The former chairman of FCB Ulka Anil Kapoor usually said, “Advertising is a senior person’s business where the best ideas come from youngsters.” It does seem to be a bit of a contradiction for a business where the average age is in the twenties. However, when one looks at the history of client-agency relationships that have resulted in great brand-building campaigns, a common factor emerges – the close partnership at senior levels between the agency and the client. This is not restricted to advertising but holds true for any consultancy business where the service organisation is a strategic partner to the client company.

While advertising plays a pivotal role in creating brand value, it cannot work in isolation; it needs to operate in cohesion with the other elements of the marketing mix. Therefore, advertising’s role in creating brand value is only possible if it is in sync with the overall marketing strategy. In other words, the agency must be aware of and/or involved in the client’s product, price and distribution strategies. For this to happen, the agency must have the trust and respect of the senior-most levels at the client’s end.

In almost every case where successful brand-building activity has resulted in creating brand value for a company, there has been a close relationship between the senior levels at the agency and similar levels at the client end. Advertising history is filled with stories and anecdotes of such relationships. Claude Hopkins, Fairfax Cone, David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach were close partners to their client CEOs. In the Indian context too, Subhas Ghosal, Subroto Sengupta, Mani Iyer, Bal Mundkur and Alyque Padamsee were all partners with senior clients.

In each of these cases, a senior person at the agency, either the managing director (MD), CEO or national creative director (NCD), had an active involvement in the business. The agency’s point of view extended beyond the brief given by the marketing department, incorporating an added business perspective gained through interactions with the senior-most levels in the client organisation.

Often, briefs to the agency lack clarity on what advertising is expected to deliver and, in many cases, are not in sync with the overall marketing imperatives facing the company. They are created at a level in the marketing department that does not have a full picture of the strategic issues facing the company. In other cases, it’s a second-guessing exercise of what the brand manager thinks their bosses want. Consequently, campaigns are often rejected at the final approval stage because, while they may have passed the test of creativity, they are not aligned with the perspective of the senior levels in the client organisation. This underscores the critical role of senior agency personnel being involved and connected with senior levels at the client organisation in a productive relationship.

An agency is fortunate if it encounters a brand manager with the perspective and courage to put forward a new, different and unconventional idea. However, most often, brand managers are empowered with the authority to say no rather than yes to something that goes beyond the brief. This leads to a surplus of ideas within agencies, many of which never progress beyond the first stage, not to mention those killed by overzealous suits within the agency itself!

Here again, a senior team member at the agency needs to be involved to recognise good ideas that may be unconventional and chaperone such ideas through the maze at both the agency’s and the client’s end. Good ideas need protection and nurturing, akin to precious stones. In the early stages, good ideas are often rough, raw and unpolished, requiring patience and crafting to bring out their brilliance.

Breakthrough ideas almost always come with attached risks. There is no precedent to judge whether they will work or not, necessitating the judgement of a senior agency person to provide credibility and reassurance that the idea has a reasonable chance of delivering results. At the client’s end, it takes courage and trust in the agency, along with assurance from someone senior, that the risk is worth taking.

At Ulka, every member of the board had developed a professional relationship with the senior-most levels of all major clients. Therefore, for clients like Tata Motors, Zee, Amul, LML, Usha, Hero Honda and Tropicana, the agency’s recommendations impacted strategic marketing decisions related to product, pricing and distribution and not just advertising. Anil had personal relationships with every major client MD/chairman and they would reach out to him for issues beyond advertising.

Excerpted with permission from Culture Eats Creativity for Lunch: The Ulkaway, Arvind Wable, Rupa Publications.