Impromptu phone interviews. Trekking to on-site meetings. Sweating through detailed questions about processes, client history, references, and, of course, price.
It's not easy being a search consultant these days.
Used to putting advertising agencies through rigorous reviews on behalf of marketers, consultants are increasingly finding that they themselves have to pitch against each other for marketers' business. While consultant reviews aren't quite standard practice, they're no longer rare. Marketers such as Delta Air Lines, Subaru of America, Kia Motors America, Kao Corp.'s Andrew Jergens Co. and Wawa have auditioned a number of consultants recently. And executives at a few larger consultancies report that up to half of their new business comes from competition of some kind, ranging from formal RFIs to relatively casual interviews that seek to discern the differences among consultants.
"We've gotten more of this in the last six months than in the past 23 and a half years," said Leslie Winthrop, found- er and managing partner at AAR Partners, New York.
Other consultants describe the trend in less dramatic terms, but almost all agree that what was once largely a referral-based business is seeing more and more open competition.
Two factors explain the change. First, the sour economy of recent years has led to the increased involvement of corporations' penny-pinching procurement departments in the professional-services arena. And what was once the province of government agencies and trade associations, obliged to get the best price possible and bid out all their business, spilled over into more process-minded companies.
Second, the number of consultants proliferated as the niche became a standard part of account reviews of all sizes. Two decades ago, the field was limited to just a few players. Now nearly 70 firms are listed on the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Web site. Although the average cost of a review-which by some estimates range from $50,000 for a national review to more than twice that for a global one-is a drop in a marketer's budget, the success of a marketing effort can hinge on the guidance of a consultant. And that means things like track record and the particulars of a selection process have become all the more important, requiring consultants to be more conscious of their own brands.
"We're a cottage industry," said one review consultant. "Some marketers say we're all the same. Either the distinction is too fine to be seen or we do a bad job selling ourselves."
That's not for lack of trying, though. Many shops advertise proprietary processes and information databases about agencies. Some, like Pile & Co. , Boston, and Rojek Consulting, Cleveland, use their Web sites to break down these processes step by step in order to differentiate themselves.
"There is a lot of duplication," said Jane Bedford, partner at The Bedford Group, Atlanta. "You have to have a process. But I'm not sure you can tell how well it works from an RFP."
None of this is to say that word-of-mouth or organic growth have gone away as means to new business. Some consultants, such as Richard Roth, president of Roth Associates, New York, said that marketers are moving more quickly now when it comes to picking a consultant. He said he's seen "no uptick in consultants being asked to pitch for reviews."
With some irony, many consultants blasted the RFP process when it comes to their business. Ken Caffrey, managing partner at Jones Lundin Beals, New York, said questions written on an RFP "help me identify clients I don't want to work with."
However, not all rue a changing competitive landscape. "I love it," said Hasan Ramusevic, founder of Hasan & Co., noting that the process can weed out the less-experienced players. "Those of us who have been around and know what we're doing stand to win from this." n
contributing: lisa sanders, alice z. cuneo
Some marketers that have asked consultants to pitch recently:
Subaru of America
Kia Motors America
Delta Air Lines
Andrew Jergens Co.