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When was the last time you were swayed to make a purchase because of brand appeal? A Freitag backpack for that trip to Porto? Or perhaps a Rapha Training Jersey for your weekend rides? Amidst a cacophony of choices, what does it take for a brand (with the help of its agencies) to rise above being just another label? From generative AI to sustainable design—what truly influences a consumer's choice?
Walter Landor once said, "Products are made in a factory, but brands are created in the mind." And this couldn't be truer for Reckitt Benckiser Group, a company weathering market fluctuations for almost 210 years. Specialising in household cleaning, health, hygiene, and nutrition products, Reckitt daily finds its way into more than 30 million households worldwide.
In the fiscal year of 2021, the U.S. contributed a staggering £3.8 billion to Reckitt's annual revenue, accounting for 30% of their total earnings. Recent data from Statista, as of September 15, 2023, revealed the beauty & personal care market alone is projected to expand by an estimated $109.6 billion in global revenue from 2023 to 2028.
But it's not just financial performance that's driving Reckitt's success. In an age where sustainability and ethical brand behaviour are not just buzzwords but mandates, Reckitt sets the standard of corporate adaptability and longevity.
So, what links the state of flow, DJ sets, wildflower meadows, and a future filled with billions in revenue? And where does that leave their key agency partners, such as Accenture Song, in this landscape of ever-evolving consumer preferences? I sat down with Jos Harrison, Global Brand Director at Reckitt, and Mark Curtis, Head of Innovation at Accenture Song, to find out.
The Architecture of Client-Agency Relationships: Early Indicators of a Promising Partnership
In your experience, what are common pitfalls in client and agency relationships?
Jos - So, the first and most obvious is the actual relationship itself. Establishing the kind of ground rules, the framework for a relationship, because it will always be a combination of professional and personal. It's depending on people to get along. To be able to conceptually speak the right language, the same language, and ensure that they're communicating clearly, concisely, and accurately. The most important thing is to establish the framework for that relationship. But, of course, it needs to be a long-term relationship. In the past, particularly in FMCG, we've been guilty of chopping and changing the agency partners when they delivered something we didn't like or didn't pick up the brief. We have to question ourselves whether the brief was any good in the first place. So there are a lot of things that influence that relationship that you have to accept. Our relationships with particularly our creative partners are very long term, in some cases 15 years.
When do you first spot the "green flags" in a client-agency relationship—during initial meetings or through earlier research like evaluating an agency's branding?
Jos - It starts from the very beginning. So when we realise the need for a new skill set, which we're constantly looking at, we ask what resources we need to add to our pool. It's what we call our creative community.
And so, from the beginning of planning the RFP, we are already working within a framework that established specific points of contact, and particular modes of communication. We have a very detailed policy that governs how we interact with our creative suppliers. From the very beginning of even recognising the needs of what these additional skill sets are likely to be that we will need, either now or in the future.
We're already planning how we're going to conduct that relationship. So we always ensure that when we reach out to the agency partners to invite the RFP, we always ensure that we've got a single point of contact for the relationship for at least the first six to eight months. Ensure that we've got the same team, so whichever team is doing the pitch work, of course, we'd like to ensure that that team will be working with us for an extended period.
So all of these interpersonal relationships have a framework intended to govern how we interact with the agency. It also holds us to specific behaviours to make sure that we're behaving in a way that's responsible, inviting, and supportive. And that we are giving the agency partners enough time, both on pitching and any subsequent work. So we have a set of rules, if you like, that ensures a mutually beneficial relationship for both partners.
"We have a very close relationship with our procurement partners, whereby they're effectively part of our team. So they know everything that we're looking to build into the agency network. They understand exactly why, so what we expect to gain from it. They are very close to all of the forecast numbers we submit for growth, productivity, and efficiency. They actually help us with the improvement of processes in our team as well. So we ensure that new members coming into the team have a good understanding of Creative Services Procurement and can liaise directly with the Procurement team for any project level or entire work stream activity they need support on." - Jos Harrison - Global Head of Brand Experience and Design at Reckitt
Blind Spots and Mutual Challenges: An Agency Perspective and The Unseen Hand of Procurement
Mark, what's a common blind spot in client-agency relationships that agencies often miss? Do operational meetings help in addressing this?
Mark - So, it's two things. It's alignment on goals and understanding of mutual challenges and internal blockers. The best clients I've worked with tend to have and want, a good appreciation of the dynamics of the agency or consultancy they're working with. They want to get under the skin and understand what is making them tick, their goals, etc., because everybody has a higher order of goals.
Of course, on the face of it, you're trying to design something or create a campaign, whatever it may be, for a client. But there's a higher goal as well that you've got. You might be driven by other things like the agency might be looking for heroic campaigns in the marketplace, which they can then use to sell themselves more. Or they might be on the verge of a merger with another company, an acquisition, or something like that. This is other stuff contextually going on. With the best relationships, there's absolute clarity over that.
Clients might ask for a particular design. So, we saw this with quite a lot of the metaverse asks last year, who would love to do some metaverse work. But when you ask a client their strategic goal for planning this, you get the fascinating stuff coming out.
So I always think it's good to look for the higher order issue that's going on here because you're working on something at a granular level - the design of an app, an ad, whatever it may be - but there's something above that, and we need to reflect on that all the time.
The other bit is the hidden internal blockers. So we have our dynamics and these issues and then people we have to get approvals from and all sorts of stuff like that. And the greater clarity we can bring to that client, the better. Equally, clients have issues that might be coming up - particularly at the moment; reorganisation may be one.
And being honest and clear about that so the agency understands that this is the context in which our client is working, and we need to have a fine appreciation for that. And there may be blockers. We may say you should do this; I mean in my case, I drive sustainability, so [I may say] let's make this more sustainable, and the client may say, 'I completely buy it, I just can't right now because there's somebody over here who's going to get in the way'. So understanding those blockers and those dynamics is just absolutely critical.
Given the current economic climate, procurement is playing a larger role in client-agency relationships. Jos, could you start by sharing your thoughts on the key principles for a successful relationship with your procurement function?
Jos - Interestingly, I reckon the primary factor in your [Curtis’] point about surfacing the information from the client to the agency being intrinsic to the relationship; this is exactly the same internally. We are very fortunate at Reckitt that our procurement colleagues are what we call non-direct marketing procurement specialists, so they're already experts in procuring creative services. It's only sometimes the case in organisations. I've been in previous organisations where we have to train the procurement team in buying and managing those relationships with creative partners. But the transparency has to be the key.
The first point is to understand what they know and to gather what they understand about the relationships they need to manage and build. And particularly if I come back to the first question about continually expanding our creative supplier base to incorporate new skill sets, new technologies, etc.
It's an enormous assumption that our procurement companies can stay abreast of that as it develops. So, the first thing to do is to ensure they understand what we are looking to bring into the fold. And why do we need this? To your [Mark's] point about context, what's the higher order? Why do we need this addition? Not just because it's the new thing or the top of mind. If you walk around Cannes Lions for five minutes, you'd be spending all your time looking for new, generative AI solutions, but is that actually necessary? What are we supposed to use it for?
And so we have a very close relationship with our procurement partners, whereby they're effectively part of our team. So they know everything that we're looking to build into the agency network. They understand exactly why, so what we expect to gain from it. They are very close to all of the forecast numbers we submit for growth, productivity, and efficiency. They actually help us with the improvement of processes in our team as well. So we ensure that new members coming into the team have a good understanding of Creative Services Procurement and can liaise directly with the Procurement team for any project level or entire work stream activity they need support on.
So again, I come back to the point of that relationship. Completely open relationships ensure that both parties understand what the other is trying to achieve. Very well-educated colleagues make a massive difference.
So, from an agency perspective, Mark. When does that relationship with procurement start? Is it when you are first invited to an RFP or before?
Mark - It really depends on how the client runs the procurement process. I mean, the worst, and it happens, is when they say, 'We're not going to talk to you, we're going to send you a document and you need to respond to the document.' I did Medieval History as an MA. And one of the things about medieval history is you get very small snippets of information from documentation from the 11th century. [It's called] gobets. Gobets are snatches of medieval documents that you then have to interpret. One student would interpret it very differently from another student.
[Using this analogy], a document just doesn't cut it because it's not a relationship. And you know, I did the MA when I was 20, and I don't like going back to it, trying to pass tiny snippets of information on what you think they're looking for here.
Good procurement departments help you build a relationship with them and the end client. And they're also there to help, you know, build out the nuances so you can understand what it is that you're dealing with.
With the RFIs, there's a more legitimate case for making it primarily document-based. Realistically, much that I'd love to see Jos frequently, he probably doesn't want to see me frequently. He's got a lot of other people he needs to see a lot as well.
If the RFI is going out to ten companies, then it's realistic to say, look, he's got a big job and limited time... But if the RFI is a level playing field, that's okay. As long as somebody is there to answer the questions, so long as you can begin to build a relationship through those questions, that can be done swiftly and efficiently. And you can start to build the chemistry.
When you get to the RFP, and it might be just three companies, or it might be a sole source, which of course, you know, does help a lot as well, you absolutely need to be able to build the chemistry and the relationship. That said, you don't know whether you're going to be able to work together or not. And you don't really understand what you're dealing with either way. Pitches with more than three or four companies are ludicrous.
And we will typically down-select, so it's called down selecting when we get selected in. I'm not quite sure why it's down, it should be up selecting. Anyway, you're down-selected, but we internally will actually de-prioritise pitches where there's multiple agencies because you know what's going on. You know that probably procurement are nervous and unsure about what they're doing. So they're spreading the load wide and far. That's probably not the right place to start a relationship.
Jos - If you find yourself in a pitch with many other agencies, the procurement team likely either don't know what they're doing or has been briefed incorrectly. Because there's no reason to have more than three agencies. It means that the procurement team haven't been appropriately informed by the client, their internal client team, and/or the client team internally have no experience in the department and have no experience in this space. Because if you can't down-select, I think of that as narrowing down. If you can't down-select the kind of field and potential partners to three, then you need to be better informed. It's that simple.
Mark - The other interesting point, which everyone grapples with, is what we on our side would call reframing. So, and I see this mainly, my background is much more design than comms. So particularly with design, you frequently get the brief from the client, and then there's quite often a phase you go through where you go, 'Are we actually being asked to do the right thing here? Or should it be looked at differently?' And that's a very interesting thing. So, if you reframe well, if you're looking at the brief and you're going, the client thinks this brief is about an app, but actually it's not about an app; it should be about an entire experience or a service, and a rethinking of that. If you get that right, you can add enormous value even before you've been paid anything.
Or, and this is where it goes wrong, it could be that you're reframing because it suits your purpose to try and twist it to something you can do rather than actually what the client is asking for. So good clients will support that and go, you're saying that you don't want to do an app, but you don't do apps very well, and actually, we do want an app.
So, that reframing moment is enormously important. Because if you get it right, from a consulting agency perspective, it differentiates you and shows that you're really thinking on your feet. If you're asking that higher-order question, actually what's at stake here and does this need reframing in some way or another?
Now, back to the plot. Procurement frequently doesn't deal with that very well because they are told, you know, we need a thing called an app. And if you try and twist that, it's like, hang on, really? That doesn't compute. And so, again, you need that relationship to test it and go, we're thinking like this, is that right? At which stage, the client can go, 'That's completely wrong. I actually really do want the thing that's on the piece of paper you're looking at.' Or, 'that's interesting. Let's have a coffee and talk about it a bit.'
The Future: Sustainability, AI and the Power of Insight
How long have you been in a client-agency relationship? How many years?
Jos - So, we originally began working with what is now a part of Accenture probably 15 years ago. That part of Accenture was acquired two or three years ago now. But it's only very recently that Mark and I and Accenture Song were introduced. And specifically, because of this tremendous piece of insight work that we have recently done on understanding how people's motivational drivers to adopt more sustainable behaviours can inform the design work that we do as a client-agency partnership. And actually, we were connected through one of Mark's colleagues within Accenture. We began talking about this insight work to see how we could essentially use it to change the way we currently approach insight.
Because if we discuss sustainability, particularly about the company at our scale, about decarbonisation, we're late. We're way behind as an entire industry as a society. The more we can accelerate the design process of building new, more sustainable solutions, then that's got to be something that we take up.
So I think this is what we see the potential in this inside work, is to actually speed up the early phase of our design and development by having a much clearer idea of how we're going to target the levers that people will respond to in adopting these more sustainable aims.
Does Accenture Song help you with the entire portfolio of brands?
Jos - They will do, yes. The way we want to adopt this insight work is to translate it gradually, step-by-step, as we develop new solutions. And this is something that we can start refining and continuing to build into the work, because we'll be gathering more granular insights each time we look at a specific need state. And that will produce a greater body of information about how we can influence people to adopt these more sustainable behaviours through product design and digital interfaces, etc.
Mark - It's actually amazing to hear Jos say this because our view has been for a while that, eventually, we're going to think about redesigning everything. We won't necessarily redesign everything. We might look at this or that and go, you know what, sustainable, fit for purpose, don't need to do anything about it, leave it. But then, you know, that wall hanging over there, this bottle, these phones, you know, everything, everything increasingly over the next ten years, some of us would like it to be sooner, but realistically it's going to take time. We're going to be looking at stuff and going, is this made in the right way? Is it the right thing? And that's the next massive wave of design. This is the next wave of design. And that then affects communications. Having rebuilt the thing, you'll probably want to talk about it differently. But you want to keep the kernel of the brand in there as well. Otherwise, you know. But the bundle of promises that it's a brand changes when you begin to do the work that Jos is talking about.
So we're busy looking at what we can do creativity, how we can create pictures faster, words faster, campaigns, etc. But actually, what are the cultural effects? Because it isn't just us using it as professionals. It's going to supercharge the creator economy. What self-respecting 14-year-old is not going to be doing stuff already with generative AI, and they are, or else schools wouldn't be writing to us parents and saying, here are our rules around ChatGPT. - Mark Curtis, Head of Innovation at Accenture Song
Jos, let's touch on generative AI. How do you feel about agencies being transparent in their use of this technology?
Jos - I appreciate it, actually. Particularly (this is quite specific to our business, but a great many businesses), the larger kind of matrix organisations now have internal creative functions as well as working with agency partners. And it's a direct relationship in some cases, and in others, it's a kind of ring-fenced creative phase that happens, and then they hand it over to a creative partner. And I think what's more important, in a way, is the transparency used on both sides. Because I think if we're going to get the most out of it, if we're going to use it appropriately - The transparency of how it's being used, the platform, what's the source material. That has to be the direct reflection of the existing transparency that's been established in the relationship.
That's what's going to go and get more effective and efficient use of this amazing technology as it evolves.
So if we look at how we're likely to use it in relation to what we've just been talking about, can you imagine that we have this fantastic new insight into the behavioural drivers of a cohort of people? At the time, it would take me to have my internal design team or one of our design partners generate five options for connecting with that particular cohort based on their standard motivations. It might be six weeks. I could probably now, with decent kind of briefing and management of the AI platform, produce a hundred versions of that in a week, with multiple steps of requirement that are still guided by my creative experts. I don't know how easily a hundred options translate to A or B, but you can then test all of those to see which has the most significant impact as driving the person's behaviour in a more sustainable direction.
The knowledge upfront of how the agency will adopt this approach is vital. Transparency is critical on both sides. We're more than happy for our agency partners to use AI. I have no issue with that. I'd like to know what's being done responsibly, particularly in relation to the development of intellectual property. So we need to know what's there, subject-based, how it's being governed internally with their organisation and how we intend to use it, but the transparency of the relationship is still key.
Mark - Corporately, we feel very strongly about it. We're actually investing £3 billion over the next three years. I'm going to say not building out our AI; we already have a lot of AI capabilities because, fundamentally, we're a technology company and what Song does is bring creativity to that. So we are all about technology and creativity. We have a lot of expertise in AI. That's part one. Part two is, I mean everything Jos said, I agree entirely with you know.
We have about 400 working days left until we get to 2030, and we're going to limit carbon zero to carbon zero and climate change to a 1.5-degree rise in temperatures, which we're probably not going to get to, we're not going to hit that. We've not got long. Anything that can be done to speed that up, which is my way of interpreting what Jos said, let's bloody do it. That's just got to be good.
A good example of that, which we've been testing here, and people are loving, is creating synthetic research. So we can take a whole bunch of research and then build synthetic personalises out of it. So Jos can basically say, well what if we did the following with one of our brands? How would middle-aged women in Birmingham respond to that? The computer says yes. And so it's synthetic research, but it's based on real research using Gen AI to deliver it. Now, we have completed the second phase of the research that Jos has talked about, which is with 8,000 people globally.
So when you build that data into a large language model, you have an incredible way to talk to it about how people will respond in China, in Birmingham, in Atlanta, wherever it may be. That means we can get to our goals faster because, you know, we've got to drive sustainability, so it's essential from that perspective. In terms of how I feel about AI. We have yet to debate how no one is thinking enough, except for a colleague who said this to me this morning and it's stuck in my head about the cultural implications of generative AI.
So we're busy looking at what we can do creativity, how we can create pictures faster, words faster, campaigns, etc. But actually, what are the cultural effects? Because it isn't just us using it as professionals. It's going to supercharge the creator economy. What self-respecting 14-year-old is not going to be doing stuff already with generative AI, and they are, or else schools wouldn't be writing to us parents and saying, here are our rules around ChatGPT.
And that's going to happen. If you think about, you know, the phone and the camera and social media, that develops selfies. So we now have a whole generation who are much more self-regarding than ever before. That's had deep social consequences in a number of different ways. For example, around the mental health of young women. This is going to have social and cultural consequences. Some of them will be good and highly creative, and some may be less than good, and we need to begin really hunting those out, thinking about what that means.
What are the biggest lessons you've learned in your careers? What are the hardest lessons that you've learned?
Jos - I think the two are the same. The biggest lesson and the hardest lesson. Humility. The moment you change from being directly involved in the creative process, you change as a designer, visually, and practice as a designer; you have a direct hand in creating all of these things, principles, and implications. And then you have to step out of that at some point, and you start managing the process. And then you have to step out of that at some point, and you start managing a team, for instance. And the moment you have to interact with other individuals who you're talking to. The level of humility that you have to exhibit in your interactions and in your thinking is something that's been key for me to develop. A few years ago, for me now, I hadn't had the time to do that. I want to say that the responsibility that comes with having a team, or in some cases an entire organisation, it's quite a sobering responsibility and something that crosses a degree of humility that I hadn't anticipated but frankly had to learn with my own feelings and innate skillsets that I have. So, the biggest thing I've had to learn is developing greater humility.
How has that enhanced your ability to do your job well?
Jos - As soon as you recognise you're not the most important person, even in your world, let's learn in their world; you really try to understand what they face, what their worries are. We work on how you can support and mentor people—all of these things. So, for example, in our team, in the organisation, we have a, much like any large organisation, we have a framework for how we develop individuals. What, how and where they grow, and what skillset they need to have to leverage longer-term prospects. It's how would you like to grow as an individual. How can we provide for your equity in the industry as a whole to increase? So they may not want to stay working for our team or our company - that's okay. I want to think that we're building their skillsets, self-confidence, and whatever they need to become more successful individuals with greater prospects. So I think that empathy that comes from humility is just a fantastic tool.
Mark - I'm going to cut through. The first, very much I think, echoes what Jos has said, but I'm going to say it in a very different way, which is, avoid very clever people with no self-insight like they are the plague. And keep them off your teams, and don't work for them. They are the worst. Now, they can be really super brilliant and really brilliant and have a role. But a not-so-bright person with lots of self-insight is generally much better and easier to work with and will fit with the team than a megastar who doesn't know themselves. And I've run into those people three or four times, it's really only a handful of times, and they've caused massive disruption on teams. And so I now look out for it and still keep them away from teams. This doesn't mean I won't talk to them. They're frequently enormously illuminating and great to be around, but it's also that understanding themselves and their effect on other people, and they don't get it at all. And then the other one is, which is slightly, is different from what Jos said, which is pay very strong attention to cadence. Know when to go fast and know when to go slow. I've definitely been in a struggle with that my entire working life. My natural speed is very fast. And that's actually not always appropriate. And trying to understand the right cadence in a meeting, what you're doing, and being more patient. If I could go back and be 25 again, I'd approach things differently as a result of understanding how much change this allows as a person.
If you could speak to your 25-year-old self, what would you encourage them not to do in their career?
Mark - Well, I can tell you because I was absolutely crap at listening when I was 25. So I would say what one of my bosses said to me then, which is, I remember it right now, and I must have flushed strongly when he said it. He came out of a meeting, and he pulled me aside. He said, 'Mark, you will get the space to have your voice. Just wait for the space. Don't, you know, dive in and make it. At 25, you've got good things to but you just have to be quiet so that you can get the job done.'
Jos - Not to give up on pushing for sustainable solutions. So I'm trained as an industrial designer, and I think inherently in that training is always minimising the use of materials, making production technologies more efficient. So one of the things that we now think of as an improvement in sustainability is they reduce the use of energy, reduce the use of raw materials, and I believe in some of the areas I've worked in that constant battle to deliver greater, what we now call sustainability. And by the impact it typically has on our costs, I would ask myself to be more resilient, I think, and sticking with that.
Away from work, where can you both be found?
Jos - I have two passions currently. One is mixed martial arts, the associated cross-training. And the second is DJing, which I recently started. I learnt to DJ. I've always loved electronic dance music. And so it just absorbs me completely when I get into it.
I’ve played a live set a couple of times, only small ones. I've got a couple of gigs in when I get back to Amsterdam. But I just love it; it's transportive. I play lots of different styles, but for me it's almost like running. That sort of the repetitive nature of it. It's in certain chunks, so you know there will be particular parts to the song you're trying to do. So you know there are certain things that you need, certain things that are inside each other. You can overlay the whole thing so you have this meditative state as you are, you can take the cues. You get into a state of flow.
Mark - Either on a bicycle, up a mountain, or both at the same time. Frequently both at the same time. Or in nature. I really, I get very calm and very absorbed in nature. Not really a beach; it's more forest, soil, up the mountain, you know. I'm lucky enough to have a four-acre field, and after quite a lot of thought, we're regenerating it to be a wildflower meadow. So that's a big project to home. But it's complicated because to do that, you actually have to put down a roundup, which is not right. So I'm doing that, which I'm really not happy about, but it generates the conditions for us to be able to sow the seeds. And then, you know, once the seeds are there, two or three years in, way more insects and then way more bird life. That's the idea.