For the third time in the past several months, the 4A's has released a directive, with this one focused on agencies obtaining feedback from clients at the conclusion of an agency review. The trade group circulated the document to all its members as well as the search consultant community, and is touting it on its website.
"Surprisingly, many agencies do not have formal protocols for consistently obtaining learning feedback from their new business-agency review activities," the document states. The 4A's suggests a three-pronged approach to post-review feedback that includes: agencies conducting a self-assessment immediately after the final review; agency search agreements between clients and shops including a commitment from the advertiser to provide frank feedback after the pitch; and use of a standardized questionnaire to help collect information about client searches.
According to Tom Finneran, exec VP of agency-management services at the 4A's, agencies need more feedback because of discrepancies between what agencies think clients want and what clients actually want during a review process.. For example, he said, "Agencies talk about pitch theater -- like it's a Broadway show -- and clients say they don't want that shit. How do agencies get that learning and internalize it unless clients say there was sizzle but not enough steak, and you're too showy?"
The trade group has stepped up its communications to the industry in the past six months. It released guidance on agency compensation in the fourth quarter of last year, and in the first quarter of this year it released guidance on patent risk management. Mr. Finneran said there's more to come, and that the 4A's has now invited the Association of National Advertisers to work with the trade group on joint guidance on principles for fair agency compensation and best practices for agency reviews.
Search consultants and new-business executives who have reviewed the 4A's latest missive say the trade group's heart is in the right place, but there may be some practical challenges necessary to overcome in getting clients to share feedback post-review.
"Agencies participating in a pitch should get feedback on how they perform," said Brian Martin, owner of New York-based consultancy SourceMartin. "It's a valuable and critical part of the process, so I think it's great the 4A's is pushing consultants to do a better job with this."
"I think the spirit is absolutely right," said Joanne Davis, a prominent search consultant. "We always debrief agencies" and "as consultants we sometimes have to participate in a competitive review as well. Most of the time clients are respectful and say we're going with another firm because their price is lower or they're closer to our offices."
She noted, though, that the 4A's has gone "a little too far" with its guidance by suggesting that search agreements should include a clause committing to post-review feedback. "It doesn't have to be part of a legal document in order for professionals to follow good practices," Ms. Davis said. She said too that asking agencies and clients to use standardized questionnaires is "too formulaic because each review is different. . . . One form doesn't fit all."
Written feedback could also expose a client legally.
Still most agree that shining a spotlight on the issue is better than ignoring it. Stephen Larkin, head of new business at Mullen in Boston said: "I can't speak for every agency, but at Mullen, we think it's important to get some feedback. We let clients know prior to a review that , whether we win or lose, we want some feedback."
He added that reminding agencies of the importance of a debrief session after a pitch is especially key as the number of procurement and marketer-led reviews are on the rise, and there might not be a consultant present to help provide consistency during a pitch process. He estimated about 30% of all reviews now are led by search consultants.