This isn't just idle chatter on the Westport station platform. The involvement of consultants in reviews has grown like the genie voiced by actor Robin Williams in Walt Disney Co.'s movie "Aladdin"-appearing in a puff of smoke and shooting up to alarming size and importance.
They're a byproduct of the dramatic rise in account and, particularly, media-only reviews, the latter a result of the "unbundling" of media assignments by advertisers. But also by what I call the "rebundling" of media assignments that haven't worked out and need reassigning again.
$2 BIL SHIFTED THIS YEAR
By my calculations, more than $2 billion in media-only billings on major accounts have shifted so far in 1997, more than ever before in the history of the industry. A lot of these media assignments, and reassignments, have been under the aegis of consultants, who have become the new faces in the pitch. Unfortunately, these consultants and advisers have become the gatekeepers who frequently determine who gets into the pitch.
How did these self-styled experts gain so much clout so fast?
They're not like real estate agents, who help sell homes using well-established venues, or political consultants, who help elect candidates using a menu of paid and unpaid media vehicles. Instead, a number of consultants broker mil-lion-dollar media marriages based on fragmentary knowledge, whims, "short lists" of contenders and fee arrangements that may or may not benefit the advertiser.
Too often these consultants don't have a true understanding of the considerable disciplines, intricacies and network relationships that affect media performance for different kinds of marketers.
THEY'RE NOT EXPERTS
You'd think a third party adviser hired for a media-only review would be extremely well-versed in state-of-the-art media planning, research techniques and capabilities, and value-added innovations. But the majority simply aren't. In many cases, they're the same "generalists" that advertisers bring in for full account reviews, and often their knowledge of media lies mainly in the database generated from the questionnaires they send to agencies and services.
Advertisers initiating a media-only search through a consultant would do well to look beyond the genielike smoke-and-mirrors posturing that some advisers substitute for knowledge gaps. The American Association of Advertising Agencies' new business committee has made a good start by initiating guidelines on release of material, confidentiality of data, conflicts of interest and searches for "undisclosed clients" (AA, Oct. 6, et seq.).
But smart advertisers can do more. First and foremost, they can insist on learning not just the consultant's track record of engagements, but how long each reassignment lasted. (One can speculate that more than one recent major media account assignment was reassigned only a year or two later because the marketer and media buyer were clearly mismatched in the first place.)
Next, advertisers should broaden any standard short list of familiar names to include agencies and services with experience that's relevant to your product's media mix or long-term goals in the marketplace.
Finally, they should beware the consultant that locates potential partners with overloaded questionnaires that seek information above and beyond those areas of inquiry affecting the particular marketer and search.
ABUSE OF QUESTIONNAIRES
Agency and media service executives who wouldn't think of revealing proprietary information to the industry are routinely asked to do so in many questionnaires. Abuses are common. Unless the consultant is impartial and objective, a database of financial knowledge can be used to build the consultant's agenda and not to fulfill the advertiser's need. (At SFM Media, we simply won't disclose confidential client and company information, which takes us right off the list of one well-known and arrogant consultancy.)
To their credit, some advertisers elect to keep genielike consultants in their bottles and initiate their own list of potential agencies of record. They examine the competitive arena, monitor the trade press, acquire a sense of account movement, and talk to network and other media reps they respect in the marketplace. They see who's really hungry for an airline, a health or beauty aid, a brokerage house.
One major marketer looking at "rebundling" opportunities visited us recently and spent an hour sharing marketing trends, campaign histories and some test market results. It was an enlightening and productive session for the marketer and for us . . . and light years away from grinding out page after page of a consultant's guesswork questionnaire.
FINDING THE RIGHT PARTNER
At the end of the day, what matters most is choosing a media buying partner that will help your business grow stronger today and into the new millennium. You want a team of planning and buying and value-added experts-agency or media buying service-that won't wear out or wear wrong and have to be rebundled in four or five years.
The right media consultant with seasoned, front-line media experience can be helpful in many bruising, heavily populated product categories. Similarly, the right ad manager or corporate communications head who's closely attuned to media operations can be a lead searcher with a sharper focus.
One thing's clear: Agencies and services are more likely to share in meaningful ways their techniques, leading-edge capabilities and ideas, and significant broadcaster and publisher contacts with a potential client across the conference room table than on Page 28 of that questionnaire.
To consult or not to consult. Either way, choose wisely.
Mr. Staab is chairman of SFM Media Corp., New York.