In this business, it’s not always just business

—Rogers’ shocking decision to move its account and close down Theo feels like a reminder of just how valuable personal relationships can be, says Eric Blais—

I learned long ago that ad agencies start losing the business the day they get it. They can only strive to postpone the inevitable.

I do not have an insider’s view of what went down between Rogers and Theo, the bespoke agency created by WPP to service the telco’s creative and media. But I suspect the beginning of the end for Theo arrived on Nov. 5, 2021, when a judge in a Vancouver courtroom ruled that a newly formed board of Rogers Communications created by Edward Rogers was legitimate.

A month later, Robert Dépatie, who had been a board member for four years, became president and chief operating officer for the home and business division. Dépatie was previously president and CEO of Quebecor Inc. and Quebecor Media, and was also president and CEO of Vidéotron ltée for 10 years. This part of his resume, and the hiring of new team members from Vidéotron, likely sealed Theo’s fate.

Six months earlier, Sid Lee and Vidéotron’s partnership had ended after 12 productive years. Unless they knew something was happening with Rogers—which seems unlikely at that point—Sid Lee’s business development efforts likely went into higher gear to replace the lost revenue, ideally with a client that would benefit from the agency’s telco experience.

This usually takes years and significant investments in RFP submissions and pitches. But it’s sometimes much simpler: Old colleagues choose to work together again. The same chemistry that’s necessary to postpone the inevitable can at times open new doors.

In The Godfather, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone famously told us that “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.” That’s not very true in this industry—it’s almost always personal in advertising. And even when a client selects a new agency based on a rigorous review process, often with the assistance of a search consultant, the decision often boils down to fit.

The press release announcing the appointment might cite the new partner’s superior capabilities and how it demonstrated a deep understanding of business, but it’s the intangible rapport between the pitch team and the client that is often the determining factor. That’s why so-called chemistry meetings—the business equivalent to speed dating—are so tricky and so important.

Agencies have long complained about what they view as the disproportionate influence procurement departments have on the agency selection process. Some of the criticism is justified, particularly when the process fails to recognize the unique dynamics of a creative business and successful client/agency partnerships.

But make no mistake: Agencies get new business from ex-clients all the time, without any kind of review process. If the partnership produced great results in the past, award-winning for some and career-advancing for others, who wouldn’t want to get that band together again?

In fact, many start-ups succeed because an ex-client gives them an assignment, opening the door for additional work, before eventually becoming that client’s AOR.

I believe that great employees are irreplaceable. But I have also learned that everyone is expendable, including those who usually determine the expendability of others—on both the agency and the client-side.

Everyone involved—from the newly appointed CMO and their team, to the agency’s management and staff—work to postpone the inevitable. And while it lasts, they hope to do work that has a lasting impact on the business and their careers. That is the nature of this business, and it is very personal.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.