Three Reasons Why Lyft's 'Wildcard' Call to Small Shops Is Distressing for Adland

The Agency Search Process Needs Modernization, Not Mixing Up

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Remember the wacky spin on the request-for-proposal process Aloft hotels attempted some years back called the "RFTweet"? How about ZipCar's cattle-call that included over a hundred agencies? Or the launch of Madam, a search consultancy mandating agencies use Pinterest to create "mood boards" and e-bid systems to win a brand's business?

You may not recall these ill-conceived approaches to agency new business. I do -- an affliction stemming from years following the minutiae of adland in my prior career as a journalist.

That's why, when the ride-sharing startup Lyft put out its "Wildcard" search for a 10th agency to join its review yesterday, that familiar queasy feeling returned. Once again agencies have been hit with a PR stunt veiled as an effort to make an agency search more hip and fun.

I'm not alone.

As I voiced my problems with Lyft's offer to add one small agency to an existing batch of vetted shops, others chimed in to express their distaste too.

"There are a lot of things to dislike about this stunt," said a creative director at award-winning indie shop Struck based in Portland.

Wrote a well-regarded motion designer: "Ewwww @lyft is asking for spec work and a free pitch. #nospec". Said a copywriter, sarcastically, "You guys! This is supposed to be fun. Like you do a bunch of work for us for free for -- FUN."

Even a fellow marketer, who works at online dating site Zoosk, was taken aback. "6 days for an AOR pitch? Damn!"

With the criticism there was also straight-up confusion. Tweeted the founder of a small West Coast agency called Instrument: "The real wildcard: What's the actual business opportunity for the winning agency?" (He didn't get a response).

How to explain the visceral reaction I had, as did these creatives? It's about having enough experience to instinctively sniff out when a brand pitch feels disrespectful of agencies' resources, time and thinking.

It turns out that Lyft's "Wildcard" pitch also breaks several of the best practice rules laid out by the 4A's.

I consulted a piece Tom Finneran, exec VP-agency management services at the 4A's, penned for Ad Age a few years ago. He outlined half a dozen hallmarks of an improper agency review process, and Lyft pretty much checks them all -- from the inadequately constructed brief to spec work to a lack of clarity about the assignment and compensation.

By going against these best practices -- mind you, not created by a trade organization in a bubble but rather with tons of input from adland's most prominent new-business leaders -- Lyft's attempt to tackle agency search in a new way is not improving the process. It's actually making it worse.

As I stated at the beginning, there's plenty of precedent for misguided pitch practices. From my view there are three chief reasons why the Lyft case is particularly disappointing.

1. We should expect better from a startup. They're supposed to foster a culture of respect for business partners. And this isn't some nonprofit brand we're talking about. Lyft has raised $1 billion from the likes of Carl Icahn and is probably desperate for stellar thinking that can help it compete with burgeoning transportation player Uber. So why should it get any agencies thinking for free -- and for everyone on Twitter to see?

2. The playing field is uneven. The nine undisclosed agencies Lyft asked to participate before the announcement of the "Wildcard" didn't have to create a public Twitter video.

3. Lyft has Alex Bogusky as an advisor. As one of the most-revered ad executives in history, who often railed against the pitch process, he should be doing a better job uplifting the industry that brought him fame.

Here's a bit of advice from someone who's researched and written about hundreds of pitches.

Agencies: Pay attention to tone. Don't fall for a company suggesting it's your lucky break to have a chance to work with them. So that Twitter brief Mr. Bogusky was touting about this pitch being a "dream come true for scrappy underdogs"? Nope. Flip that. Shift the power. Believe in your creativity.

Lyft's dream is to have an agency as kickass as yours that will make the time to even consider this pitch, let alone go through with it. Remember: Wieden & Kennedy is Wieden & Kennedy in large part because of all the times that Dan and team were brave enough to utter that powerful two-letter word. "No."

To brands, I'll say this: Resist the urge to turn your RFP into a marketing moment. And just like agencies, I'd urge you not to settle either. Lyft said its impetus for all this was to "mix up the RFP process." That sets the bar way too low.

Lyft, and every other brand out there should actively be working on ways to truly improve the agency search process. Not because it's the right thing to do, but because in the end, that's what will earn your brand respect from the creative community and have mind-blowing talent clamoring for a chance to work with you.

Rupal Parekh is a marketing consultant working with agencies big and small, and, occasionally, startup brands. She is the former Deputy Managing Editor of Ad Age.

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