From The Editor

Let’s start by commending the American Association of Advertising Agencies for addressing an issue that for most of this decade has plagued its members. For an industry whose fortunes are often held hostage by third-party agents enlisted by clients, a statement on review consultants is long overdue.
Realistically, the guidelines issued last week by the 4A’s will probably have the same impact as a foreign policy decree from the king of Mesopotamia. Impressive but not enforceable.
Those familiar with the thought process behind the guidelines said the idea wasn’t to depict all consultants as a plague on the business. Unfortunately, there are incidents where a few murky souls have used data willingly surrendered by an agency in the hunt for new business in an unexpected, and sometimes damaging fashion later.
You see, it doesn’t matter what a committee of agency executives thinks about the vendors clients hire. Like agencies, clients pay consultants to perform a service.
“The agencies would rather use the consultants as the whipping boys rather than go after the clients,” says DeWitt Helm, who used to run the Association of National Advertisers and now is a partner in review consultancy Achenbaum Bogda Associates. Ultimately, it’s the client who will decide what conduct is acceptable for its vendors.
The situation gets even more problematical as review consultants offer advice on compensation, sell counseling to agencies or hang out executive recruiting shingles. That an increasing number of clients feel compelled to rely on review and compensation consultants isn’t a good thing for agencies. The question is: Who empowers these companies?
Ironically, the perceived maleficence consultants wreak on agencies is created by the agencies. Name another business where a company devotes endless hours filling out reams of paper divulging confidential financial and competitive information to a third party in response to a questionnaire for a client that may or may not exist and may or may not have money to spend in the first place. Then name a company that would do it again. And again.
Sadly, agencies do this. Not because they want to, but because they feel they have to. They know if they don’t, a competitor will.
Therein lies the problem the 4A’s faces. Unable to issue orders to clients and consultants directly, should they direct guidelines at members? What if the 4A’s expelled the next shop that is not “as responsive or appropriate in submitting information requested by consultants for ‘undisclosed clients.'” Membership would hit an all-time low.
Jonathan Bond of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners feels that publicity is the only way to make the guidelines stick. Clients who hire consultants the 4A’s believes have trafficked in unethical business practices should be exposed. Since clients hate bad press, this could work. Just don’t “out” a client whose next job could be the head of marketing on your biggest account.
While its good to call attention to the plight of its members, the 4A’s guidelines are useless without client help. They lack teeth.
-Kevin McCormack