In keeping with his firm's name -- which was adopted from a New
York Post headline about an escort agency -- Mr. Lee aims to be
provocative to differentiate himself from the current crop of
"We want to bring a real value to a client not by leveling the
playing field or running a strict process," Mr. Lee said. "We
should let agencies be themselves. Leveling the playing field has
gotten a little out of hand."
The search-consulting space is tiny, largely made up of small,
established firms that have been guiding reviews for decades.
Disruption doesn't happen often, and at a time when the rest of the
marketing world is changing, shaking things up isn't necessarily a
The last change agent came 18 months ago, when industry vet
Steve Blamer threw a hand grenade, calling the search process
woefully broken, with most consultants operating as "double
dippers" being paid by both agencies and clients.
Madam's timing could be better, as a perfect storm of lingering
effects of a recession, media fragmentation and the increased
involvement of client procurement departments has led to fewer
consultant-run pitches. Many of the best-known firms in the sector,
including Ark Advisors, Roth Associates, SRI International and Pile
& Co., have diversified to engage in M&A advising,
compensation consulting, client-agency relationship management and
Mr. Lee will solely conduct creative agency searches but says
he'll evolve his model once he gets a few clients under his
But agencies will need to be willing to comply with his
- To avoid "cattle-call" style pitches, he'll use a "9-6-3-1"
winnowing philosophy whereby clients will never reach out to more
than nine shops for initial participation in a pitch and using a
simple request-for-information form.
- Six agencies will be chosen to participate in a formal pitch,
after which they'll have a 15-minute Skype call with a senior
client executive to ask questions and sense the scope of work.
- Reviews will employ e-auctions, in which agencies log on to an
online portal with their chief financial officers and clients with
their procurement departments. In a window of about 40 minutes, all
agencies must submit fee requirements, and each can see what the
others are bidding. "It's used heavily in purchasing of
non-marketing materials effectively," said Mr. Lee, "and we didn't
want to leave the financial area till the last minute."
- Agencies and clients will build Pinterest mood boards in what
Mr. Lee refers to a more touchy-feely part of the process to see
whether the client and agency are in sync.
- At in-person meetings, agency contenders have a 90-minute chat
with clients about work. Clients can ask agencies "curve ball"
questions they're not prepared for, "designed to see how the team
operates in an unrehearsed way," Mr. Lee said.
- Then Madam meets with the client to help whittle down the
number of shops to three. These agencies present work, and from
there one winner is chosen.
Of all the unusual elements in the process, one that 's sure to
raise a red flag to agencies is the transparent e-bidding
procedure, whereby agencies can see one anothers' fee requests.
When asked whether that process commoditizes the business, Mr.
Lee replied, "All this is doing is giving the client the ability to
see where agencies are in terms of a general money area. It just
enables everybody to get a lay of the land financially and it is
not the final negotiation."
He said he's consulted with several prominent agency CEOs and
clients, and they support the model.
One of those people is Becky Saeger, a marketing strategist and
former chief marketing officer of Charles Schwab (and tapped Mr.
Lee's services). She told Ad Age that Madam's focus on helping
clients to see differences among shops should be appealing to
companies embarking on an agency search.
"The idea of going through vetting of agencies, chemistry checks
and tissue sessions -- there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the
process," said Ms. Saeger. "But so much of the time it's cultural
and not necessarily about capabilities.
"What drives people crazy is that it takes a long time, and
you're often in the situation where you're going, "So what's the
difference between the agencies? ... And it's expensive and it's
time consuming. And then when you get into the contract negotiation
part with procurement, it's exacerbated," he said.
Ad Age spoke to several established search consultants about Mr.
Lee's plans, and they seemed unthreatened by a new entrant. But
some longstanding firms registered concern.
"It's not healthy for agencies to see each other's compensation
requests because it could lead to low balling," said Alan Krinsky,
a consultant for two decades.
Additionally Mr. Krinsky said the "9-6-3-1" rule is too
limiting, in light of today's digital needs and social-media
deliverables. "That's an arbitrary rule to put in place. ... And to
set a limit upfront is not realistic."