The client-agency relationship is the foundation for the work and getting it right from the outset will make everything easier and more effective, argues Faris Yakob, in an examination of the robust guidelines and briefs set out by Kellogg’s back in 1989. 

This festive season Kelloggs has put their 32 year old Christmas ad back on air suggesting, in the voice of Sir Anthony Hopkins, we “leave Santa something a little different this year”. According to Andrew Tindall from System1, it is still one of the most effective ads they have ever tested and is the “culmination of 100+ years of consistent brand management”. The ad shows no sign of wear out, which doesn’t seem to exist (as we discussed last month), and it engages emotionally at a culturally relevant moment. According to System1, it will sell corn flakes this month while building demand for the future. 

It made me harken back to learning about the beginnings of brand management, invented by P&G, and the associated era of long term agency partnerships. A large portion of our consulting work is helping clients and agencies work together better. There are obvious cultural contradistinctions between large client companies and creative advertising agencies – and managing those relationships is crucial for effective brand communication. No matter whether the client brings us in, or the agency, we will often pull out the classic six point ‘contract’ between DDB and Avis from 1963. It starts with the classic principle of partnership “Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB and DDB will never know as much about the rent-a-car business as Avis.” It’s rightly famous (check it out if you don’t know it) and always makes me wonder about how we onboard agencies today. 

The beginning of a relationship sets expectations about how we treat each other. The Kellogg’s ad triggered a faint associated memory that in turn triggered a search through my vast, unstructured, trove of strategic artifacts. An information consumer journey. 

I found the 1989 guide for JWT account managers who join the Kellogg account. It’s not as succinct as the DDB contract, running to 30 pages long, but it is an impressive document. I’m trying to remember if I have ever received anything like it when I was at an agency and nothing springs to mind, although it is more likely that an onboarding document would be in slides today. It doesn’t even seem like agency teams do the previously mandatory factory tour or location visit anymore… but I digress. 

The document maps out the history, philosophy and culture of the Kellogg company. It is salient even today, mostly because we tend to have the same binary arguments over and over again. Early on, it espouses long term brand investment because they “do not subscribe to a short term “in-out” marketing philosophy.” They explain their culture and single minded belief: “In the Kellogg culture, the consumer is king, and the focus of all marketing activity. In the words of Kellogg President and Chief Operating Officer, Horst Schroeder, “If it isn’t on the box, or not on TV, it doesn’t matter to us. What the consumer doesn’t see we don’t care about”, which is prescient in an age of viewability metrics. 

It goes on to explain what they expect from their agencies. First is The Kellogg Attitude:

“More so perhaps than any other account, the Kellogg Company requires its agencies to understand and share in their corporate culture. The ‘Kellogg Attitude’ is perhaps best expressed as being totally committed to winning on behalf of Kellogg. ‘Sweating Kellogg red’ is another expression.”

Enthusiasm alone is not enough but the “combination of enthusiasm and a thorough knowledge of the Kellogg culture, their business, and solid supportable advertising ideas however, will build the relationship.” This matters because “from the very beginning, Kellogg has viewed its advertising agencies as full marketing partners, in every sense of the word. As standard operating procedure, the agency is viewed literally as a department of the Kellogg organization.” 

I mean this is great stuff, right? A clear statement of intention and beliefs and cultural fit. As part of being partners “the agency is expected to share in Kellogg’s successes, and in its problems. Billings and brand assignment will reflect that partnership.” They insist on the best the agency has “in every department, be assigned to their business. They expect to see the results of that commitment, in solid, supportable, business-building proposals and advertising that produces tangible results for their brands in the marketplace.” 

It then goes on to twenty-four point list of expectations, largely around demonstrating ownership of the brand’s success because “REMEMBER: CLIENT’S PROGRESS AND ACHIEVEMENT OF OBJECTIVES WILL BE DIRECTLY REFLECTED IN YOUR OWN BUSINESS.” ALL CAPS is original and this is an honest, commercially minded, understanding of the business of advertising. 

In human relationships, according to canonical counsellors, establishing expectations, continual communication, and succeeding together are key. Things will inevitably go up and down but ultimately a relationship should be mutually reinforcing, a classic win-win. Our clients' success is what drives ours, that is the nature of being an agency. 

The Kellogg guide is very clear about where they want advice and where they have knowledge. It explains that advertising will not be chosen on client judgment, only quantitative consumer research. They don’t want any guff: “Don’t give the standard agency excuses regarding the production process requirements. They have heard them all before, and take great offense at being subjected to them e.g. You can’t negotiate with top directors on price” (It lists five more). 

They are also clear about their media and their skepticism towards the upselling ideas in other channels: 

“The degree to which Kellogg has relied on television advertising to build its business worldwide cannot be overemphasized. Because of their phenomenal success in building both category and brand growth with this medium, other media are viewed as being largely superfluous. Recognize that agency proposals which include the use of other media may be construed by the client to indicate a lack of understanding of this fundamental belief.” 

While Kellogg’s perspective may have evolved, too many of us have encountered clients who say they want innovative ideas, only to insist on exclusively using TV or some such hidden parameter that was missing from the ‘big idea’ brief. When expectations are clearly set for the engagement and within the brief, It stops the agency wasting time and helps limit creative teams’ frustration, which leads to better work.

At a time when clients continue to seek out new agency models to help them adjust to the ever changing consumer, building relationships may seem like an antiquated concern but like many industry antiquities it remains vital. The relationship is the foundation for the work and getting it right from the outset will make everything easier and more effective. It might even make it fun. Establishing clear roles and responsibilities, and where they overlap in areas like strategic development, helps everyone on the team to their job well. Good client relationships lead to better work and make it more likely that the agency will still be a partner for Christmasses to come, even if the client is running a classic.