Search consultants: are the trade associations telling you something?

So, the 4As and the ANA came out with some new pitch guidelines recently.

Eyeball the list of the white-paper contributors and you will see  not one search consultant.


So why were no consultants, well, consulted as part of the process? I am sure there are plenty of good reasons, dear reader. But I’d like to suggest one that could upset the apple cart. That the 4As or the ANA will be getting into the search business.

“What’s this?” you ask. It couldn’t be. Well, let’s look at a few reasons why this could happen (as well as a reason or two why it might not):

Times are tight. organizations – even non-profit ones – are looking for new ways to increase revenues. Getting in the search business could make them money in at least two ways. They could increase agency and client membership in their respective groups as they can now supply something extra their members need. In classic CPG talk, for agencies this represents distribution. (And the reason they pay some of the search consultants.)

The associations might also charge an incremental fee to clients for the service. There would be time, after all, involved in the search. This is a professional service that would fall well beyond an annual membership fees.

Hmmm. There could easily be some sort of model where the 4A’s or the ANA could hire a search consultant or two to help.

There’s a model for this. A precedent. Americans, all you need do is look North, to Canada, to see this practice in action. The ICA, the Institute of Communication Agencies, handles search. Another association’s take is seen here. Looks to be a combo kind of thing (much like the 4As / ANA thing. But I don’t think this other association combo (ISBA / IPA) does search.

This could, finally, put some teeth to the idea of getting rid of “pay to play” middlemen. Every so often, the 4As and ANA will publish something that suggests how a client should go about finding an agency. If you’re like me, you collect and dutifully read this material. Some of it is great stuff. But all of it lacks bite. There’s nothing in there to force anyone to follow any of these suggestions.

Sure, the 4As has published a list of searchers. And to make the list, search consultants need to sign some paperwork saying they don’t pay to play. But that’s bullshit. There are plenty of folks on the list that take money from both sides of a relationship. Not in the same transaction, but still… This has bugged agencies for years.

So, the 4As gets into the search biz. Sounds pretty good, right?! Well, so far I can think of two good reasons why this ain’t gonna happen:

Not all agencies are members of the stalwart organizations. If anyone out there, by the way, has a stat on association share of the market, please share. So, the agencies that aren’t members don’t get to participate in the pitch?! A tricky, unobjective business that. There are some great agencies out there that provide excellent service to their clients that might be good fits for a given need. From the client’s perspective, it would be a pity to be limited to an association-led option. Talk about pay to play!

Assuming that hurdle is overcome, though, there’s the idea of a member agency not liking the idea they weren’t included in a pitch. Oh, that. Goodbye annual dues! Hello, endless squabbling, butt covering and rationalization.

And did we mention there would be a bunch of pissed off agencies? In the words of The Highlander, “there can only be one!” Usually, there’s only one winner in a given pitch, a painful second place loser, and some also rans who pitched, but lost. But hey, there are search consultants out there who have handled that problem for years.

So, maybe the search process is best left to paid experts. But I dunno. What do you think? Should the 4As get into the search business? How about the ANA?


Oh, and if you’re looking for posts around the guidelines and how to use them in your new business efforts, start here. If you seek content around search consultants, start here.