How to “name the names” in ad agency search practice

(Apologies for the unusually long post.)

Hello there, gang! Steve Congdon here. Have you read the Ad Age story on Steve Blamer and his entry into the search business? Wow. If you’re at all a new business geek, it’s a must read. For both the story and the comments. The story is focused around one of Blamer’s POVs on his new website. Steve Blamer is a very senior, smart, experienced agency professional. In the article, he suggests many search consultants accept money from both agencies and clients. And he suggests it is a dreadful, unethical and shameful practice.

You will see many of the country’s better known search consultants throwing their two cents into the debate in the comments section.

All of this is very interesting, of course. But futile.

Because… what will lead to everlasting change can be summed up in one word. Money. And who spends the most benjamins?!

Clients.

To me, it’s a simple question. How can we make clients give two hoots about this? Perhaps the solution is in more transparency and a bit more education. Yours truly suggested as much in my own comment in the Ad Age story.

One solution might be taking a look at what the other professions do and do likewise. Surely we as an industry aren’t the only ones that have faced this thorny issue.

Another potential solution is the idea of a survey. Here’s how that might work. Conceptually, agencies are asked to name the names. Over the last twelve  months, who did they pay money to when it comes to outside services for new business? And what were the services provided? THEN, PUBLISH THE FINDINGS. I’m not talking about which agency paid what to whom. That’s extremely confidential and sensitive stuff. But surely there’s a way to protect the confidentiality of the agencies involved and break out finally, once and for all, the different ways various middlemen make their money.

And who’s to lead this charge? Who sends out the survey?  I see only four options, two of which aren’t good fits.

Option #1: the search consultants. Sure, they can educate. And for a few of them, not accepting money from agencies will be a differentiating factor. The best ones are already doing this. But not publicly. Also, when you denigrate your competition, you look bad. And if you execute the idea as described above, you then have a single search consultant knowing about their competitors. There’s also a vested interest in the outcome. So maybe not such a good thing…

Option #2: the agency-only new business consultants. Guys like, well, me. But I ain’t gonna do it: my clients, agencies, sometimes participate in search consultant-led reviews. And I would want to out a search consultant because….?!

Doing so could create bad blood. Something an agency certainly won’t pay for. I must have solid, active, working and entirely friendly relationships with these search consultants. (And actually have been known – shock – to give them business!) Nothing quite builds a relationship like a free lead.

Let’s be fair here, too. This group  also has something at stake, too, and gets some skinny they probably shouldn’t have on their own competitors. So, we’re out.

Though let the record show I was pulling for this one 😉

Option #3: both client and agency trade groups. I’m talking the ANA and the 4As. To be clear, I am not as familiar as I should be with the long-running history of this issue and what the trade groups have done about it. They have instituted a program or two. Things like the published list of search consultants, for example. But these programs haven’t had the impact the architects had planned for.

For years, the geek in me has wondered what takes place in the 4As New Business Committee meetings. My imagination runs wild – I see stogies, backroom deals, wood-paneled private club rooms… wild bashes that go into the wee hours of an evening.

Sadly, this is far from reality. (That’s what happened at Cannes and at the Wal-Mart pitch! But I digress.)

To me, one of the coolest, related things the 4As did was publish the pitch list. This list is very valuable (though incomplete, as it just captures published pitches and their outcomes). It’s one way to see if search consultants play favorites.

Is it an example of some transparency? You bet. But I leave it to you to decide if our trade groups have done enough. It’s very easy for us to pick on the 4As. Probably not very fair of us; they do a lot of good, and at least they’re trying. And in a down economy, they are struggling like everyone. There are higher priorities on their list.

But no one could argue that education and transparency is a good thing. So, we’re back to who? Or is it whom?

Option #4 if you please!

Trade magazines. I’m talkin’ to you, Ad Age and Adweek! I”d throw PROMO on this list, too, but search consultants don’t play as much in sales promotion. (Though databases are at play.) These magazines report on our industry, and we look to them for trends, insights, who’s up and who’s down.

But could it be suggested they, too, must have relationships with agencies, clients, and search consultants to continue to get the inside skinny on stories? Sure. But aren’t there multiple sides in a publishing house? I’m talking about the data side managing the survey, etc. Maybe this would minimize the issue.

This survey, in fact, could be a money-maker. (Boy, remind me again why I can’t get lead this charge?!)

Anywho, hope this gets you thinking. Or at least helps get you up to speed on this issue. You can find more here, here and here. (Short version: I’m an agency-only consultant, and find the double dippers to be a bad lot. And not all search consultants do this. Just some of ’em. That just saved you a ton o’ time.)

And, by the way, this survey thing is just one solution. There are lots of smart people in our business (including you, gentle reader). Plenty of other ideas out there.

Change will be coming, me thinks, over the next two years, as new models are explored and as the selection process continues to morph.

But for now… as agency new business professionals, search consultants, and the occasional client that stumbles upon this site, my best advice is to do what would make your mother the most proud.

If you have comments or related thoughts, in this case, I’d actually encourage you to post ’em on Ad Age. Crazy talk, for sure. But more eyeballs will see your brilliance. And the more ideas we surface as an industry, the better we are.

Ciao!

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