I recently moderated a panel on the subject at the AAAA's New Business Summit in New York. One thing I'm sure of: the way agencies approach a pitch and the ways clients view the finalists are 180 degrees different. It's a shame. Agencies need to take a new, hard look at themselves and what they're selling. More candor would help. Agencies want the world to believe they have every service, can take on any assignment and have a studly creative product that is second to none. But clients have been down this road many times before and come armed with a healthy dose of skepticism. So much so it's a wonder any agency gets chosen. So here's my attempt at some straight talk about what search consultants do—based on questions my panel received from the audience at the AAAA New Biz Summit. I hope it helps.
Q1. If I have a reason to be put on the list after publication of a search in the trades, does it hurt my chances to call?
A1. My mission in a search is to assemble the right universe for my client to consider. So sure, I take the call, and if a pitch from an un-included agency makes sense, I send them a RFP. In fact in one recent pitch, the agency that called was not only added—but, in the end, prevailed. The problem is that by the time the trades catch wind of a pitch, it usually has moved from the RFP to the shortlist. In that case, it's very awkward to add a new name to the list.
Q2. You've talked a lot about what agencies make or "should" make—what does a search consultant make on a pitch?
A2. The going rate, according to my sense of the industry, is from $25,000 to $75,000 per search. The difficulty in being precise is that when most clients first approach a search consultant, things are all out of whack. The client is not only angry with the agency; management has lost confidence in the power of advertising. And on the agency side, there are complaints about the client's failure to give clear direction and ante up reasonable fees for the services demanded. So the search consultant's first job is to do a "needs assessment" and determine what caused the relationship to go off the rails. Sometimes that can be done in a day—sometime it may take a couple of weeks. Other issues affecting the cost of the pitch include whether the client wishes to make agency visits alone or in the company of the consultant, what kind of test assignment will be given, how many meetings are necessary leading up to a final decision, and whether the client wants the consultant to help negotiate compensation issues.
Q3. Fully 2/3ds of the agencies represented [at the 4As meeting] are small to mid-size. What are they doing better than the big guys?
A3. The advantage of going to a smaller agency usually involves speed, cost and sometimes knowledge of a local or niche market segment. Agencies can specialize in regions, or niches in ways that sometimes the big networks can't equal. And they always bring plenty of enthusiasm to the process. A big agency can bring more different disciplines and points of the compass to bear on a problem. And usually can make connections for the client with other partners way beyond what smaller agencies can do. Creative does not depend so much on size as to the quality of the teams working on the problem and the culture of the agency.
Q4. Can agencies really be expected to deliver a highly customized RFP reply with over 20 questions in only five business days?
A4. Probably not. But life is not fair. Sometimes the client is pressuring us to get going. Hence the short deadline.
Q5. Why would you jeopardize your reputation by representing a client that prevented the agency from having a face-to-face contact with the client prior to the Big Day?
A5. Well I wouldn't. But I have had clients who didn't want, partly for reasons of time, to give competing agencies access to their whole management structure. As long as clients don't give one agency more access than another, at least they are creating a level playing field. All pitches are somewhat artificial. All you should demand is that the rules be fairly enforced and that you get enough access and information to answer the assignment intelligently.
Q6. We've heard you [panelists] say that agencies shouldn't talk about themselves when talking to perspective clients. Isn't talking about ourselves relevant when "pitching" a consultant?
A6. What I think consultants mean when they warn agencies to leave some of their credentials time to listening to and "interacting" with the client is that it is important to try to get the client to reveal what kind of agency they want and what they need from the advertising right now. Clients will give you 90% of the insights you need to do well in the pitch—if you can get them talking. And in a pitch you should be talking to the client, not the consultant.
Q7. What's the best way for smaller agencies [under $50 million] to get on your radar screen? How often are agencies of this size relevant to your business?
A7. In general, consultants like to be hired by clients with budgets over $10 million—because smaller clients usually can't afford our fees. In that case, clients with larger budgets generally don't want to see any agency smaller than $50 million—unless its people have experience and credentials that make the agency competitive despite its small size. The best way for an agency to get on my screen is to [a] do great work that gets noticed; and [b] develop special credentials for doing work in certain fields or regions that make them stand out regardless of size.
Q8. As integrated pitches have become more valued by clients, do you actively encourage the pairing of above- and below-the-line shops?
A8. I urge clients to separate pitches to be sure they are getting "best of class." The usual practice is to select the advertising agency, and if it is a networked firm, take a look at its below-the-line cousins before making a commitment. But the trend is to separate accounts in order to maintain high standards and reasonable fees.
Q9. You say agencies are a sea of sameness and need to differentiate. How can agencies differentiate themselves from competitors?
A9. Every agency is unique. If you don't see your agency that way—with a clearly defined set of strengths and weaknesses, a special capabilities and a unique culture—then you probably need a new mirror. The problem is that agencies like to hide their eccentricities. They're always afraid that by emphasizing their special abilities, they will run off a good piece of business. Agencies should hire a psychiatrist to help them with this identity crisis.