The great charade.

I can still remember my first ever Agency Work Review meeting.

Being a newbie to the advertising industry, I was asked to tag along for a Quarterly Review meeting. I didn’t know it was going to be a long, almost unbearable, 2.5 hours meeting.

On one side of the table sits the clients – Everyone, from the CMO to various brand managers. On our side are the top agency people, Chief Client Servicing, Executive Creative Director, etc etc, plus the account servicing folks who were on the account.

The huge deck presented first summarized the work done in that quarter – whether they are completed or are work-in-progress, followed by slides after slides of compiled work. Each brand manager took the opportunity to comment on the work produced for his/her portfolio.

It was bloody. Although there were occasional compliments, most of the feedback was just negative – from missed deadlines to missing the quality benchmark; from not understanding the customer segment to not understanding how advertising works. It was demoralising – I felt like I was working with the most incompetent agency on earth, whereas my then-new colleagues were surprisingly cool about the whole process.

Apparently, that’s all normal.

Some faults were obviously the agency’s – given the volume of work, naturally, there will be lapses. But there are also cases where the clients were actually to be blamed. The indecisive Southern regional marketing head sent in really late approvals. Another brand manager went AWOL for two weeks without first doing the briefing. One guy gave approval on a budget by mistake and later slashed it by 30%. The other manager insisted on being creative and wanted his “idea” used. There’s another who wrongly informed the agency about the media booking dates – when the error was detected it was just too late to do a good shoot, “because media bookings can’t be changed”. Essentially, a list of reasons why the agency wasn’t at fault.

So, if these were technically the client’s wrongdoings, why aren’t they held accountable for the slip-ups? Why is the agency being the lame-duck here under a firing squad?

That became my introduction to Client Politics 101.

By pointing out missed expectations, the brand managers can then move into addressing his/her concerns, and coolly put down some action points for the future. “To prevent this from happening again, we should have a daily morning call, plus an end-of-day report”. Etc. Even though the screw-ups were actually on their side?

And this I learnt – It’s all a show. Malaysians would call it, a wayang.

The hidden rule of the game is – Keep quiet and let them speak, because they have to impress their bosses in the room. Pointing out their mistakes that messed up the projects would be a humiliation and a big bruise on their ego. And the best? If the conversation is crossing the invisible acceptance level, smartly hint that we hold the cards to spill all the beans of who is really accountable for the mess.

Why this elaborate charade? “In the end, we still have to work with them on a daily basis, not their bosses.” What about the newly erected SOPs because of the goof-ups? “No one will remember them after two weeks. Who has time to do a morning call and read an end-of-day report, every day?”

But wouldn’t this will make the agency look really bad in front of the CMO?

Here comes the best lesson – that CMO, aka the boss in that Review meeting, knows. He works with his team every day; being the micromanager that he is – he knows all the mistakes his team made. He just chooses not to correct his team in front of the agency. Behind the scene, he might have a private word with the individual manager who is in the wrong. But never in public.

So this I learnt – No one wants to look incompetent in front of peers and bosses. To maintain a good client-agency relationship, one has to maintain the charade, and ensure everyone’s ego is protected.

Thankfully, I didn’t last too long in advertising.

I wonder why we rarely have Client Review meetings.

Where the tables are turned and we, the ones who worked on the projects, take turns to list down the shortcomings that were due to the client and make proposals on how to set things right for the future.

I used the word “rarely” because it does happen. Just rare.

Because the Client is always right?

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