Verdict on Pay-for-Play: It’s ‘Odious’

Shops say some search consultants charge a fee to participate in reviews, but it’s hard to find an agency that admits to paying it. Of course, it’s hard to find a consultant who admits making agencies pay to play.

AAR Partners in New York charges a shop about $2,500 to become a member and tap into its consulting services, says founder and managing partner Leslie Winthrop. Networks with multiple offices pay a maximum of $16,500. Years ago, when Winthrop says she was “the only game in town,” agencies paid a fee to be part of the database she kept. “It gave clients a place to shop,” says Winthrop, who started her company in 1980. “It’s not pay-for-play.”

While several agency executives say they once subscribed to AAR, most say they no longer pay. The ones that do are the smaller regional shops that don’t yet have brand recognition, they say.

Two other firms that take money from shops are Boston’s Pile and Co. and Select Resources International in Los Angeles. Agencies can post information on www.agencycompile.com for free, says Pile managing partner Judy Neer. For $5,000, a shop can post creative executions. SRI, meanwhile, charges shops $5,000 to participate in its Library and Feedback Consulting Service. Like Neer and Winthrop, SRI president Catherine Bension says shops do not have to subscribe to be considered for a review. “It’s totally separate,” she says.

“SRI’s reviews are always open,” reads an RFP the consultancy issued late last year for Carpet One. “Agencies in our Library and Feedback Consulting Service that qualify to participate are advantaged only in that we maintain an intimate knowledge of these resources, we already have their updated materials on-hand, and are available to provide them with extensive feedback and counsel after each review. However, it is our policy to always seek the best agency nationwide that can meet our clients’ needs, and we will always go beyond our Library in that endeavor.”

Search firms can’t afford not to include shops that clients request, says one agency executive who believes consultancies that charge shops are obliged to include them in reviews. “The problem is that member agencies can pressure [consultancies] to include them in reviews, so you end up with 21 agencies on the long list,” says the executive. Doner, which won Carpet One in January, happens to pay for SRI’s services. According to Doner CEO Alan Kalter, that hardly guarantees entry into SRI reviews.

No matter how the search firms position it, it’s not right to “double dip” and take money from agencies at all, say shop executives and industry organizations.

“Pay-for-play is odious,” O. Burtch Drake, president and CEO of the 4A’s, said at the organization’s new-business summit in June. “It is wrong to have to pay to participate in a new-business pitch, either directly or indirectly. It is a conflict of interest for a consultant to take fees from both agencies and clients.”

In Adweek’s survey, 90 percent of respondents agreed. So did Raleigh, N.C.-based consultant Hasan Ramusevic of Hasan + Co. “It forces consultants to not have an opinion and drive volume only,” he says. “I think you have to make it clear where your loyalties lie.”

One survey respondent who says it is fair to charge agencies to participate in reviews believes the money should be used to fund agency visits. Another says it’s fair to charge agencies for consulting services but unfair to exclude those who don’t pay. Says a third: “I don’t like it, but what is fair?”

Collecting money from agencies clearly leaves the impression that shops that pay will get preferential treatment, says search consultant Dick Roth of Roth Associates in New York. “It leaves room for suspicion of impropriety,” he says.