Echoes of the Wal-Mart/Roehm Account Review Debacle

And How Small Agencies Routinely Grapple With Favoritism

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The latest published accounts about how Julie Roehm conducted Wal-Mart's agency review suggest it was over before it actually was: the escapade in Howard
Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
Draft's Aston Martin, the Nobu dinner with the search consultants, the fact that she was publicly enamored with Draft FCB's new model.

This sort of thing happens all of the time with small agencies. New marketing director comes on board a client company and sends out RFP's to a half-dozen agencies. One of the agencies is often familiar with the marketing director -- usually as the AOR at the last company together. A bake-off ensues, and -- surprise -- the new marketing director picks his/her favorite agency. How 'favorite' is defined is where things start getting murky.

I've seen marketing directors make agency selections for a wide variety of reasons. Only some of the time are the decisions based on merit alone. Strategy and process are vital as criteria. But chemistry plays the biggest role in the agency selection process. So, how do you get a feel for an agency's people and culture, without playing favorites?

Conduct chemistry checks as part of the review process (not as part of a courting process, as was the case in the Wal-Mart review). Give each agency the opportunity to get to know the client and vice versa. And do it in a systematic way, so each agency receives a fair shot of demonstrating who they are and why they may be a fit. Chemistry checks should be done in the agency, to get a feel for the culture. And out of the agency, at a restaurant, ballgame, or bar. There's no better way to see if you can work with someone than when you get them out of the office and into a social setting.

The need for a uniform pitch may be greater with small-to-mid-agencies, because we are typically pitching small-to-mid-size companies, where they don't have strict corporate policies regulating procurement and vendor relations, like Wal-Mart and many other large companies do. That makes the situation ripe for abuse. This is not sour grapes. I've won by tilting the playing field...and lost when someone else tilted it. I just want to know what the rules are before diving in.

I guess the real rub is in wasted time, productivity and its affect on agency morale. If a small agency commits to a pitch, believing that it's a fair contest, the commitment is significant. Weeks, and often months, are devoted to a pitch. Hard and soft dollars are spent in the hunt. It takes a toll of your team and impacts your paying clients, as many of the same resources are diverted to win the agency's next account. If you win, it's champagne for everyone. If you lose, it sucks for everyone at the agency. But if you lose, and discover that your agency never had a fair shot of winning, that's flat-out wrong.

So, the advice I give to all small agencies is this: ask the client prospect more questions about the process before committing your agency to a pitch. Find out how they are going to make a decision. Do your homework, and see if the marketing director had a previous working relationship with one of the agencies being considered (if the answer is yes, run as fast you can to the next prospect, because you have a 90% chance of losing to that agency.) And see if the prospect is willing to get to know your agency -- as well as your competitors -- in a fair, consistent and insightful manner. If so, at least you have a better chance of winning on merit. Unless, of course, you want to take the marketing director for a spin in your new Ferrari.
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