Opinion: Perspective - Love 'em or loathe 'em, match-makers are crucial

As the British Airways pitch enters its final stages, speculation on which agency will snaffle the £60 million booty is ferocious. One thing is for sure: there will be three shortlisted agencies that end up losing much more than the pitch itself.

At a rough guess, the final four (M&C Saatchi, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, JWT and DDB London) have spent not far short of £1 million between them in time and resources on this pitch. Even the winner will take quite some time to recoup the expense, while the losers will need to get back on the pitching trail pretty quickly (spending more money, of course) in a bid to make up the shortfall.

Pitching is an expensive business, no doubt about it. And if you're regularly not winning anything, this classic Catch 22 can spell commercial suicide.

So paying out money for the privilege of even being considered for a shortlist can easily begin to seem like a cheque too far.

Take last week's hot gossip about JWT withdrawing from the AAR. Within the industry, the news has generated a frenzy of dissection and debate (and, yes, Campaign has joined in: see page 21); the sheer daring (or stupidity, depending on your perspective) of JWT has been the talk of lunch tables around town. All of which is proof of the iron grip that the AAR and its match-making competitors can have on the commercial balls of agencies.

That's not surprising, of course. With so many clients having such a paltry grasp of the realities of agency strengths and performance, the likes of the AAR and the Haystack Group become indispensable.

By helping a client navigate through the inevitable bullshit that comes with your average ad agency reel and the complexities of communications requirements in this fragmented, integrated age, the match-makers are a crucial element of most pitches these days. And with so many agencies struggling with the basics of non-organic growth and their own marketing, the match-makers can provide invaluable independent advice and feedback.

But with return on investment on everyone's radar, it's perfectly understandable that agencies should question the value they get from being on the AAR's books. And it has to be said that on the face of it JWT doesn't seem to have got its money's worth over the past year or two.

Whose fault that is, however, is a different matter altogether. Word from the AAR is that it has put JWT forward for plenty of pitches but the agency failed to persuade many clients that it deserved to be on their shortlist. From JWT's side, it reckons it has spent plenty with the AAR without getting the sort of service, advice and results that it would expect for its money. Some agencies simply seem to be in favour with the likes of the AAR (or kiss ass better), critics say, than others.

Whatever the truth of it, the match-makers provide a crucial resource for time-squeezed and often ill-experienced marketers looking for the right agency for their business.

Their role in improving client understanding and in helping agencies improve their pitching approach should also be championed. But all this must come with a transparency and an independence that is unquestionable. Sometimes it doesn't always seem that way.

EBay has just paid £2.2 billion for Skype, an internet telephone call system that has yet to turn a profit. In the US, media agencies are booking online campaigns up to 18 months in advance, just to be sure of securing the right sites.

Meanwhile, online ad rates are up almost 10 per cent and in the rush to capitalise on all the interest, online publishers are scrambling to add to their inventory. The new new-media bubble is expanding at a rapid pace and the evidence is everywhere you look, except within the walls of your average ad agency.

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