Speed-Dating: Is This the New Normal?

When Clients Pick the Wedding Date Before Looking for a Partner

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Millie Olson Millie Olson
On Friday afternoon of the Fourth of July weekend, I took a last quick look at office e-mail and discovered, to my delight, an RFP from a company that had long been on our list of "passion prospects," a great match for our expertise in natural and healthy lifestyle brands.

The e-mail came with a multitude of attachments and I was up to my elbows, quite literally, in pastry dough, prepping for a party. But some of my favorite terms leaped out: "strategic partnership," "creative agency," etc. I fired back a response communicating our delight at the opportunity, copied our agency team, and floated off for the holiday weekend.

But by the time we gathered in the office on Monday, there were a lot of long faces.

The competitive agencies (we learned there were 10) were invited to ask questions at a single mass phone conference the next day. Those who chose to participate were to be at client headquarters six to eight business days later with a capabilities presentation (showcasing strategic, traditional advertising, media buying and online expertise), a perspective on their strategic direction, and spec creative for a print ad, coupon ads, and the first few pages of a redesigned website. The budget was under our usual threshold but, well, it's 2009.

The phone call was awkward to say the least. While most participants remained anonymous, I recognized one or two voices from other San Francisco agencies. Other comments revealed that East Coast agencies were also invited to present to this West Coast company.

The questions, and the silences in between, made it clear that others were wrestling with the same issues. We learned that the very tight timetable was driving the schedule for selecting an agency. That the alarmingly generic strategic direction, complete with tagline, was more or less a given. And that there was no media budget for the print; the agency was to help convince ownership of the efficacy of media advertising.

So a strategic partner was to be chosen primarily via a meeting scarcely more than a week away, based on creative that, except for the free-standing insert, was speculative in every sense of the word.

Kind of like setting your wedding date and then using speed-dating to pick your mate.

So many red flags. Yet a brand we'd admired and pursued, in strategic territory that we knew well. Such a temptation to get the camel's nose into the tent.

We decided to decline with regret, largely on our belief that the structure of the pitch would not serve the client's best interests any more than our own. We congratulated ourselves on being so principled. But the regret was real. And the question still nags at me: Is this new business, 2009-style? Is this the new normal?

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