Search Consultants Sound Off: Reviews Are Getting 'Out of Control'

Procurement, Lack of Transparency Complicating the Process

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Agency search consultants admitted that the process of agency reviews has gotten "totally out of control" during a session at the Mirren New Business Conference in New York this week. Speaking on a panel called "Why You Are -- And Are Not -- On Our Radar," the comments were made by Hagen Inc. President Wendy Hagen; Roth Associates President Richard Roth; External View Principal Russel Wohlwerth; and Rojek Consulting Group President Lorraine Stewart Lockhart. The session was moderated by Ad Age Agency Editor Rupal Parekh.

Mr. Wohlwerth stressed that the agency search process hasn't worked efficiently in many years, and is only getting more and more unwieldy. "It was great when 'Bonanza' was a top TV show," he joked, "but now there's too much money, activity, relationships."

The chaos in the review space -- and related consternation from agency execs, which Ad Age has written about -- stems largely from the fact that pitches are being run in so many different ways today. They're being run by client marketing departments, procurement departments, open-calls started via a press release, and less and less of the time, by review consultants.

While many in the industry say the search consultants still manage about 30% overall pitches, Mr. Wohlwerth contended that number is smaller. In his estimation, four to five years ago, nearly 80% of pitches were client-led, and search consultants' participation has "declined since procurement has gotten involved." It continues to decline, he noted. "Sometimes we're supporting procurement and sometimes we're fighting with them."

"I don't work with procurement departments a lot," added Ms. Stewart Lockhart. "I have, but I find I have a different strategic view of the process that doesn't align with the fundamental purpose of procurement."

Mr. Wohlwerth followed by saying, "It's not that they're bad, but it's about how low can you go. [Procurement is ] great for checks and balances," but clients need to let the search consultant in to help them "correctly pose" their purpose and choose their words. "It's not marketing procurement, it's marketing investments."

The changing and less predictable nature of the review is largely what's creating a disruption for the search consultants' own industry. Ms. Stewart Lockhart said, "Agencies are going outside the bound of questions asked in an RFP so there are more relationship and [new] experiences during reviews than before, when there was more rule-following."

Also, the review participant list is more diverse than ever as marketers look for new ways to solve their problems. So search consultants find themselves focusing on the list of shops involved and requesting more specific briefs from clients.

Ms. Hagen said that she's helped run reviews in which ad and PR firms were among the finalists. "Consultants can help clients when there are apples-to-oranges comparisons. [Agencies'] approach to problems and solutions are different; one is not right or wrong."

Added Mr. Wohlwerth, "The greatest services we can provide them is to guide them. We don't want a crazy group of so many kinds of agencies. A lot of what we do is therapeutic and walking them through [a review].

Mr. Roth also advised agencies to refrain from answering questions during an RFP process that they don't know the answer to. For example, he said, "One client asked shops, 'What's your waste water disposal policy?' Nobody could answer and our advice was don't."

He said that the No. 1 challenge in educating clients has to do with pricing. "Clients think agencies are expensive because they don't understand the cost, and [specifically] the cost of going through the development of advertising."

Another focus for consultants is reconciling the transparency issue. Marketers' reluctance to disclose the firms involved in a pitch could be harmful to a small agency's business when that agency is trying to decide whether it's worth investing in a pitch against a large shop, explained one agency executive during the Q&A session. Panelists agreed that clients should publicize that information.

"Five years ago, people would promote and publicize a review. Now we need permission to put a client logo on a website," said Ms. Stewart Lockhart.

The consultants advised that in order to get on consultants' radar, they should provide quarterly updates about their agency, should be active in the blogosphere and on social media, and consider positioning themselves as leaders in specific categories.

Some of the advice the panel offered was more lighthearted. When asked about the worst thing an agency has done during a pitch, Mr. Wohlwerth recalled a time, during an HP pitch, when he was in the bathroom with an agency lead who didn't wash his hands. Talk about advice for small and big agencies alike? Bring some Purell.

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