Agency Reviews During a Recession

It Sure Is a Little Wacky Out There

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Noelle Weaver Noelle Weaver
I don't know about you but my RSS feeds sure are depressing these days. A recent sample of news headlines told me which American cities were dying, the steep decline in retail sales, that the foreclosure rate in America has climbed to 55% in the past year, ad spending was further being cut and as a result of all of it, joblessness is up and layoffs are increasingly happening at both the corporate and agency level.

It's been a long time since I have worried about the ability to get new business in the door. This summer I'm just plain freaking out.

Don't get me wrong. There's still a lot of new-business activity out there. Some sectors seem to be performing better than others. But what is worrisome are the types of reviews that are beginning to come in over the wires. Companies are putting their business into review, not because they are necessarily looking for a new agency partner but because they are either going through agency consolidation; looking to dole out a little project to boost or promote the bottom line; reshuffling the budget to include lower cost tactics like direct and online; or simply making sure they are still getting the most/best value out of the current agency they have.

Like the Farmer's Insurance review that hit news headlines last week, clients with long-standing agency relationships are putting up accounts for review to see if they are still working with the "best agency" that can help them "take advantage of the best opportunities" in a "rapidly changing marketplace."

As a new-business director, I'm not hearing crickets quite yet, but I have noticed that many of the RFPs we have received are either project-based and/or aren't quite as solid of an opportunity that we'd like to think it is.

Consider two increasingly common questions found on RFPs:

Question #12: Tell us what a creative program/campaign might look like.
Question #13: Please tell us what a program such as the one you outlined above might cost.

It's becoming a trend. And it is a very big buzz kill for me as an agency person for several reasons.

Most important, these two questions in the RFP completely devalue what we do as an agency. The consumer research, the media, the channel planning and the creative that is tied to a strategic insight or recommendation are not taken into consideration. Sure, you want to see what types of great ideas we dream up -- but ideas are not built in isolation -- everything mentioned before is part of the way we think and work, and you're not allowing us to showcase our process and talent.

Second, it says to me that clients are interested in price alone -- not the thinking that goes into the end product and could potentially determine the success of the idea.

Third, after a number of submissions that resulted in "Sorry we don't have the budget," "We're putting any agency selection on hold" or "This is great, now I just need to go to management and try and get the funding," I'm crying "Wolf!" Are these reviews even real?

Pitch schedules that suddenly stretch out an extra month, clients that stop returning e-mails about possible decision dates, an invitation to a one-week creative shoot for a prestigious client looking for an out-of-home campaign (may the best wacky idea win!). The recession can sure lead to some wacky pitches these days.

What to do? I wish we had the luxury of saying "be choosy" but that is not the reality for many of us right now. What I do recommend is that you ask the hard questions -- upfront -- before you even sign a team to the RFP.
  • Why are you holding this review?
  • What about your current agency has disappointed to you?
  • I know you are looking to us for a price but it is helpful for us to understand your expectations. Can you give us a ballpark figure? If not, does 1 million scare you?
  • What's the most important thing a new agency can do for you right now?
  • Once you hire a firm, what is your expectation in terms of timing?
I've read all kinds of forecasts in every industry and been out there talking to consultants, recruiters and clients alike. There's not a rainbow at the end of this -- yet -- but with 18 months to make an impact, we can at least reassure our friendly client CMOs that the smart thing for them to do is not hit the "easy button" in a moment of panic and frustration.
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