A misguided response to advertising’s long-standing problem

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The potential impact of an agency search on a marketer’s business can perhaps be best measured by multiplying your annual agency budget by 10 years – an anticipation of the length of the agency relationship. So a client with a $20 million budget, for example, could potentially be facing a $200+ million decision – not something anyone should want to take lightly.

Since the ICA launched its Pitch Watchdog two years ago, the association has questioned pitch processes from companies including Canada Post, TD Bank, the TTC, and YMCA. Earlier this year, the ICA came up with the idea to “send one of five anonymous, hand-written cards directly to the contacts”of an offending brand provided by an agency.

Irrespective of the likely breach in a non-disclosure signed by the participating agency, the ICA says the goal of these anonymous missives is to provide a “humorous yet pointed push” for clients to get the ICA’s free QBS toolkit. The toolkit is the ICA’s best practice agency search guide, and includes a binary outcome diagram to either “amend process” or “name and shame in public media.”

Personally, I’m not sure anyone would find anything humorous about being on the receiving end of an anonymous calling-card (handwritten or otherwise). And issuing a “search guide” in “an attempt to provide insight into the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of abandoning the price-based RFP” just isn’t going to help anyone.

Advertising’s problem with RFPs

The reality is there are (unfortunately) advertiser requests for pitches out there that are badly conceived and executed, and can place excessive demands on agencies seeking to grow their businesses.

Whether it’s because they’re too cumbersome (because they ask for too much or unnecessary information), too complex, don’t provide sufficient guidance or make unreasonable asks – some clients get it wrong. And yes, sometimes badly.

While the origins of poorly run pitches may go back years, things began to take a noticeable turn for the worse during the financial crisis in 2007. Marketers found themselves under increasing pressure to cut costs while bettering performance with smaller budgets, and procurement teams were brought in to run pitch processes – or at least provide an extra layer of oversight.

Because procurement teams are often less familiar with service-based sourcing and/or not synced with their own marketing team counterparts, procurement driven RFPs can include complex asks and are evaluated based on an over-reliance on financial metrics. Outcomes can then be skewed in favour of price rather than value and otherwise perfectly suited agencies become eliminated too early in the RFP process for the wrong reasons.

But just because there are rogue RFPs that surface with unwieldy requests, doesn’t mean we should throw the whole process out as the ICA is stating: “when it comes to agency selection, of any kind, it’s not working…”

I resent the assertion that “agency selection, of any kind” (which is, by default, the hundreds of millions of dollars in searches we’ve done for some of Canada’s best known brands over the last decade) isn’t working. For the record, pitches we run never ask for prices up front and our evaluation methodology is always a discussion around who and what constitutes best value – not lowest price.

Sure, the ICA’s toolkit makes good points on low-cost processes, clear and obvious selection criteria, transparency and limiting the number of pages to force a balance between brevity and clarity. And it talks a lot about collaborative client-agency relationships too. But its watchdog diagram that concludes the guide, undermines its own message by threatening to name and shame in the public media as a recourse to those who don’t agree.

My view is soliciting media headlines and publicly naming and shaming clients does a disservice to both clients and agencies.

Industry bodies and consulting firms that hold unique and privileged positions of being able to view the market from the sidelines, surely have a duty to demonstrate leadership and help clients who may not be experts in agency search management. The Association of Canadian Advertisers offers a step-by-step best practice guide to their members on Searching for a Marketing Communications Partner. The Canadian Marketing Association has also developed best practices and guidance for RFPs, which it plans to release soon.

And for marketers or procurement teams tasked with managing an upcoming search, there are also specialist consultants who can provide objective advice and guide teams through their search processes – no matter if your extrapolated budget works out to be millions or billions.

In my experience, agencies are incredibly savvy about being their own watchdogs and doing what’s best for their teams and their businesses. So when it comes to the ICA’s watchdog in the background… stick it back in its kennel.

This article first appeared in Strategy May 21, 2019.

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc  offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

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