Editorial: When it pays to vote incumbent

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Among 516 agency review decisions tracked last year by Advertising Age, incumbent shops won only nine times when they faced competition from non-roster agencies. But there is hope for those who believe in the sanctity of marriage: In just the early weeks of 2004, four marketers stayed with their partners after spending up to six months considering alternatives. If marketers play fair, they can accomplish a lot when they do ... nothing.

Incumbents have good reason to assume the game's over when an advertiser looks outside. Richards Group, notably, won't defend accounts if a client reviews. That's gutsy, clear and arguably smart business, given incumbents' poor odds. But most shops won't let an account walk without a fight.

Reviews can be productive-if marketers play by the rules. An advertiser should not solicit ideas from outside shops unless they have a real chance to win, and it should only include incumbents in the review if they have a fair shot.

We were skeptical when Fidelity Investments gave incumbent Arnold Worldwide an automatic ticket to the finals in its review. But fidelity rules; Arnold prevailed this month. Masterfoods, meanwhile, stayed within its roster for a consolidated media account after looking at options (though roster shops nearly always win media consolidations). America Online stuck with Initiative Media and interactive roster shops. Campbell Soup Co.'s Godiva reupped with its agency of 27 years, Margeotes Fertitta & Partners.

In this buyer's market, advertisers may review to ensure they pay a fair (read: lower) price. But a review also clarifies what the advertiser needs and agency offers. Last summer, Coca-Cola Co. solicited ideas for Sprite from four independents; incumbent Ogilvy & Mather fended off rivals by showing it could be just as innovative and hip. The result is a fresh campaign breaking this month.

Reviews are costly and disruptive, yet they can be beneficial. The best agency may be the one you already employ. Sometimes it takes a review to prove the point.

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