Marketer-Led Reviews Have Shops Crying Foul

For Agencies Feeling Put-Upon by Procurement, Suddenly Search Consultants Don't Seem So Bad

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On June 29, the head of new business at DDB North America, Brandon Snow, fired off this tweet: "Gotta love this biz. RFI shows up today, for a response by July 6th. I truly believe clients think agencies don't need holiday time off."

Ill-advised as it may be to bemoan a chance to pitch a new account, Mr. Snow's hardly the only exec frustrated by the agency review process these days. A few of the complaints on the list: hyper-condensed timelines; unfair requests by marketers to own speculative creative or strategic work; a lack of transparency about the size of the ultimate prize; and inadequate or no compensation to offset the costs of pitching. One new-business leader at a U.S. agency told Ad Age that of the seven pitches her shop is currently involved in, it's only being compensated for one.

The spike in complaints about review processes coincides with a rise in client-led reviews and a decrease in the use of agency search consultants.

It's a classic case of being careful what you wish for. Search consultants had become a whipping boy of the industry, accused of pay-for-play business practices and acting as a barrier between agencies and clients. But it turns out that in many cases, search consultants can be an advocate for agencies and educate clients on how to fairly and respectfully treat potential future partners.

Tom Finneran
Tom Finneran

"What we see with some client-led reviews is the original amateur hour," said Tom Finneran, exec VP-agency management services at the 4A's. Often, clients are leading their own reviews as part of procurement departments' remit to help choose which agencies a company works with. "People will take [request-for-proposal] forms that they use to [buy] corrugated cardboard and use that same RFP to conduct an agency search, maybe tacking in a few additional agency questions." He recalls one RFP last year that had 281 questions, about 10 of which were marketing related.

Agencies are also still smarting from a series of recent open-call reviews -- or as ad folks not-so-affectionately dub them, cattle calls. There was the Voss water review that began with a press release, the Current TV review that was launched over Twitter, and Zappos' public review which ultimately had more than 100 competing agencies.

Said Mr. Finneran: "Say what you will about search consultants ... but at least they understand the business, and understand the importance of having a reasonable list and process and winnowing it down."

In the current Best Buy review, the marketer's procurement department issued the RFP document. Other accounts up for grabs that aren't using a consultant include Chobani yogurt and the U.S. Corp. for Travel Promotion.

"As more clients are managing their own reviews, they are less aware of the time needed to fulfill crucial milestones in a review," said Ken Robinson, principal at Ark Advisors in New York. "That's why they might ask for a response in three days. ... We had a client that wanted final presentations to be done December 26, and we told them that wasn't appropriate."

And, he added, "if a client is leading the review themselves, chances are they aren't going to think to offer a stipend."

"I can see the frustration with consultants seen as being a buffer [between the agency and client] ... but sometimes you could argue face time -- if you're not getting paid for the work -- isn't good either," said Lauren Crampsie, chief marketing officer at Ogilvy.

The complaints have spurred the 4A's to approach the ANA about the issue, and now the groups are working together to develop best-practice guidelines for agency search.

"We are doing that because there is an acknowledgment -- by both advertisers and agencies -- that search practices aren't being conducted as efficiently as they should be," said Mr. Finneran. And [lack of ] efficiency isn't just costly to agencies, it's also costly to advertisers because their management will become distracted if pitches aren't conducted well and it adds to agency cost."

The guidelines are set to be issued in the fall.

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