There’s a saying among animal trainers that, if anything goes wrong, it’s never the animal’s fault.

This came to mind when I was sitting in a session at Advertising Week Europe last week, and not just because the panel of senior marketers were discussing elephants in the room.

The point of the session (called The Uncomfortable Truth About Marketing) was for marketers to discuss the marketing issues that no-one ever talks about. So Patricia Corsi of Unilever worried about the over-reliance on data and the loss of the magic of marketing; Keith Moor of Santander complained about the content that nobody watches and how we have gotten to the point where a 5% video view rate was a “success”; and Dominic Grounsell got worked up about the industry’s recruitment problem and the lack of people from the hard sciences seeing marketing as a viable career option. Finally Mark Given from Sainsbury’s talked about the way agencies say they can work together, but don’t.

I understand Mark’s frustration. It’s hard enough to deliver a cross-channel experience without having to deal with agencies that can’t get on. In fact, as Mark pointed out, it’s not that they don’t work together, it’s that they’re fundamentally not set up to do so. This is a common frustration we see – but we see it both from clients AND agencies.

And as if on cue, someone (who said they used to work for a full-service agency) stood up and asked if the problem wasn’t actually that clients can’t work collaboratively because of the way their marketing departments are organised. So it seems there are frustrations on both sides of the fence.

This is getting to the (uncomfortable) truth.

The truth about collaboration

Who is at fault when “collaboration” fails? At AAR we see how lots of brands work with lots of agencies, and our view is that it’s the client’s responsibility to lead their agency or roster of agencies and not let the agencies “sort it out for themselves”. The performers are not there to organise themselves. They need leadership and direction. This can sometimes lead to huge issues as the client has neither the time or the inclination to play ringmaster.

What we often find (and this is our unspoken truth) is that brands want their agencies competing; it keeps them sharp and hungry, or so they believe. Whilst we see a lot of talk from clients and agencies wanting collaboration, what we often see is much different. Brands may not admit this either to themselves or their agencies but they often actively cultivate a bit of tension between agencies.

This obviously creates problems for brands in the management of their agencies. As the questioner in the Advertising Week session implied, they need to break down the barriers within their organisations and take the active management of their agencies as a fundamental part of their responsibility.

Bottom line? You can’t leave it to the animals in the circus to organise themselves. If you leave them to do that, it’ll be the law of the jungle.