Sainsbury’s and Suzuki marketers call out agency hierarchy

Senior marketers at Sainsbury’s and Suzuki have called out the hierarchy in agencies as among one of their biggest bugbears, believing it can undermine any relationship if people don’t “pick up on the cues” of when it's not constructive.

During a panel session on how agencies can help clients to grow at The Drum’s Agency Acceleration Day yesterday (30 March), Rachel Eyre – head of marketing propositions at Sainsbury's – discussed the importance of aligning agency and client culture, saying she values a sense of joint accountability, ownership and pride in the brand’s performance.

However, she advised against forcing this from the outset, saying that doing anything at any cost to simply “appear” to be aligned with a client will ultimately fail. Instead, she suggested, get to know individuals and what makes them tick, as well as what annoys them is key to a long-term partnership.

“Personally, I’m very un-hierarchical but lots of agencies, in my experience, can be hierarchical. So, they’ll turn and point their body language to the most senior person in the room, for example,” Eyre said.

“It got my back up when I was a graduate and it gets my back up now that I’m the most senior person that they’re pointing at. That’s something that annoys me and symptomatic of the cultures I’ve worked in. Picking up on those cues and responding appropriately is important.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Charnley - general manager for marketing at Suzuki GB – added that her company is inherently non-hierarchical, “and I don’t want to see that in an agency either.”

“If we can see it and we can feel it that would really annoy me,” she said.

But it’s not just battling the hierarchical structures within agencies that Eyre and Charnley have to contend with.

The supermarket works with in excess of 70 agencies from media planning to creative execution and during the panel Eyre said that keeping agency ambitions in check whilst also giving them the freedom to move outside the brief they’ve been given is a constant balancing act.

“We moved to a different model after realising that [with too many rigid structures] we’d lost the place to capture the magic ideas that happen outside of briefs and formal responsibilities,” she said.

“We’ve instigated bringing together of all agencies every six weeks where we spend a morning together and look at marketing performance and priorities. They have to work together and share ideas but we also [allow them] to raise concerns. That’s the catalyst for the magic.”

She used the Sainsbury’s dad dancing advert from Christmas 2014 as an example of something that was at risk of not happening in the old way of working.

It might be a cliché, but both marketers insisted that brutal honesty was almost always the best way to get the most out of any agency-client relationship.

“It’s difficult for agencies to be brutally honest but it can be refreshing,” continued Charnley. “It’s not always easy but in my experience having an open and honest dialogue, when handled correctly, definitely benefits [both parties].”

Eyre revealed that at Sainsbury’s she will firmly set out her expectations on day one.

“I’m buying services of an agency because I can’t do it. You’re better than what we have in-house. And for me to get the best value out of that, you need to be able to do it to the best of your ability,” she said.

“And saying upfront that we have high standards and can be challenging means we’ve laid the groundwork, and it won’t be a surprise. The fact I’m here today shows we value good, productive, open and fair relationships. Maybe not everyone is the same.”

Video reporting by Katie Deighton.