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A Dream of a Review

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Virgin Atlantic's quick pick is a model for wishy-washy clients

In the brutal world of new- business pitching, the decision by Virgin Atlantic to short- circuit its review last month and pick Crispin Porter + Bogusky is more than manna from heaven. It's praline cheesecake with chocolate sauce and globs of whipped cream from heaven.

It's the single best thing I've seen in a year. Yet the big question is: Will other clients learn from Virgin Atlantic, or is this just a minute aberration?

You didn't have to be in Virgin's meeting with Crispin to know what happened. The client met some people with whom they instantly knew they could do business. People who got the business situation, people who got the communications issues, but probably more than that, people who "felt like us."

Sure, other agencies had smart people and business insight. But when the magic works, the magic works.

So what did the client do? They told their consultant to call off the search. Stop the process. They didn't need a month or two of additional meetings, assignments, phone calls, e-mails and agency investment to know they'd found people who could do the job.

They didn't have to give out a speculative assignment. They didn't have to complete the process just because they'd laid one out. They knew they could get good work from the agency, and critically, they knew they'd met people they'd enjoy working with.

The importance of culture rises to the top. Unlike many clients whose corporate cultures are based on business rather than human goals, Virgin Atlantic obviously knows exactly who it is and why it exists.

It's not about this client—who happens to be a partner of our United Airlines client and whom we know corporately from just having won the Virgin Mobile business in New York—it's about the ability to make a decision. When you know who you are and what you stand for—and come across an agency that feels like a mirror of those values—you don't need the continuing bureaucratic slogfest of process. You make a decision, and you get to work.

Perhaps the other agencies in the Virgin Atlantic review cried foul. But I doubt it. They probably appreciated the client's ability to make a decision and not force them through a prolonged pitch that would probably have ended the same way.

When a marketer gets down to a shortlist of agencies, there's no question about each shop's ability to do the work. That's why they're on the shortlist. They've got the requisite reputation, experience, scale and creative skills. The next decision is the one that can't be measured: Who do I want to work with? What people do I want to be stuck in a room with for hours at a time, debating everything from business strategy to research methodology to the size of the logo? Who'll bring fresh thinking, great insight and a sense of humor? Who can I put in front of my colleagues and not wish I had somewhere to hide?

That's a decision Virgin Atlantic understood. They made it quickly and decisively. They realized that at a certain point, agency-client relationships are about cultures and chemistry and like-mindedness. And by finding that certain point early in the process, they did themselves and the other agencies a huge favor.

Search consultants may see this as a potentially scary decision, because it challenges the proprietary processes that each claim will help clients pick better partners. But I'd say that Dick Roth, the consultant in the Virgin Atlantic search, did his job perfectly. He put an agency in front of the client that the client enthusiastically wanted to hire. If I were the client, I'd give the consultant a bonus for efficiency.

And it suggests a new way of picking agencies that I'd endorse in a heartbeat. Sudden death. The moment you know enough to make a decision, make it. It means the process worked, no matter where you were in the process.