CAMPAIGN REPORT ON CHOOSING AN AGENCY: Hand holders - If you know you need an agency, but don’t know which one, it can be money well spent to employ an expert to pick the most suitable for your needs, Tim Woolgar says

Lindsay Firth-McGuckin, the marketing director of the fund managers, Johnson Fry, has an apocryphal tale of her first attempt to appoint an agency. ’I was in charge of marketing at the Liverpool Victoria friendly society. I remember going to the Marketing Forum and walking around with a cheque for pounds 2 million in my back pocket and all these agencies were telling me to go away. They didn’t take me seriously,’ she says. It took a visit to the Advertising Agency Register before she got the pitching process under way.

Lindsay Firth-McGuckin, the marketing director of the fund

managers, Johnson Fry, has an apocryphal tale of her first attempt to

appoint an agency. ’I was in charge of marketing at the Liverpool

Victoria friendly society. I remember going to the Marketing Forum and

walking around with a cheque for pounds 2 million in my back pocket and

all these agencies were telling me to go away. They didn’t take me

seriously,’ she says. It took a visit to the Advertising Agency Register

before she got the pitching process under way.

Using a consultant to buy marketing services can mean many things to

many people. It may be going to the relevant trade association such as

the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, the Direct Marketing

Association or the Institute of Sales Promotion. Then there is the AAR

which, for a fee, helps clients draw up their agency shortlist. As well

as providing information about ad agencies, the AAR now offers advice on

a broad spectrum of marketing services including direct marketing and

media buying.

Clients can appoint a consultant who will see the entire process

through, from writing the initial brief to assessing the final pitches

and drawing up contracts and remuneration deals.

Whether or not clients elect to pursue any or all of these options

depends on a variety of factors, not least their own level of experience

and how they are perceived by the industry.

’Getting an agency to work for you is a big decision, you’re hopefully

looking for a long-term partnership. I think it’s sensible to spend time

and money on the process,’ Firth-McGuckin says. ’Ten thousand pounds is

not an unreasonable amount if it means you get the right agency at the

end of it all.’

Working in the financial services industry gives her another reason for

seeking independent advice. ’You’ve got to be absolutely impartial with

things like this, and you must be seen to be impartial. If there’s a

suggestion you’ve appointed an agency because you’ve got a friend there

or some other reason like that, you’re in trouble,’ she says.

Outside help can also prevent internal conflicts, as was the case for

Jannie Dickson, the marketing director of Mitel Telecoms. ’We were in a

situation where there were several different groups within the company

working with different agencies. If you looked across the board at

advertising, sales promotion, media buying, design and so on, there were

about 17 agencies on the books and we wanted to centralise things. There

were people who worked with each agency and valued them, so I decided it

would be a lot less painful to use an independent consultant.’

Dickson called in Agency Insight and asked them to interview everyone

involved in the various different aspects of the company’s


’They summarised the results which we then used to write the brief. We

drew up a shortlist of agencies encompassing the various disciplines and

ended up appointing four of them,’ she says.

’Naturally some of my colleagues were not totally convinced and there is

a transition process to go through. But it’s vital to get your teams all

behind you and I’m convinced the process has gone more smoothly because

we called in independent help.’

One concern when looking for advice is to ensure its impartiality.

Deborah Morrison, the membership services director of ISBA, emphasises

that her association is not paid by advertising agencies. ’Nor do we

have any vested interest in seeing our members change agencies. When

someone comes to us we encourage them to think about the agency they’ve

already got. Sometimes we’ve helped people sort out their existing

relationship and actually stopped them going to pitch,’ she says.

Helping clients stay with an agency rather than find a new one is

outside the AAR’s remit, says its managing director, Martin Jones. ’When

people have made a decision, it’s not my place to argue.’

The AAR charges agencies between pounds 7,000 and pounds 10,000 to be on

its books and holds showreels from each. It charges a fee to clients,

typically pounds 1,500, for help in the process leading to an eventual

pitch. Jones dismisses any suggestion these arrangements compromise the

organisation’s independence.

’Our business is built on two cornerstones: confidentiality and

impartiality. It’s very easy for me to be impartial, otherwise we

wouldn’t stay in business.’

The way consultants enable clients to begin researching the agency

market without being identified is key to the service. Jones says: ’We

understand the agency world in a way that is difficult for most clients

to do. We know the hidden relationships between agencies and where

potential conflicts can occur. That’s often the way confidentiality is

lost. They’ll contact an agency directly without realising there’s a

conflict and the secret’s blown.’

An example of how the AAR works can be found in the pitch for the

Marston Thompson & Evershed’s pounds 1.6 million account. Marston’s

director of brand marketing, John Steel, explains that he was forced to

look for a new agency despite having a long-term and successful

relationship with TBWA Simons Palmer following that agency’s merger with


’That brought us into conflict with GGT’s John Smith’s account. It was

not a welcome development but we’ve used the opportunity to broaden our

perspective of the advertising market,’ Steel says.

’Choosing a new agency is a huge decision, you only do it two or three

times in your career. Rather than inviting creative pitches we decided

to go another route. I wrote a brief to the AAR and together we came up

with a long list of 15 agencies. We narrowed it down to eight. I spent a

day going back and forth across London having meetings with each and

whittled it down to three.’

The AAR’s involvement ended once the final three agencies, Walsh Trott

Chick Smith, Lansdown Conquest and Fallon McElligott, had been


Steel’s next step was to organise half-day workshops so he and his staff

could meet each of the three agencies. This kind of in-depth approach to

agency selection, with the emphasis on matching people and business

philosophies rather than appraising speculative creative work, is

typical of the process recommended by ’full-service’ consultants.

Three of the biggest names in this line are David Wethey, the founder of

Agency Assessments, Andrew Melsom, who set up and runs Agency Insights,

and Jeffery Tolman, the managing director of Tolman-Cunard.

All three have held senior positions in ad agencies. They get involved

in writing the initial brief and follow the process through to

conducting annual reviews after the agency’s appointment. Their charges

are in the upper range of management consultant fees, although they are

quick to point out that this represents a small percentage of their

clients’ advertising budgets.

’Sometimes I’ll even say advertising is not the right thing to be doing.

I might be appointed by a telecoms company that wants to go big and

branded but will have excluded the need to make direct contact with

clients. Or perhaps they need to get their data in order and I’ll

suggest they do more research,’ Melsom says.

Once the consultant is involved in the decision to buy advertising he

can be the agency’s best friend or worst enemy. Consultants are

associated with some of the biggest accounts in the business.

Andrew Melsom, for example, claims to have attended over 200

new-business presentations and been involved in pounds 200 million worth

of marketing spend in the last year. Perhaps it’s not surprising that

agency staff are uniformly complementary about them and the services

they provide.

Privately, though, many agency people view the consultants with little

more than grudging acceptance. Comments from agency executives who

preferred not to be named in this article included: ’If you fall out

with one of them, that’s it. They’ll never give you any more business’;

’They have their own favourites and mates’; ’They’re biased towards the

bigger agencies.’

The consultants claim these criticisms are unfair. ’More often than not

we do end up with a shortlist featuring the bigger agencies. That’s

because we’re talking about the bigger clients with more complicated

demands,’ says Wethey.

’I can’t afford to be biased or run my business on the basis of personal

feelings. I’m paid to get the best result for the client. We want the

best performance from the agencies too, it’s important for us to get on

with them. The last thing I want is for agencies to feel


The importance of consultancy services is growing as a result of

increasing pressure on marketing, says Wethey. ’There was a time when

marketing was a more relaxed business. Now it’s all 13-hour days and

voicemail. It’s a tougher job with far less stability. Instead of

advertising agencies constantly changing their line-up, we’re more

likely to see changes in marketing departments. The average tenure of a

marketing director’s post these days seems to be around 18 months.’

He explains the appointment of a new marketing director is a common

source of business for Agency Assessments. ’Sometimes they’ll want a

major strategic review. Only about half our work involves search and

selection but when it does, the service is front-end loaded. Average

assignments last three to four months up to final pitches.

’We’ll draw up a list of agencies, put them under confidentiality

agreements and get the pitches under way. I’m involved in every meeting

between the client and the agency in a non-voting role. The clients make

the decisions.’

Amanda Walsh, the managing director of Walsh Trott Chick Smith, says she

believes consultants can provide a valuable service to the industry.

’They point people in the right direction. What many clients don’t

realise is with traditional pitching an agency will do anything to win

the account, even if it’s not necessarily the right thing for the brand.

You get a situation where the creative work is purely to win the

account, then people sit back and think about what’s really the best


’What the more sophisticated clients and the consultants realise is you

don’t create great advertising campaigns in four or five weeks. Any

great campaign is based on planning, strategy and creative work all

coming together and developing over a period of time. The more

experienced clients hate beauty parades. They realise choosing an agency

is about understanding one another at a much deeper level.’

However, Walsh also points out the agency needs access to the client in

order to establish this understanding. ’If consultants get in the way of

communication between agency and client, they’re not being helpful.

You can win the account before the day of the pitch by showing energy

and enthusiasm and coming up with ideas for the brand. But you need

access to the client to achieve that.’

Melsom says he agrees the consultant must act alongside, rather than

between, the client and agency. ’We act as a turbocharger to the

marketing department in their relationship with the agency. The client

remains in charge and a consultant who interposes himself so much that

he gets in the way is doing a bad job.’

Whether it’s a result of changes in the way marketing professionals

work, the need to show greater accountability or the importance of

demonstrating impartiality, the role of the search and selection

consultant is established. According to Mark Robinson, the new-business

director at JWT: ’Five years ago in America, consultants were everywhere

and it seems to be going that way over here. For clients the pitching

process is very stressful and a consultant helps them focus their

objectives. That’s good for both of us.’

Tolman adds:’Consultants can make all the difference, like selling a

Victorian watercolour to a dealer and feeling pleased because you got

pounds 200 when Sotheby’s would have valued it for pounds 20,000.’


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