Zappos Review Ignites Agency Ire

NEW YORK The chance to work with a hot brand like Zappos is too much for many agencies to pass up, even when it means pouring in tons of time, effort and money into a Byzantine review process in which they have little chance of succeeding.
 
Zappos recently got RFP responses from 104 agencies, with 22 then chosen to do 90-minute presentations at Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas this week. In an unusual twist, it required shops to submit storyboards and ad mockups for the initial round, all in a tight two-week turnaround.

While many agencies privately grumbled, one that was not chosen as a finalist offered unusually public criticism that the review exemplified all that is broken in the account review process. In a blog post, Ignited executive creative director Mike Wolfsohn said a site the agency set up for the review was given only a cursory glance by Zappos employees, with just five of the 25 pages of the site viewed — and the page presenting the team that would work on the account not among them.

“If agencies are going to spend weeks preparing their response, the least any client can do is commit 30 minutes to look at it,” he wrote.

The post echoed the private complaints of many shops that took part in the review for the $7 million account. Zappos is meeting with agencies this week, through Friday.

When reached by Adweek, Wolfsohn said he took the unusual step of calling out questionable client behavior publically because he thought it was “time that someone spoke up about the flawed review process.” Wolfsohn proceeded with the support of his management team and within hours of his post, he said he had received more than 100 e-mails, the vast majority of which were supportive. Most came from agency leaders but a “handful” were from client marketing executives, according to Wolfsohn.

For its part, Zappos held its ground. CEO Tony Hsieh told Adweek late last week, after agency executives privately complained, that “no one is being forced to apply” while acknowledging nobody at the company had experience in agency reviews.
 
Zappos business development and marketing exec Aaron Magness said the company was overwhelmed by the response it received after the RFP was posted on Adweek.com. It originally had a list of 16 agencies to get the RFP. After the story ran, 170 contacted the company asking to receive it; 104 replied. Magness said all of the agencies were told their chances were slim.
 
“If you still feel you can provide a response and it’s worth your time to go through that trouble, I’m not going to stop you,” he said.
 
From the over 80 additional shops that responded to the RFP, Zappos added another six agencies to the 16 already presenting this week. Agencies which did not advance were told “over 80 agencies” responded.
 
While Magness noted that Zappos received a hard copy of all proposals and held a discussion with each agency on the list, he said the high volume of responses required a quick review of materials.
 
“A client can get a pretty good sense if this is a thought starter or direction that makes sense right now,” he said.

 
Agencies have long complained the review process requires too much work from them and gives clients the upper hand to demand ownership of ideas presented. Yet agencies typically continue to participate. As an added twist, the review was unusually open, in keeping with the Zappos corporate culture fidelity to transparency.
 
“We could have said, no, sorry, we will not allow you to participate,” Magness said. “In the end, does that help us?”
 
One shop that failed to advance submitted a reply to the RFP that totaled nearly 80 pages. Ten to 15 agency staffers worked on the submission during a two-week span, including three creative teams, said a top executive at the shop.
 
In the end, however, the agency doesn’t blame Zappos for the massive response, which may be more reflective of the collective hunger among agencies for new business in a relatively quiet marketplace. “There’s just so little to go after right now,” the exec said.
 
Reflecting on the leverage that clients generally have with agencies these days, the exec said: “If will always be an unequal relationship — no two ways about it.” If people like Ignited begin to speak out about [bad practice in reviews], maybe people will think twice” when client red flags arise in the future.
 
Likewise, Ignited pleaded guilty to being “part of the problem.”
 
“We have only ourselves to blame for being suckered into the Zappos extravaganza,” wrote Wolfsohn. “But to be clear, we’re not bitter about the outcome (better to be eliminated in the first round than the last); we’re disappointed by the process that led to it.”
 
Zappos is unbowed by the reaction on Twitter and industry blogs to the process. Magness said the company remained confident it would end up with the right agency.
 
“We were interested in talking to the big guys down to the small boutiques,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll find the right partner.”