In challenging times, having different views on the role of ‘chemistry’ means marketers and agencies are both missing what’s important.

(This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience)

Here’s a quote from Alain de Botton for the lovelorn or lyrical among you: “The longing for destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life”.

Modern culture conditions us to overvalue the visceral thrill of meeting someone new. We’re in love with falling in love. And the same applies to you and your agencies.

The C-word    

At a recent industry thing, I was struck by the contrasting use of a word we all know and love – chemistry. Everyone agrees it’s important. But, weirdly, clients and agencies dramatically differ on how.

The event began with a succession of agency speakers sharing their not-so secret weapon: that ‘people buy from people’. Some of them even design their entire new business model around being fun/funky/zany – delete as your cringe-o-meter dictates.

But when the marketers in the room spoke it was a different story. Only a couple even acknowledged chemistry. And when they did, it was solely around pitches, where they really want potential agencies to ‘get’ them. And quite right too.

So clearly chemistry counts. In fact, I can’t remember where I read this – journalistic credibility, moi? – but *ahem* studies have shown that from speakers and teachers to comedians and politicians, we all listen and believe more when we like the person talking.

So with trust at stake, what’s the impact of you and your agencies focusing on chemistry in different ways at different stages?

Personality goes a long way

Many agencies double down on chemistry earlier because they lack the confidence to lead with expertise. They rely on style over substance.

Symptoms include too much personality and no real proposition in their marketing. Or more creepily, glossing over a lack of fit at first meetings by currying favour with sugary treats and cyber-stalked ‘insights’ (‘So I see your son plays netball and you like labradors?’).


Wouldn’t it be better if agencies just proved what they’re genuinely good at and shared an honest view on whether you need it? Oddly, most know this but few do it. Don’t get me started on why unless you’re sitting down.

Chemistry wins pitches – but it shouldn’t

In contrast, marketing folk tend to overvalue chemistry in pitches. Obviously the response to your brief is critical, but it’s all too easy to let personality skew things – particularly when the stakes are high.

Case in point – I once went for a job that I wasn’t right for. But the boss and I got on famously in the interviews, which primed us both into taking a punt. It didn’t end well.

So while I’m not suggesting you’re seduced by pitch-savvy flannel, do maintain a cautious skepticism of chemistry. Yes, there’s reassurance in rapport. And clearly you need to feel that you’ll thrive in the trenches together. But agency-sponsored endorphins can cloud your objectivity when you need it most.

Expertise wins

The point about stakes being high is crucial here. From digital transformation and the threat of disruption, to an expanding menu of consultants and agencies, and the blurry boundaries between them, partner selection matters more than ever.

Life used to be so much easier. Similar agencies, similar offers. You knew what to buy and where it fitted into the mix. Back then, chemistry did win pitches; when everything else was equal, why not let rapport tip the balance?

But today, ‘everything else being equal’ means risk. With complex problems needing inventive solutions, can you afford to choose between partners when chemistry is their only point of difference?

Spoiler: nope.

These risks make it a good time for Oystercatchers to launch its Modern Marketing Pitch model. The consultancy, which is owned by Marketing Week publisher Centaur Media, claims it can help you find better suited agencies in half the time.

Sounds good, right? But as I’ve explored before, given that ‘alternatives to pitching’ is a hardy perennial that rarely flowers, meaningful change is hard to come by.

But Oystercatchers’ promise of greater collaboration certainly makes sense. Replacing the counterproductive ‘planned spontaneity’ of traditional pitching will help – not least in finding chemistry; offering everyone a more effective, real-world aphrodisiac.

And in other news, what price an agency making your adherence to Oystercatchers’ model a redline qualification criteria? Worth thinking about…

Nice doesn’t pay the bills

Paul Simon once sang, ‘these are the days of miracle and wonder’. And we certainly live in exciting times. But they’re tough times too. So you need ballsy partners who can do stuff that others can’t.

Agencies without decent offers will continue to bombard you with sweets, grins and empty claims. Blind to their own genericism, they fail to see that chemistry is the last refuge of the commoditised.

And when you need to break new ground – or save your arse – as much as we all warm to ‘people like us’, remember it’s expertise that truly warrants your trust.

Ultimately, the harder you challenge your agencies, the more the good ones will demonstrate real value.

And if that comes in a spikier, less chummy wrapper, then so be it; respect their conviction. Just don’t be swayed by anyone pitching-up with a box of Krispy Kremes.

It’s tricky out there, people. Sure, be nice to each other – but don’t just be nice.

Image: Marketing Week