Creative Review Shortlists Are No Longer All That Short

Finalists face longer odds with up to 5 competitors

Traditionally, a finalist in a creative review has had to beat just a couple of other shops to get the business. Recently, though, the odds of winning have gotten much longer.

The finalists that emerged in reviews for CVS, the Legacy anti-tobacco campaign and TripAdvisor faced four or five competitors. “That’s frustrating,” said a leader at one of six shops that pitched TripAdvisor, adding, “It’s hard to stay motivated.”

With as little as a 17 percent chance of winning, some may wonder why agencies in those reviews even bothered with the long and expensive pitch process. Then again, the market isn’t exactly awash with opportunities right now, and those three brands collectively spend about $200 million in media each year.

What’s making these shortlists so long? Agency leaders, search consultants and a marketing chief point to three factors: market conditions, the number of decision makers involved and when the brand last searched for a new agency.

First and foremost, it’s a buyer’s market. For agencies under pressure to grow, the prospects, again, are few. And if you’re a marketer, why not seek more ideas, even if it means a longer process? After all, the agencies foot the bill.

“The calculation is that the agency business is hurting, so they’ll get more participation,” explained Robert Birge, CMO at “Clients often want to get a range of perspective,” added Ken Robinson of Ark Advisors in New York.

Of course, more ideas don’t necessarily yield better results, particularly with finalists working off the same brief. Meanwhile, a key goal of any review is to get a sense of what it’s like to work with an agency, which, naturally, is harder with a longer roster of finalists.

“I would imagine, for a client, it becomes very difficult to distinguish some of the agencies,” said Matt Weiss, CMO at Havas Worldwide.

Then, there’s the factor of how many decision makers. Generally, more “cooks” lead to more shops, as each marketing leader puts forth his or her individual preferences.

At TripAdvisor, for example, CMO Barbara Messing and vp of brand strategy Anne Bologna collectively have spent decades in advertising, and Bologna is a former agency exec. The point is, they know a lot of players, and in that context, a sextet of finalists doesn’t seem so outrageous.

Finally, those marketers that haven’t done a search in a while may want to meet with more shops to get a feel for the current environment.

Before hiring 72andSunny in February, Legacy had worked with Arnold for 13 years. Four other agencies pitched that business. Likewise, BBDO beat four other agencies to land CVS last month.

TripAdvisor appears headed to Johannes Leonardo, though a company rep said the search was still ongoing.

Whether the trend of longer shortlists will continue is debatable. What is clear is that as long as agencies outnumber marketers, marketers will have the leverage to ask for more.