Apple’s Agency

Thanks to the current Apple vs. Samsung trial, this highly revealing email exchange between Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller and his ad agency TBWA/Media Arts Lab became public.

It illustrates a contentious relationship between the two parties early last year, when Schiller complained to TBWA about an article in The Wall Street Journal that asks, “Has Apple Lost Its Cool to Samsung?” The assertion clearly angered Schiller, who felt that it indicated that Apple’s advertising had reached a crisis point. He turned to TBWA to remedy the situation with great urgency.

Agency executive James Vincent apparently tried to seize the moment and change the nature of the discourse between client and agency. He wrote:

It seems these times call for more open and expansive ways to experiment with ideas. Honestly, sometimes the logic of Marcom prevents us trying ideas that we think we should.

“Marcom” is a portmanteau for “marketing and communications” that in this instance apparently refers to a regular meeting between Apple and TBWA. Schiller found Vincent’s response none too pleasing, and fired back:

To come back and suggest that Apple needs to think dramatically different about how we are running our company is a shocking response. Also, to suggest we need to give you more free reign to spend money to explore ideas that you have even tried to bring up in Marcom is shocking.

Notwithstanding the irony in an Apple executive bristling at being asked to “think different,” Schiller’s response clearly set Vincent on the defensive. His response was to shift back into a deeply deferential, almost groveling mode:

Please accept my apologies. This was absolutely not my intention. In re-reading my email I can see how you can feel this way…

We are acutely aware of our exact responsibilities in this. We feel 100% accountable for our part of this job which is to create great advertising for Apple and its great products…

I can see my reaction was over-blown and not at all helpful. I’m sorry.

Perhaps it’s unfair to read too much into this particular back-and-forth, but for me this typifies life at agencies. Whether TBWA was resting on its laurels or putting in tremendous but misguided effort, they serve at the pleasure of their client. And if their client is unhappy, there is almost nothing they can say in their own defense. Their only recourse is to sublimate their own will into even greater efforts at doing whatever it takes to please their client.

The relationship between agency and client is often incredibly difficult and frequently humiliating. Few people have the stamina and perseverance for it. I flirted with it once and found that it’s not for me. I’m not exactly sure why anyone would want to do this kind of work regularly, but I truly admire those who are able to produce quality given such continually adverse circumstances.


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