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In Virtual Strike, Belgium's Ad Agencies Close Their Sites

Marketers Ignore Pitch Rules, Leading Shops to Protest and Host Open Letter

By Published on . 17

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Belgium's ad agencies started a one-week virtual strike today to protest the way clients conduct pitches in their country.

Many advertisers in Belgium have stopped following an industry charter that sets norms ranging from an acceptable number of agencies in a pitch (no more than three) to contributing to agencies' pitch costs. So far, almost 20 agencies have closed their websites except for displaying one paragraph each of an open letter to clients that runs across their home pages, from one agency's site to the next (famous.be).

The letter begins: "Dear visitor, As you can see, we have replaced our regular website with this letter. It's going to stay up one week to express our discontent. Allow us to explain..." A link at the bottom of the screen says "Continue reading at" and links to the next agency's site and an explanation of the charter, why it exists, and how it is being violated.

"Because of the [economic] crisis, advertisers were getting aggressive and not following the rules, and it only works if everyone sticks to the charter," said Luc De Leersnyder, CEO of the ACC, Belgium's association of communication companies, which masterminded the strike. "I wrote a letter to members [saying] if you're called into a pitch and know there are six or seven other guys and that you'll spend 80,000 euros on the pitch, you have a better chance at a casino."

It all started when the Belgian government's own national lottery invited 10 agencies to pitch, then made a shortlist of four agencies to re-pitch.

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"Advertisers thought, 'If the lottery can do it, why not me?'" Mr. De Leersnyder said. In the last few months, two major pitches have had shortlists of more than 10 agencies, he said.

When he proposed the virtual strike, a number of agencies wanted to post the letter, yet still keep their sites up, but Mr. De Leersnyder told them, "You're either on or off."

Earlier this week a few agencies began to post the letter, and when the strike officially began today there were almost 20, including JWT, Ogilvy, BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi, McCann, and local shops such as Happiness, Famous, Tagora, Boondoogle, 7beaufort and Kunstmaan. In a cool feature, the letter is divided in sections according to the number of agencies participating. If there are six agencies, the letter is split into six pieces, and starts from the beginning no matter which agency's site is accessed. Mr. De Leersnyder said about six more agencies want to participate and will be added to the chain.

The letter is in English, which appears to be a PR gambit because neither of Belgium's two official languages is English, but most Belgian agencies' websites use English to avoid the expense and duplication of posting everything in both Dutch and French in such a small market. The phrase "The virtual strike is an initiative of ACC" appears on every page.

Mr. De Leersnyder said the virtual strike got 156 tweets in its first two hours, and is popping up on Facebook.

In other action, the ACC is meeting with the Belgian government about setting up a system for government advertising similar to that of the U.K., where a roster of agencies, reviewed every three years, pitches for government accounts.

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