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Do Search Firms Play Favorites?

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Donny Deutsch has a terrific new-business record, as he reminded those gathered at the 4A's new-business summit in June. "We as an agency have been very good at it. If you take Dick Roth out of the process," quipped the Deutsch CEO, "our winning is 93 percent."

While Deutsch had some fun with the fact that his agency has never won a Roth-led review, other agency executives aren't laughing. In fact, they get incensed by what they see as search firms playing favorites.

"They all have certain biases," says one agency CEO. "Roth likes midsize agencies like Mullen, The Martin Agency, GSD&M and The Richards Group."

The same executive says Pile & Co. in Boston routinely favors Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami and that Jones Lundin Beals in Chicago is biased in favor of the Midwest. A senior new-business executive in New York agrees with the latter point, saying he is tired of seeing Campbell-Ewald pop up in Jones Lundin's reviews.

Few consultants escaped being labeled biased, clubby or prejudiced. As a group, the consultants fared poorly on this topic—the average score was 2.01, much lower than for any other question (the average for all questions was 2.26). Even the consultancies that did well compared with their peers were not above reproach: Six respondents said Roth is very biased, and five said the same of Pile.

Consultants, of course, vehemently deny that they play favorites. Below, we look at three consultancies in particular that agencies frequently say are biased: Roth, Pile and AAR. Does Roth lean toward certain shops? Is Pile too friendly with Massachusetts agencies? Should AAR reach out a little further? A look at the last five major reviews led by these three reveals some answers.

Roth does appear to revisit the same well frequently. TBWA\Chiat\Day, Mullen, The Martin Agency and Deutsch all made repeat appearances in Roth's last five reviews. TBWA\C\D was victorious in two of them.

In AAR's reviews, meanwhile, many different shops made it to the finals and the winner's circle—no repeats at all.

Finally, Pile does seem to favor Boston shops—at least one has made the finals in each of its last five reviews.