Suckers at the Table

Shops pitching the Calif. Lottery are getting what they deserve

Everything that’s wrong with the advertising business is on display in the California Lottery’s review. This bastardization of an agency search has all the rotten elements: a government client bound to process, not performance; layers of bureaucratic bullshit; and, the thing that really stinks up the joint, a handful of agencies willing to perpetuate this ridiculous exercise.

We’re now into Round 4 of The Pitch That Won’t End. At least, I think it’s Round 4. I’ve sort of lost track in the 19 months we’ve been following every pathetic twist and turn.

You know the story by now, but to sum up the relevant chapters: The client has passed the winner’s cup around three separate times, each time naming a winner or a tentative winner or an “apparent successful bidder” that manages to hang on to the account for about 20 seconds—until one or more of the losers files a protest and the decision is promptly overturned. DDB won first, then FCB and most recently McCann. The only agency that has not been awarded the account at some point since the marathon began in October 2001 is Grey, the incumbent, which pioneered the protest fad after DDB’s initial “win.”

A lot of the talk—and the finger-pointing—has centered on the client and how it needs to change the way it does business. Several agency executives involved have complained about the process being torturous and unfair.

But the truth is, the agencies are to blame here—for allowing themselves to be walked all over because they are unwilling, or unable, to walk away.

Agencies are constantly wondering why clients seem to be losing respect for them. Well, here’s a clue: Maybe it’s because they seem to have such little respect for themselves. “I would think that anybody still pitching this must have had an abusive childhood,” jokes Jeff Goodby. “It’s like, ‘I’ll get the RFP right this time, Mommy, I promise.’ ”

I know, I know, business sucks and every dollar of revenue is worth a fight to the finish. But at what price? I’m not saying these four agencies are wholly responsible for clients’ declining respect for the ad industry. But their willingness to be taken for a ride—and to come back for more—is precisely the kind of behavior that damages the perception of agencies as valuable partners.

And you know what? There’s not a lot of ground left for agencies to forfeit.

When they—or, rather, their holding- company parents—unbundled media, with it went a good dose of agency clout. Holding companies now even handle ad accounts themselves, which means the suits with the real power, the über account guys, work at IPG and WPP, not Lowe or Ogilvy. And on the creative and strategic side, the advertising business has never found a way to move beyond spec work. It remains one of the few industries that still give away their best ideas for free.

So where, exactly, do agencies stand? And when, exactly, will they stand up for themselves?

“The client is not at fault here. It’s the agencies that should be ashamed of themselves,” says Donny Deutsch. His advice is this: Gather together “20 agencies of consequence” and collectively take a stand. “If we all got in a room and said, ‘No. Here are the fucking rules. That’s it,’ it’s not price-fixing,” he says. “We would just be saying, as a group, as an industry, we will not stand for this.”

The decisions made during tough times are what define character. Saying business is bad and you gotta chase that revenue, no matter what, is no excuse. Who was it that said a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money? Maybe, just maybe one of these agencies will wake up and tell the California Lottery to go scratch its own lottery tickets.

I have always wondered what would happen if an obnoxious client held a review and no one showed up. This should be one of those times.

Hey, you never know.