|Source: TNS Media Intelligence, public sources|
In the past year, the consultancy -- helmed by President-CEO Catherine Bension -- has been tapped to lead reviews for clients in virtually every sector, from retail to automotive to tech and financial services, and for big spenders AT&T and Bank of America at the same time as smaller and midsize players such as L.L. Bean and New Balance.
Much larger footprint
"Historically her footprint was primarily on the West Coast, but I would say in the last five years she has expanded her footprint to a national level and in the last two years has really put a lot of distance between herself and competitors," said one new-business executive at a media agency. "I would estimate that 60% to 70% of all big pitches are going to her."
Industry sources firmly place SRI, which opened in 1992 and has completed more than 400 agency reviews since then, as No. 1 in both volume of media billings and number of reviews, outpacing competitors such as Pile & Co. Joanne Davis Consulting, Ark Advisors, AAR Partners, Hasan & Co. and Roth Associates.
To be sure, consultants in the biz are called upon by marketers to do much more than just account reviews, such as complicated compensation negotiations, agency assessments and merger-and-acquisition evalutations -- all areas where profit margins tend to be higher than they are for account reviews. Still, there's no doubt SRI is encroaching on competitors' space.
"She seems to have grabbed the market from [Boston-based Pile & Co.] in my mind. ... They are less active, or at least publicly active," said one Omnicom Group new-business executive. An Ad Age tally last year estimated that SRI conducted 41 reviews in 2007; Pile & Co. was next in line, with 27.
Pitching the pitch
The competition in the search-consultant game has gotten tougher, new-business executives agree, and they get a taste of their own medicine in the sense that they have to pitch the pitch too. "You have some old-school consultants who are really good people, but they don't present themselves well when they go head-to-head," the executive said. "Catherine is a pretty sharp lady. She presents herself well, she's got an agency background and has hired a couple people who do too, so they do very well."
For its review, Home Depot "considered several potential and viable search partners," Senior VP-Chief Marketing Officer Frank Bifulco told Advertising Age in an e-mail. "SRI, based on our criteria, rose to the top" for the "rigor of their process and ability to implement an agency-selection process that was comprehensive, effective and efficient," he said.
Rival consultancies, meanwhile, often criticize SRI for undercutting them on cost, something they say is feasible because it charges not only clients but also agencies a premium in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $15,000 a year if they wish to be included in the consultancy's "library and feedback consulting service."
Ms. Bension said: "It's not a required part of our process. ... We take a very firm position that we will not solicit or sign up agencies at the start of a review."
"To say 'pay for play' is oversimplifying it a bit," said another new-business executive, "but yes, some agencies are doing it because they think that it would further their relationship with her and improve their chances in pitches."
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Contributing: Natalie Zmuda