Here They Go Again

Ad agencies are their own worst enemies. They seem determined to ruin what good reputations they have left. To diminish their importance and devalue what they have to offer. Basically to be abused, not only by their own clients but by ones they don’t even have yet.

For the most recent evidence of this inferiority complex, look no further than the Hilton Hotels review. This is a client which, by dangling a $45 million account, got almost a dozen otherwise respectable and ostensibly proud agencies to sign a non-disclosure agreement stipulating that anything they pitch during the review, win or lose, would automatically become the property of the client.

I found this request so utterly ridiculous that when one of my reporters first brought it to my attention, I told him he must be mistaken. Then I said something like, “Well, that’s fine, but no one is going to sign it.”

Apparently, I have more faith in the agencies than they have in themselves. With their constant complaints about lack of respect, spec creative, intellectual property, unbundled media, procurement officers and on and on, I thought surely they wouldn’t put up with this. I thought, or rather hoped, that they’d be more protective of one of the last proprietary prizes they have left: their ideas.

Just to be clear: Hilton is not the problem here. In fact, I think the guy running this review is a genius. Think about it. Six contenders pitch the business. He hires one. He pays one. But he owns the work—the thinking—of all six. He’s got a veritable idea buffet at his disposal. He can pick and choose what suits him. He can even use an idea from a losing agency and have the winner execute it. Brilliant.

No, the problem here is the agencies that are willing to play this humiliating game. The client said it is willing to pay a pitch stipend to shops that request it. He said they “must show initiative” by asking for it, since there is no mention of reimbursement costs in the NDA. Must show initiative by asking for what most clients see as a common practice?

Listen, this client is going to be trouble. They are so much as telling you how little they respect agencies by how they are conducting this review. Anybody moving forward has fair warning. Good luck to the winner. I’ll be congratulating the losers on this one.

I guess the fact that certain agencies had no problem signing the NDA shouldn’t surprise me by now. But it still amazes me how little agencies respect themselves and their ideas. Consider compensation. We all know the agencies that bow to the fiscal pressure. Those who “buy” accounts. These are the chuckleheads who, when asked by the client “Will you take 2 percent?” smile and say, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

Sure, it’s easy for me to pontificate about principles. It’s not going to cost me anything. But wouldn’t it have been just as easy for the agencies who have nothing to lose here? Foote Cone & Belding, the incumbent, and TBWA\ Chiat\Day, which handles Hilton-owned Embassy Suites, would suffer the consequences by refusing to participate. All the other agencies that signed the NDA have no excuse. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and BBDO refused to.

Two years ago in this space, I took agencies pitching the California Lottery to task. That was a ridiculous review that dragged on for 30 months and had four different winners, three official protests and four rounds of repitching. I pointed out that continuing to stay in that review was precisely the kind of behavior that damages the perception of agencies as valuable partners. And I wrote that the contenders should be ashamed for allowing themselves to be treated in such a way—and for not standing up for themselves or knowing what they stand for.

It’s a shame how little has changed.