Are You Stuck in 51/49 Thinking?

A number of years ago, when I was at Bose, we embarked on a transformative journey—a journey to eradicate 51/49 thinking. What is 51/49? It’s a term we used to characterize the balance of power between the in-house agency and its clients. On one hand when you’re in house, you all work for the same company so in that sense you’re “colleagues.” On the other hand, most agencies are, by design, service organizations that are in place to meet the needs of their “clients.” And therein lies the rub.

A series of high-profile product launches at Bose had pushed the creative envelope beyond its limits, prompting much consternation regarding the wants of the business vs. the needs of the brand. The conversation we found ourselves in was one that ended with a question: Who has the trump card?

I can’t say we ever answered that question—which is probably a good thing since the ultimate trump should always be what’s best for the business and the brand. What I can say is that we shredded 51/49 thinking by literally shredding “51/49.”

We assembled the entire in-house agency team and select senior clients in the corporate auditorium. Placed center stage was an oversized industrial shredder—and a microphone. One by one each senior manager stepped up to the mic holding a large sheet of paper with “51/49” printed on it. Standing behind the shredder, we each made a declaration to the audience—an “I will…” statement—indicating what we were going to do to improve client/agency relations and put 51/49 to bed. Then each of us shredded our sheet and walked off stage.

As IHAF wraps its month-long focus on Client Management, where we’ve touched on everything from creative control to KPIs, this story seems relevant. Relevant in that it reminds us that the relationships we have with our clients and the manner in which we manage has a lot to do with us. We can reconcile ourselves to 49%—smart, self-confident, and just shy of having authority. We can assert ourselves as 51%—crying foul, at times, in the name of the brand. Or each of us can be brave enough to say out loud what we want our client relationships to be and moreover, what we’re going to do to get them there.

Want to hear more about how in-house agencies are advancing their organizations and their client relationships? Join IHAF. With over 150 member companies supporting the nation’s leading brands, there’s only one thing left to say. What are you waiting for?

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