands dirty. We’ve also sunk our own money as entrepreneurs in the business, so work very hard to educate, skill, and sustain our businesses.

But my colleague and I, along with a few others like us, probably constitute less than 5% of the mass of workers out there – who end up defining the business, quality of our output, and the texture of our Agency-Client relationships.

Until we recognise and act on this desperate lack of skills and talent in the marketing and communication business, the gap will continue to exist.

And my friend will pose the same question again, a few years from now.



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