Shops Assess the Matchmakers

NEW YORK Privately, agency leaders aren’t shy about calling out the failings of consultants who help marketers manage agency reviews. That was true in 2003, when Adweek surveyed 30 shops about a dozen leading consultants, and again last month, when CEOs and new business chiefs rated 15 consultants across eight different criteria for a Mirren Business Development study.

Despite the passage of six years, many agency complaints remain the same: not enough direct interaction with client decision-makers, a lack of respect for agency resources, too much “process for process’s sake” and not enough constructive feedback. Those are the top four areas in which search consultants need to improve, according to respondents to the Mirren study, which involved 108 agency honchos.

The study — the first of its kind for Mirren, a consultancy that helps agencies hone their client marketing skills — sought to “spark the dialogue that will ultimately ensure these competitive pitches are being run in a way that is efficient, effective and ethical,” said Brent Hodgins, director of client services at Mirren in New York. “This study is not meant to be a forum for venting, but instead a constructive look at a practice that influences billions of dollars in business changing hands each year.”

Adweek research found that last year 28 percent of 141 reviews involving accounts that spend at least $15 million a year in major measured media used consultants. Collectively, those marketers spent about $11 billion in media last year, according to The Nielsen Co. The trend continued in the first nine months of 2009, when consultants participated in 26 percent of 82 reviews involving media spends of $15 million or more. That percentage declined slightly from the same period last year, when 29 percent of 111 such reviews employed consultants.

The consultant group that the Mirren study assessed included top players such as Select Resources International, Pile + Co., Ark Advisors, Roth Associates, Joanne Davis Consulting, Jones Lundin Beals, Rojek Consulting Group, AAR Partners, The Bedford Group, ABA Consulting, Hasan + Co. and Alan Krinsky Associates. Via an online questionnaire, respondents rated each firm in eight areas, including the quality of their briefs, accessibility and whether they have conflicts of interest.

Those who charge fees to agencies, either to assess their credentials, give workshops or include them in databases, came under fire, as well as those who require shops to produce videos as part of their initial submissions to prospective clients.

Some respondents find that agency fees create the impression that shops have to “pay to play” in those consultants’ reviews — a charge that they’ve long denied. In addition, some saw such fees as conflicts of interest, given that those who charge them also charge clients to offer opinions on what shops suit their needs. But Alan Krinsky of Alan Krinsky Associates in New York sees no harm in working for both clients and agencies, provided he’s up front about it. “There’s nothing wrong with working both sides of the table as long as you’re transparent,” said Krinsky, whose agency practice includes workshops and helping negotiate client contracts.

The agency video requirement is seen as time-consuming and a “drain on agency resources,” as one respondent put it. But a consultancy closely associated with videos — Pile + Co. in Boston — said they help clients determine if an agency and its culture fit with theirs. “It allows the client to see the teams” and how they “interact with each other,” said Pile president Judy Neer. Furthermore, “we don’t do capabilities presentations. We go straight to finals. So, these act as the capabilities presentation,” Neer said.

Agencies have long understood that search consultants can wield significant influence among clients. As such, CEOs and new business directors have a love-hate relationship with these client gatekeepers, exchanging pleasantries with them at public functions even while privately grousing about their practices. Indeed, it takes anonymous questionnaires such as Mirren’s to air such criticism broadly. And even then, some agency respondents remain nervous.

One indication of such trepidation was that 13 of the study’s 108 respondents e-mailed Mirren to make sure that their critiques would not trace back to them, according to Hodgins. All 13 feared that their unvarnished assessments would prompt consultants to bar them from future reviews, Hodgins said.