What Agencies Think Of Search Consultants

Ad agencies used to deal with clients directly in reviews. Then search consultants arrived on the scene. As they became fixtures in more and more pitches, their power as facilitators grew—but so did the perception that many of them serve as little more than roadblocks in the process. Agencies have traditionally stayed mum on the subject for fear of reprisal. But for this exclusive Adweek survey, the chance to respond anonymously gave agency execs a valve to let out some of this simmering resentment.

“Wackos,” “snobbish,” “biased,” “arrogant,” they railed, relishing the opportunity to describe each consultancy in a word or phrase. “Prehistoric,” “looney toons,” “clubby,” “naive.” One respondent, clearly having been through the wringer with one consultant in particular, decided, “a root canal is more fun.”

This creative assortment of negatives is partly the result of cathartic release. Positive remarks were sprinkled throughout, too (“honest,” “thorough and fair,” “professional,” “supportive”). But a basic truth remains: Many agency executives feel search consultants are usually more of a hassle than a help in reviews.

“I think more than any other single [factor], the search consultants have damaged advertising,” says one New York agency CEO. “They bring a lot of things to the table, but nothing good.”

And they’re not going away. For better or worse, search consultants are brokering more client/agency relationships than ever before. Based on polling of 273 U.S. companies with ad budgets of $10 million or more, a new survey by New York-based research consulting firm Ballester Inc. for the American Association of Advertising Agencies indicates that 29 percent of those clients use consultants in reviews. According to Adweek reports, the percentage is rising: In 2002, consultants ran about 27 percent of the reviews where accounts were worth $20 million or more. This year, the figure is up to 39 percent. Many big-agency executives say consultants oversee 50-60 percent of the contests in which they participate.

“The bigger you are, the bigger accounts you are pitching, the higher percentage of consultants involved,” says Jon Bond, co-chairman of New York-based Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners.

Search consultants, which earn $60,000-100,000 per review, are sometimes credited with expediting pitches and providing intelligent commentary on shops’ strengths and weakness. But many are roundly criticized for acting as barricades and sending out long, time-consuming RFPs. And as the search-consulting business itself becomes more competitive, the firms are becoming ever more demanding, agency executives say. “There’s a feeling that what consultants are doing is garnering a lot of information that’s not germane to the pitch to fill up their own databases, and that’s pretty shitty,” says one executive.

Search consultants, of course, reject the criticism. “Obviously, every agency would prefer to get a piece of business without going through a formal review,” Pile and Co. managing partner Judy Neer told attendees at the 4A’s inaugural new-business summit in June, where the Ballester findings were presented. “But if there is a formal review, our experience says that agencies would prefer to have a consultant in place. We eliminate the random violence that can occur when clients handle reviews themselves. We ensure a level playing field. We make clear at the beginning of the review exactly what you need to do at each step of the process and how you will be evaluated.”

Some agency leaders suggest consultants are taking the heat for agencies’ shortfalls. “There’s too much blaming going on for deficiencies of talent in this business,” says Tom Carroll, president of the Americas for TBWA Worldwide. “The whole search-consultant gripe is overblown. It’s another advertising gripe that’s not grounded in substance. If you are a good agency and have smart people who do good work, a good client sees that.”

Adds Deutsch CEO Donny Deutsch: “We’re necessary bed partners. If you understand the job these guys have to do, understand that they have to present a handful of good agencies to clients, in the end you’ll do well.”

Still, some executives say that no matter how good their work is, consultants are the reason they’re being paid less. The charge is that since most consultants earn their revenue primarily from marketers, they try to prove their worth by saving clients money.

Deutsch, who split with Pfizer this year after year-long fee negotiations with client procurement executives failed, appealed to consultants at the 4A’s conference to remember what they’re in business for. “You’re not divorce lawyers, you’re marriage counselors,” he said. (The client is said to have asked the shop for salary and other normally confidential information.) In their zest to save clients like Pfizer a couple of million dollars, consultants will end up costing clients so much more, Deutsch said.

“It’s always inappropriate to share salary information. You don’t have to do it,” 4A’s president and CEO O. Burtch Drake told attendees at the group’s summit. “Our industry needs to toughen its spine and stop taking so much crap from advertisers and consultants.”

During reviews, Deutsch insists, shops shouldn’t let clients out of the room until basic compensation is determined. “No business in the world should be expected to compete if they don’t know what to expect,” says Deutsch. “You’re an idiot if you do. We can control this. Have some self respect and some dignity.”

A similar complaint was fielded this year by some shops that competed in the Nextel review, run by Roth Associates. “It was absolute hell,” says one executive. “They hired Roth to run the review, but it was almost managed by the procurement people. They asked for a lot of financial information that wasn’t appropriate.”

Roth principal Dick Roth admits Nextel’s review was more rigorous than some others, but he says it had nothing to do with money. “The client said their purchasing people would be involved,” he says. “It’s a trend going on. It did make it more detailed and more elongated than it needed to be.”

For this survey, Adweek chose to look at some of the most active consultancies, with consideration of location and size and scope of reviews they handle. To get a sense of which consultants are doing it right and which aren’t, we sent a questionnaire to the 75 largest shops in the U.S. Responses came back from either the CEO or the new-business director at 30 shops, or 40 percent of the group.

We queried agencies on seven topics: which consultants are the most organized; which understand agency cultures the best; which broker the best agency/client marriages; which are the most unbiased; which most respect agencies’ time and money; which facilitate interaction the best; and which are the easiest to work with on a personal level.

The responses were kept completely anonymous. (See opposite page for an explanation of the methodology.)

On Organization

Reviews are logistical nightmares. A key task of search consultants is organizing the process. “When a consultant is involved, it’s always organized,” one agency executive says. “When a consultant is not involved, it’s sometimes organized.” Colin Probert, president of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, says consultants can facilitate the process and answer questions quickly. “They lay the ground rules,” he says.

Good RFPs clearly outline the schedule for the review. For example, in its RFP for Timex last fall, Boston-based Pile and Co., which scored well on organization in this survey, offered a precise timetable for the $8 million pitch. Following e-mail confirmation that the RFP was received, shops were asked to indicate interest by Oct. 18 (and update their listing on www.agencycompile.com). Fifteen slides responding to the selection criteria were due Oct. 25, along with creative portfolios, information about past and current clients, and videotaped biographies of the teams that would work on the account. Semifinalists were to be selected Oct. 29; agencies would learn the following day if they had made the cut. Ninety-minute capabilities presentations were set for Nov. 12-13. Finalists would be chosen Nov. 14, and assignments issued. Shops would be briefed Nov. 19, and final presentations were set for Dec. 11. A decision would be made shortly after the finals, the RFP said.

The client and consultancy were right on schedule: New York’s Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners secured the business on Dec. 13.

In this survey, Select Resources International in Los Angeles was deemed the best-organized search consultancy, with Pile a close second. AAR Partners in New York was cited as the least organized.

On Understanding Agency Cultures

TBWA’s Carroll says he has only one gripe with consultants. He’s baffled when they claim to understand agency culture and yet frequently choose a shortlist of shops that have wildly divergent identities—a group, for example, like Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Doner, Young & Rubicam and Leo Burnett. “Who made that list?” asks Carroll. “That’s absurd.”

But Chuck Porter, chairman of CP+B, says he typically is invited only to reviews that his agency is appropriate for.

SRI was voted the consultancy that best understands the cultures of agencies. Roth in New York scored well, too, although it received votes on both sides of the spectrum. Also high on the list: Pile, MatchWorks in New York and Jones Lundin Beals in Chicago.

On Marriage Brokering

Do consultant-led reviews lead to longer unions between agencies and clients? It depends whom you ask. Consultants that offer proprietary tools to assess compatibility say yes. Agency executives, citing a revolving door in the management ranks of agencies and their clients, tend to say it doesn’t matter.

Drake told attendees at the 4A’s new-business summit that agency/client marriages are becoming shorter than ever—an average today of 7.6 years, compared with 13.1 years in 1984. Combined with the poor economic climate, “it’s no surprise that agencies are bending over backward to chase and win new business when it has become available,” says Drake. This dynamic, he says, further degrades the relationships. “Gunning to win business at any cost creates an environment where agencies allow themselves to be walked all over. And some clients and consultants are more than happy to oblige.”

Despite such sentiments, search consultants claim their main role is to facilitate long, happy unions. AAR founder and managing partner Leslie Winthrop even calls herself an “agency/client relationship consultant.” Consultants say they spend time traveling the country, meeting with agencies to get intimate knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses.

The ones that broker the best agency/client marriages, according to the survey respondents, are SRI, Roth, Pile and MatchWorks.

On Bias

Asked what bothers them the most about working with search consultants, the majority of respondents to this survey pointed to the issue of bias. Search firms, they say, have their favorite agencies—and they rarely budge (see sidebar). “They can be rigid,” says one respondent. “They don’t include you in reviews if you aren’t part of their inner circle.” Says another: “We’ve been winning more reviews than just about anyone, and it’s still tough to get on the lists.”

Consultants argue the opposite, saying they level the playing field. “I call agencies that might want to bitch about us and say, ‘We’re the best friends you’ve got,’ ” says AAR’s Winthrop. “If you’ve got an agency advocate as your search consultant, you’ve got the best level playing field you’ll ever have.”

Some agency leaders say bias is natural—even necessary. “If a consultant is not objective, it’s not unfair, because they’re getting paid by the client for their expertise,” says Bond. “Bias is good. I don’t think they’re biased enough. They know and deal with agencies the most. They’re in the most pitches. They should tell clients who is the right agency for them more than they do.”

Laurie Coots, chief marketing officer of TBWA Worldwide, agrees. “The expectation is of them just being important facilitators,” she says. “The truth is, the really good ones should be more than impartial facilitators, because it really helps both the agency and the client.”

Adds Bond: “Stop whining. They’re consultants. They’re supposed to consult.”

In this survey, SRI was deemed the most unbiased consultant. Morgan Anderson in New York, Bob Wolf Partners/TPG in Los Angeles and The Rojek Cutcher Group in Cleveland were considered the most biased.

On Respect

Which consultants are most respectful of agencies’ time and money? For many consultancies, this question brought contradictory responses. AAR, for example, received votes for least respectful and most respectful. Winthrop says, “The one thing I’m always complimented on is I don’t waste their time.” Many agreed, giving her high marks. Overall, the highest average score went to Roth.

Pile and Co., which scored well in all other categories, slipped in this one. This may be due to the four-minute customized video Pile requires from each agency team in its reviews. “There has to be a way for clients to look at a larger number of agencies and narrow it down,” says Pile’s Neer, who, incidentally, is also credited with making the Boston-based consultancy more agency-friendly.

“You can spend $50,000 on the video,” says one disgruntled new-business director. “Yet they keep asking agencies to do it, and everybody does it.” Adds another: “Clients love to sit in front of custom videos, but it takes balls to ask for that in the first round of a review.”

Many respondents pointed to Pile’s video when asked to name the most time-consuming and unnecessary task or test that a consultant requires. One complained that the video “takes an enormous amount of time, energy and money at a point in time when you have not even met the client to know if it’s a good match.”

Also unpopular: Consultants that send out lengthy RFPs seeking detailed financial information whose relevance to a client’s business is questionable. “Make RFPs specific to client issues, or use a short fact sheet for pre-screening,” suggests one respondent. “Twenty-page doctoral thesis RFPs” are not well-received by agency folks.

In April 1999, the 4A’s recommended a standardized new-business agency questionnaire. It is designed to expedite the early part of the process for shops, clients and consultants by allowing agencies to respond to basic questions with prepared answers.

“We take pride in being good to agencies. Without them, we’re no good,” says Neer. “But to have a standard RFP everyone uses we don’t think is the best approach.”

At the end of a recent SRI questionnaire, the consultancy informed shops that it subscribes to the 4A’s guidelines on conducting agency searches: “As such, in responding to this brief and request for materials, please do not provide us with sensitive or proprietary information or work you would be unwilling to share with this prospect.”

At this year’s new-business summit, Alan Krinsky, principal at ADvice & ADvisors in New York, said that while a standardized RFP is a well-intended response to agency complaints, it isn’t in the best interest of agencies. Answering a customized RFP “permits the respondent to put their best foot forward in providing unique responses and to demonstrate creativity in the submission,” he says. “A standardized questionnaire generates commonalities. We should be looking for differentiation among agencies, and the agencies should prefer that approach.”

The survey also indicates skepticism about Rojek Cutcher’s proprietary tool called CultureScan. “They make you do this Rorschach test where they match your responses to the cards to the client,” explains one executive. “They position it as a deep-rooted psychological test.”

Hasan Ramusevic, founder of consultancy Hasan + Co. in Raleigh, N.C., took the test a few years ago when he ran McKinney + Silver’s new-business operations. Ramusevic, an AAR veteran who launched his consultancy in March 2001, deems the test silly. “I’m sure they have some sort of use for it and sell whatever that use is wisely, but I don’t know what it has to do with anything,” he says.

The CultureScan system asks agencies and clients to sort 54 cards that have value attributes written on them (competitive, flexible, risk taking, etc.) in the order that best describes their organizations. It’s far from silly, argues Lorraine Rojek, who founded the consultancy in 1990. “Most clients say the reason their partnership with agencies has stood the test of time is because they are culturally aligned with agencies,” she says.

Among the believers is Kim Bartley, vp of marketing at White Castle, who in November will celebrate her 10th anniversary with J. Walter Thompson, Detroit. Bartley credits CultureScan for determining the compatibility of agency and client.

On Interaction

Most respondents say they get incensed when consultants limit access to clients. “Some prevent access in the name of efficiency. That’s a huge mistake,” says one. The consensus is that this prevents both parties from learning whether they have true chemistry and will make good partners. “If you want to consider it a marriage, a marriage should not take place after two dates,” says Ramusevic. “During the finals phase, agencies and clients should be getting to know each other intimately. There should be an exchange of dialogue. There’s going to be trust or distrust being built during that time.”

Of course, consultants typically say they do facilitate interaction. “Our process allows for the client to interact with the agency on all critical issues,” says Roth. He, like Neer and SRI’s Catherine Bension, says more interaction “simulates the real working environment.” Still, says Neer, agencies need to recognize that clients hire consultants to institute a process, and agencies must respect the client’s wishes.

“Our philosophy is to function as a facilitator throughout the whole process,” says Bension. “We chose as policy not to attend the final presentation, entitling the client to make the final decision. They’re the ones who have to sit with the agencies and make the relationship work.”

Neer says Pile helps each client make a decision but that the search firm does not have a vote in selecting the winner. Roth says he “prefers not to tell clients his choice.”

At the 4A’s conference in June, Cleve Langton, director of business development at DDB and chairman of the 4A’s new-business committee for large agencies, made his position on interaction crystal clear. “If a consultant doesn’t allow contact, pull out,” he said.

On Personality

The final question in Adweek’s survey asked agencies to say which consultants are the easiest to work with on a personal level. SRI again jumped to the head of the pack.

But whether they’re easy to work with or not, consultants are here to stay. “The marketplace wants them and needs them,” Berlin Cameron/Red Cell CEO Andy Berlin said at the 4A’s conference. “The good ones level the playing field. They give feedback without being unfair. They perform a valuable service. Without them, the process would be more arbitrary—less fair, not more fair.”