How to Search for a Search Consultant

Three Steps to Heed While on the Hunt

By Published on .

Michael Duda
Michael Duda

There is an endless array of articles, seminars, blog posts and white papers on the makings of the ideal client-agency relationship. But very little has been written about the process clients go through to select the search consultant that will shepherd them to lasting partnership bliss.

As someone who had all sorts of fun with new-business pitches from the agency perspective -- and who now finds himself free of conflicts and fear to speak publicly about this -- here is a wee bit of counsel to any client marketer or procurement person about to embark on selecting a search consultant:

First, do you need to engage a search consultant? I know I would. The right consultant will foster a process that suits the objectives of the review. The right firm will have an empathetic understanding of the core issues -- and might even push back a bit on how you can be a better client. (Breaking news: Clients need to be realistic about their own organizational issues that contribute to bad breakups.) Finally, a sound consultant-led process should scrutinize the rational elements of services needed (what kinds of ads for what media) and respect the emotional component -- the human beings who represent the shops and who might actually work on the business.

In truth, finding the right consultant mirrors much of what makes strong client-agency relationships. You might seek a specific partner for geographical reasons, for specific category experience, or because of a referral by a colleague or based on past experience. Beyond the seemingly obvious, here are a few points to consider:

Be upfront and honest about what the endgame is
You're not simply hiring a consultant; you're looking for more effective client partnerships. That could mean finding the agency that actually can implement "strong strategic thinking" and "breakthrough creative ideas" to "take your business to the next level" -- the same phrases that now adorn every vanilla press release announcing a new selection. Or it could be that you need to save X percent in fees because of financial pressures from senior management that views marketing as more of an expense than an investment. As much as agencies wish for the former, the marketplace reality often points to the latter. Knowing the real game upfront will help consultants better assess the situation and potential agencies to involve.

Don't be afraid to collaborate
Many procurement people believe it is their job to handle the "vendor-selection process" and that it's a sign of weakness to use a consultant. Some marketers are afraid that a consultant will block communication with the agencies. A good consultant can help fill the gaps you may not know you have, and give you an unbiased evaluation of what is needed. Even better, some consultants can assess any marketer organizational issues and worst practices that may have contributed to the failure of the last agency relationship. The term "search" is a bit of a misnomer -- many high-touch consultants can provide significantly more value than just the selection itself.

Find out what the business model is
An ongoing issue -- revisited recently when Ad Age covered the clamor over Steve Blamer's manifesto condemning the practice -- is whether a consultant should be allowed to accept fees from both clients and agencies. The ANA/4A's have a published view on this area (which can be found at the 4A's website, that clearly says consultants should not solicit fees from agencies for their services. But taking a look at the landscape, the list of top search consultants by volume demonstrates that there are some that do, in fact, generate income from both clients and agencies. Incidentally, I sense clients are either scarcely aware of the issue or do not care about it, though it's been heavily debated in the agency world.

My take? It's increasingly tough to do agency search consulting as a pure business. Search has come under the same pressure that overall agency compensation has faced for the past decade. My gut says search will not magically return to fees it once commanded. I have several search-consultant friends and I encourage them to diversify their offerings and to be transparent about it. Tap their marketing and organizational expertise to present additional or related offerings that will add value. And if the client deems other revenue streams as a conflict of interest, so be it. One worst practice is consultants being paid a percentage of fees cut from agency compensation. This categorically misaligns all parties involved. In short, transparency always trumps.

The best client-agency relationships are built on chemistry, trust, alignment and talent. So, too, are the best client-consultant relationships. Now, if only there were a search consultant to help find the right search consultant.

Michael Duda is managing partner of Consigliere Brand Capital, a marketing consultancy with an investment fund. Prior to founding the company, he spent years overseeing business development activities and has the scars to prove it.
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