Anatomy of a Search

As head of broadcast production for 22 years at Publicis, I spent my share of weekends working on new-business presentations. Sometimes they were for desirable clients. Sometimes they were for Easter Island faces. Sometimes we got the business. Lots of times we didn’t. But I always came away thinking, “If I were ever in a position to be someone’s potential client, I’d know how to treat the agencies with respect, give them the information they needed and not schedule a pitch the day after a major national holiday.”

I recently found myself in just that position. After 26 years as the industry leader in supplying celebrities and popular music for advertisers, The Albert Company CEO Jon Albert decided the time was right to hire an agency. A merry ride was about to begin. We were about to become clients.

Getting started. My initial thought was that we could find an agency ourselves. But we always tell prospects that they should hire us because we’re “experts” in our field. Practicing what we preach, we hired a consultant. The best thing we ever did was hook up with Leslie Winthrop of AAR Partners. AAR took what could have been a very subjective, arduous task and made it well-managed, measurable and logistical. (Leslie so impressed us that she was recently invited onto and joined the company’s board of directors.)

A very wide net. The Albert Company has a client base of more than 600 ad agencies, so we first had the unenviable task of eliminating most of our potential clients from the search without alienating them. AAR helped us do so objectively—but we still had to take painful phone calls from some current clients who wanted to know why they weren’t being considered!

The chemistry meetings. This was the most bizarre part of the process. After narrowing to eight shops, we made the rounds. It’s very weird to be on the receiving end of attempts to show chemistry: lots of coat-hanging-up, escorts to the ladies room, car services, platters and platters of cookies, cheese, etc. Each agency tried to exhibit camaraderie without seeming fake.

Selecting the finalists. This was pure torture. I wanted every agency to be our agency. We were looking for a partner who understood and believed in our leadership role in the industry, and I felt we found that potential, with very few exceptions, in every agency we met. But AAR helped us stick to our agreed-upon criteria.

The finalists briefing. Oh my God, a “mass” briefing, with all these impressive agency principals in a room together, and it’s our job to give an assignment that’s clear and to the point. Client direction is often, shall we say, all over the place. I was determined to do better. Figuring out how to do this actually made me quite forgiving of all those clients I’d resented for their lack of clarity. AAR provided an outline that forced us to think about ourselves, which was invaluable.

The letter. Before the final pitches, I decided I wanted to personally thank the agencies for their efforts. I wrote what I believed to be a gracious letter. Big mistake. Each agency called AAR, wanting to know why they had been cut before they even got to present. Oy. You try to be nice …

The decision. There were four finalists, so we spread the pitches out over two days, to give the agencies time to get their thinking across and to give us a chance to digest it. We spent endless hours dissecting each and every thought, idea, ad, promotion, etc. There were times when I felt like letting a coin toss decide it. The moment of truth had arrived. The most painful part of the process was having to say goodbye to three of the agencies—DiNoto and Christy MacDougall Mitchell Bodden in New York and TBC in Baltimore.

We chose The Concept Farm, and we are just beginning our relationship. I’m going to do my best to be a good client. I will make every effort to articulate what we are after strategically, and to listen. Above all, I will never ask for work to be delivered on July 5.

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