Suddenly Social: The Agency RFP

NEW YORK When Jordan Kretchmer, vp of brand at the Current Network, began an agency-selection process, he followed standard procedure: He did due diligence, keeping an eye out for shops well versed in social media, and then chose five to receive an RFP. But a little over a week ago, he had an idea: If social media were going to play an integral role in Current’s branding, why not look for an agency on Twitter? If any of the five shops on his list responded, all the better.

Kretchmer put out an update on the short-messaging service that Current, the cable network co-founded by Al Gore and launched in 2005, was “searching for a full service ad agency partner,” linking to a longer explanation than the 140-character limit allowed. The catch for the open casting call: Kretchmer would only take responses via Twitter.

The post got passed around the agency community and soon Kretchmer was flooded with shops wanting in on the review. In all, nearly 70 agencies — including two of  Kretchmer’s original five — indicated interest, from shops with a handful of people to top-of-the-line agencies like TBWA\Chiat\Day, BBH and mcgarrybowen.

The TwitteRFP, as it was called, came at a perfect time: Twitter has enjoyed meteoric growth — not just in user numbers, but in media attention; the ad industry has fully embraced it (Adweek’s TweetFreak blog lists more than 100 shops with accounts); and the social-media tactic was a perfect fit with Current, the mission of which is to meld broadcast and user content.

It also brought to the surface long-simmering frustrations, especially among small shops, with the new-business process, which many criticize as overly bureaucratic and opaque. Kretchmer, a veteran of Butler Shine Stern & Partners and Mullen, said he was motivated to try the TwitteRFP by his own negative experiences on the agency side.

“One of the reasons I left the agency world is I was tired of the same formulaic stuff,” Kretchmer said. “While this may not get us any different work at the end, the approach is much more fun.”

The open process resulted in another unintended consequence: it pulled the curtain back on the lengths agencies will go to win new business, particularly in a brutal economic climate. While initial responses were little more than terse indications of interest, possibly accompanied with a link to Web sites, last week, after Kretchmer expressed his desire to see more creative use of social-media tools, the floodgates opened.

Agencies tried to outdo each other with stunts. One to One Interactive included a brief video clip via 12seconds, a social broadcast tool, and 22squared went one further by hosting a live brainstorming session last Monday on Ustream. Colle+McVoy in Minneapolis bombarded Kretchmer with Twitter messages from employees and supporters. Perhaps the most extreme measure came from Creature, which dispatched a staffer to stand outside Kretchmer’s office with a sign directing him to an agency pitch Web site.

Some in the process expressed chagrin that it had taken on a carnival feel. Even Kretchmer said some shops went overboard: “I never felt it was negative. It was just because agencies cared so much about being part of the process.” But, he added, “I was a little overwhelmed in a bad way by some of the agencies’ responses.”

There is also the chance, as one agency exec put it, that Current will end up with “more agency than it deserves.”

Kretchmer declined to reveal the budget, but the network has spent little on advertising outside of promotions on its own network. One participant estimated revenue from the account would likely fall under $1 million. “We probably won’t be a big enough account for some agencies,” Kretchmer said, who hopes to have a shop in place by early summer. (The network does not currently have an agency.)

Yet for many, the open approach was a breath of fresh air. Wexley School for Girls, a 25-person agency in Seattle, made it onto the Current shortlist. Often it feels shortchanged by the typical agency search process, said Brian Marr, its managing director.

“If you’re not connected to the right circles or paying someone to get your name out there, then you’re sort of stuck,” he said.

Even a prominent shop like TBWA\Chiat\Day, which also made the shortlist, is sometimes rubbed the wrong way by agency searches that are often controlled by gatekeepers.
 
“There’s no consultant and no bullshit,” said Rob Schwartz, chief creative officer at the shop of the TwitteRFP. “When you deal with consultants, it’s another layer. A lot of these consultants aren’t qualified to judge who the right agency is.”

Naturally, agency search consultants were less enthusiastic. Ken Robinson, a principal at Ark Advisors, said the selection process requires clients and agencies to hew to established norms that have worked well for decades. “Choosing an agency is serious business,” he said. “It has serious implications within an organization, and typically is one of the largest line items in an agency’s budget. That’s why the process is done in a particular best-practice way. Having fun isn’t usually the end goal of the process.”

Kretchmer admits the Current template will not work for most reviews. In fact, he said, the process going forward would be much more traditional, with little of the openness that marked the TwitteRFP.

“The funny thing is most CMOs aren’t as tapped into things as agencies,” said Steve O’Connell, CCO at Stick and Move, a 15-person Philadelphia shop that made Current’s shortlist. “But I do think it’ll open people’s eyes to new ways of finding agencies.”