Undervalued? Perhaps you're lacking commercial chemistry

It's all about commercial chemistry, argues McCann London's Saj Manzoor, and here's how your agency can adapt your processes to better embrace it.

I was recently on a panel at the IPA Business Growth Conference, during which the discussion focused on creating more mutually beneficial client/agency partnerships. This got me thinking; does the existing model for successful partnerships currently undervalue the massive importance of commercial chemistry? And if so, how can agencies adapt their processes to better embrace it?

Creative industries spend a material amount of time focusing on creating a culture of human chemistry, and we’re good at it too. We make sure our team and idea have the right components to flourish. We’re always ready to delve deep into an idea, to unpack it, re-box it, love it, hate it, nurture it, but all the while overlooking a fundamental step in the process, the commercial element.

There appears to be some level of trepidation when it comes to talking about money with our clients. In my role as CFO I believe we need to buck this trend of tip-toeing around costs and put our weight behind our commercial relationships. As service providers, we can’t afford to be offended by the issue of money – it’s part-and-parcel of our relationship with clients and it needs to be addressed head on. It’s time for us to break that barrier down.

Consultancies are great at it and because they’re not afraid to talk money, they are paid their worth and in turn can afford to attract and retain the industry’s best young talent. Ad agencies need to step up and take a leaf out of the consultancies’ book and think about not just feeding talents’ souls, but their bank accounts too. Otherwise, I worry where we might be in ten years’ time if we aren’t winning the hearts of the best people out there.

So, in flipping the paradigm – what’s the formula to achieving commercial chemistry? I visualise this as an equilateral triangle with three points of alignment, inclusion and collaboration – thus making commercial chemistry essential to the overall process.


All too often we fail to align either amongst ourselves or with the client when defining the actual business problem. We need to be asking ourselves: “What are we looking to achieve? Why are we even here in the first place?” The answer: to get to the root of a client’s problem, to work through it and decipher what exactly we’re trying to address. We don’t just make TV ads – sometimes TV ads don’t work. We need to get to a place where we’re consulting with the client and finding a solution that solves the business problem, and not ruminating on just the marketing issues. So, it’s imperative we sort the scope before we can fully comprehend what we’re doing, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.


Two hands are better than one. But imagine what four, six or eight skilled hands can do to help deliver the most effective client solution? All key groups within an agency must join forces to discuss how resource is best structured and used to deliver the optimum outcome. And this hinges heavily on our fee, which must be decided upon by including the right people in the right conversation. I’m a huge advocate of what I like to call the “Value Council” – a team of people who when working together use their skills and know-how to convert a business problem into value for the client.


The agency Value Council engage with key stakeholders of the client to finalise the scope and fee – ensuring all are aware of the implications of fee reductions or scope changes. This is where the frequently undervalued procurement team come in. To this day it still shocks me when people refer to procurement people as ‘them’ – putting this group of experts in another camp altogether, as if they’re a separate entity and not related to our business or ambition to deliver creative work at its best. What we need to do is start referring to the procurement teams as ‘us’. A good procurement person understands what we are endeavouring to achieve and will use their expertise to help secure an efficient and mutually beneficial agreement between agency and client. They can serve as a spirit-level to help realign a process and prevent this aspect of admin from becoming a problem or irritation.

At McCann, our motto has always been to help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives – and the fact is you can’t achieve this without a healthy dose of commercial chemistry. We’re about alignment with our clients from the outset, inclusion within our four walls and collaboration with procurement. The conversation is three-fold, evolving around structures, processes and money. Once you’ve kick-started the conversation with the right people in the room, you’ve not only got human chemistry but the makings of commercial chemistry too.

With that bedrock of commercial chemistry, we’re opening the channel for both sides, the agency and the client to talk commerciality and fees without blushing. And let’s not forget that we have a dual responsibility to the client – to deliver the best possible solution whilst helping them manage their budgets effectively, efficiently and always with that chemical component of creativity.

Saj Manzoor is CFO & COO at McCann London

Last updated 21 January 2022