Marketers Scrutinize Shops' Productivity

Pfizer, Others Pump Up Business Some 60% for Agency-Tracker Assetlink

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Business may be bad and getting worse for much of the economy, but it's never been better for a Pleasanton, Calif., company that sells "marketing-operations management" programs that track agency productivity. Assetlink is booming, thanks to two particularly stressed industries: financial services and pharmaceuticals, where it recently signed on to help Pfizer monitor the agencies handling its $1.2 billion marketing budget.
Assetlink CEO Chetan Saiya
Assetlink CEO Chetan Saiya

While Assetlink, which has worked with such marketers as Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Clorox Co. in the past, has many capabilities including managing digital images and videos, it is agency-productivity tracking that's driving what CEO Chetan Saiya expects to be a 60% sales increase in 2008. That's well ahead of the 20% to 30% annual growth the company has seen since it was founded 11 years ago.

And among the hottest features of an Assetlink system that tracks just about everything from logos to return on investment is what Mr. Saiya calls "agency governance." That system, he said, is being used by pharmacy giant Pfizer, though the company did not return calls for comment at press time.

"We are implementing this whole agency-management or agency-governance solution with them," Mr. Saiya said of Pfizer. Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson and Publicis Groupe's Kaplan Thaler Group are among Pfizer's shops. reported in June that Pfizer had launched a comprehensive agency review. At the time, VP-Worldwide Communications Ray Kerins said: "The intent is not to consolidate. The intent is to understand our agency partners better."

Finding efficiencies
Staffing and "through put," or productivity (including "how many brochures did they deliver, how many ads they're working on monthly") are among the key metrics Assetlink helps marketers understand about their agencies, Mr. Saiya said. He said the system often finds efficiencies by having fewer agencies and marketing managers handle a wider array of duties.

"There's a tremendous scrutiny and compression of rates going on with these agencies," Mr. Saiya said. Part of the process generally includes new standardized systems for getting estimates, generating purchase orders and invoicing, he said.

Such agency performance reviews have long existed, he said, but systems such as Assetlink make them "a lot more rational and objective."

Assetlink lists Clorox as a client that has achieved a 25% productivity gain through its system. Clorox in 2006 consolidated all of its consumer promotion work with its creative shop, Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, San Francisco. Earlier this year, Omnicom consolidated the San Francisco office of Dieste, which handles Hispanic advertising for Clorox, with DDB in San Francisco. Clorox did not return calls for comment at press time.

Agency consultants say productivity tracking and benchmarking long have been growing, and economic troubles will probably heighten the interest. But David Beals, president of Jones Lundin Beals, Chicago, said, "At the end of the day, if the agency is delivering quality work that's moving the business, does anyone care if it's 10 hours or 20 hours?"

Yet he said there's no reason for creative agencies to be immune to examination of their processes or productivity, particularly if they're cranking out routine work. "Good agencies and clients who manage the relationship will probably look at all that stuff anyway with or without a tool."

Avoiding agency changes
Focusing on productivity could actually argue against reviews and agency changes, said Arthur Anderson, principal of consulting firm Morgan Anderson, New York. That's because getting used to a new agency makes it tougher to track productivity until the second year at the earliest.

He said marketers often sacrifice effectiveness in the name of efficiency when they consolidate disciplines into a single shop. That's the case he's finding in a performance review for an automotive client that has one agency handling brand, dealer field work, collateral materials, digital, events and promotions. "We're finding the agency isn't able to do their best work in all these disciplines," he said.

While the economy has sharpened interest in efficiency, Mr. Anderson said it's more sophisticated now than in past downturns. "It's much more process-driven," he said, "rather than just saying 'We want the agency to do everything and pay them less.'"
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