After a ‘Promiscuous’ 2015, Do Agencies and Brands Need Their Own Tinder?

Chasing 'bright and shiny' forces assignment model to fore

Marriages are breaking down, and clients are sleeping around.

So said Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo's global beverage group, at the ANA Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando in October. Jakeman also declared that the ad agency model is broken, that large agency networks are dinosaurs and that agency retainer relationships are disappearing as "clients are being way more promiscuous with their agencies than they ever have."

Michael Sharp 

In other words, clients are not sticking with their agencies of record and are playing the field.

No surprise. There's plenty of fish in the ocean. Independent agencies are everywhere nowadays, as plentiful as tech incubators. You might say it's the dawning of the age of the indie-agency startup, and most if not all of them live on a steady diet of project work.

Indeed, the advertising industry has been moving toward an assignment (or, should I say, assignation) model for years. Brands increasingly are looking for something different, so they reach out of their comfort zones and have flings with these bright, shiny objects.

Sometimes the brands go back to their retainers; sometimes they don't. Oftentimes, brands keep the retainer and keep playing the field. The results are fresh, exciting, healthy and sexy for both parties.

But what Jakeman did not address was search agencies. Clients today simply don't need them anymore. They've become obsolete. As clients continue to refuse to be tied down by long-term retainers, they are shedding the formalities of courtship and go-betweens and paperwork. Requests for proposals and the rigmarole associated with expensive, formal reviews are going the way of the massive diamond engagement ring—in other words, they are fast becoming an excess, not a necessity.

Clients know what they want and what options are out there. They don't like to waste time or money. And yes, they can go online and find out for themselves.

Last year, some clever ad folks in Amsterdam launched Pitcher, described as "Tinder for Marketers." Unfortunately, the Pitcher platform is not as robust as Tinder. It's not fueled by two-way, mutual attraction. Pitcher does not ask clients for photos and information. It is a one-way process that simply billboards agencies that users can select and request a phone call or email. Also, Pitcher is limited to agencies in Amsterdam. And it does ask for a pitch fee, suggesting that 2,000 euros is 'a small gesture,' while $20,000 is a 'whoop whoop'.  A pitch consultant's fees would still be more. Imagine a Pitcher in the U.S., or even a global version, one that's based on mutual attraction. That's the next step.

Harley-Davidson's former chief marketing officer Mark-Hans Richer said (at the same ANA conference) that "clients must take more responsibility for creativity. It's not the kind of thing that you should offshore." By offshore he meant parking a brand's creative responsibilities with a lead agency. Harley, according to Richer, is not surprisingly very promiscuous. They work with lots of shops.

Richer might agree that clients also must take more responsibility for selecting agencies. It's not the kind of thing you should offshore with a search agency. Here's how a search agency that calls itself "the Google of consultancies" describes why clients need them:

"Finding and changing agency partners is serious business. Can you afford to go to school on your own dime? Are you up to speed on the ever-changing agency universe? Are you comfortable making this important decision on your own?"

I would venture to say that today, in the digital age, this sounds incredibly patronizing. Yes, clients are up to speed. They are comfortable making decisions on their own. Of course they can afford to go to school on their own dime, especially when going to school with a search agency requires a fistful of dollars, not dimes.

Agencies today continue to compete with technology startups (and leaders) in attracting and retaining top talent. Employee turnover is massive, which makes it simply not in a client's best interest to offshore its creativity and engage in long-standing agency retainers. The agency you reviewed yesterday is not the same agency you signed with today. By the time the ink has dried on the contract, the shop has morphed into something else.

Brands are beginning to find their own way through these shifting sands, navigating "the ever-changing agency universe" with their own compass. They don't need their hands held, their faces slapped and their wallets tapped out.

Save all that for the ad campaigns.

Based in Los Angeles, Michael Sharp (@michael_sharp) is the founder and executive creative director of Standard Time.