The blame game

After recent pitches marketer Jason Stidworthy realised clients need to take a long hard look at how they act towards agencies.

jason stidworthyDuring a recent conversation with a good mate, he highlighted his frustrations with the real estate agency selling his house because the promotional material artwork was riddled with mistakes including the show-stopping incorrect suburb listing. Seriously, how could they!

Discussions with the 20-something office assistant resulted in no ownership of the mistakes or an apology – and the quick finger pointing at someone else. My mate then went on about this being a 20-something-year-old issue, as he has the same issue in his office with the 20-somethings and their inability to own mistakes or realise the challenges this causes internally and with clients.

This started me thinking about the same issue where I work and I don’t think it is just a 20-something-year-old issue. In the last 12 months I’ve completed 2 agency pitch processes, we ran one internally and the other by an external consultancy. Although there were a number of contributing reasons for the agency roster changes, the pervading theme across a number of the marketing teams (not all) was: It’s the agency’s fault! The agency did or didn’t do this!

I found this quite unsettling because there was little acknowledgement for our role in the disintegration of the client-agency partnership and unfortunately this was at all levels of the business. As the business owner of the agency relationships, I realised that unless there is a seismic shift with this very ‘old school’ attitude, the new agencies would quickly follow down the same path as the previous agencies and be the scapegoats for everything that goes wrong.

As clients, have we lost the ability to communicate effectively and admit our own mistakes?

Drawing a line under our past behaviour, it was time to get the external consultant to facilitate a full day workshop with the new agencies and all the marketing teams – 30 people across 5+ different teams (you can probably understand why agencies feel like we are a multi-headed monster). With involvement from all parties, everyone agreed on an engagement process which aims to improve expectations management and communications.

From the workshop I walked away with 5 points to keep in my line of sight which will help me gauge how we well we are doing as a client working with our new agencies:

  1. Looking inwards and developing humility. With any agency issue, the marketer will also be asked – “Where do you think your responsibility lies with this issue?” This isn’t about apportioning blame, it is about growing self-awareness, ownership and will help reduce repeated issues.
  2. Clearly define briefing processes, documentation and structured timelines. Our agencies are instructed not to accept briefs unless they are written on one of the briefing templates with all the information required and work doesn’t start without a signed estimate. The further you move from a defined briefing processes and structured timelines the closer you get to the blame game.
  3. Defined escalation processes and empowering the team to work through their own issues. They also need to inform their line manager about issues so it is on the leadership’s radar.
  4. Six monthly 360 review of the marketing team by the agency team. It will be a little confronting but nevertheless an interesting and valuable process.
  5. The agencies are our business partners and therefore the agency team will attend our internal marketing/business leadership meetings to get a deeper understanding of the business and feel like they are making completely informed recommendations.

Time will tell how successful we are as a team, but so far so good and I have a good feeling we won’t return to the blame game.

Jason Stidworthy is head of group marketing and digital, membership & brand, NRMA Motoring & Services


  1. Agency person
    9 Dec 13
    10:46 am

  2. Good to hear. Always easy to kick the agency.

    I wouldn’t be too worried Jason. NRMA M & S are way ahead of the pack when it comes to respecting their agency partners, from experience. Sadly, its a rare quality.

    It always comes from the top down in any organisation.

  3. wow
    9 Dec 13
    10:59 am

  4. For an agency person, that is breathtakingly great to read. The result, Jason, will be that your agency will trust and value you, feel motivated to work harder for you, and encourage and coach your junior team. You will reap the benefits of a mature approach.

  5. NS
    9 Dec 13
    1:59 pm

  6. looking for a new role, agency-side, Jason? :-)

  7. Nathan Hodges
    9 Dec 13
    7:19 pm

  8. It’s great to see a marketer go public with this. The process just works so much better when everyone is in it together – agency and marketer. I think the NRMA has travelled a long way on this issue in the last year, and is clearly committed to travelling further.

  9. Sign off? Oh yeah... we do that from time to time.
    10 Dec 13
    3:11 am

  10. What would really help is if the marketeer side of things trusted their underlings. When you’re dealing with the bottom-ish level day to day, you’re really creating concepts for things they think will please their boss because they’re not given any autonomy.

    The work suffers, but more importantly, both businesses suffer too.

  11. Sieuwke
    30 Dec 13
    10:41 pm

  12. Sorry to day but this made me cringe.

    You should read:
    Lean Leadership : From Chaos to Carrots to Commitment
    by William Lareau