Close-Up: Should lead agencies run pitches?

W&K is overseeing the DM pitch for its Visit Wales client. Will this catch on, John Tylee asks.

Many marketing directors have banged on about ways to ensure harmony and co-operation between their roster agencies. But few have followed the example of Roger Pride at Visit Wales in allowing one of his agencies to handle the selection of another.

When the tourism body decided to find a new DM agency, it chose not to work through an intermediary but to assign the job to Wieden & Kennedy, the lead agency on its £7.5 million creative account.

W&K sat alongside the client during credentials presentations and was instrumental in picking the shortlisted shops - CMW, Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw and Rapier - who all pitched last week.

Neil Christie, the managing director of W&K, acknowledges that the arrangement is unconventional but denies that it puts too much responsibility on his agency. He also stresses that the decision will be a joint one. Pride adds that the process reflects the unusual nature of their contract, under which W&K is the sole agent for marketing services, allowing it to contract out any other services directly.

But David Wethey, the chairman of Agency Assessments International, says: "I think this is a daft idea. This isn't what an agency is for." And some senior industry managers also have misgivings about whether "sole supplier" contracts load too much responsibility on agencies. "What happens if a supplier proves to be sub-standard or goes bust," one asks.

It needs to be remembered, though, that it is not unknown for clients to seek advice from their lead agencies when making other appointments. Creative shops have long been advising clients about choosing a media agency.

Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble has its Brand Agency Leader model that aligns teams of agencies to specific brands, with the main creative agency having a say in who it works with. But it is still P&G that picks and hires the specialist shops from which the team is drawn.

Although Visit Wales takes the idea further, the pitching agencies seem relaxed about the process. "Visit Wales obviously has a strong relationship with W&K, even though the agency's relationship with Partners Andrews Aldridge didn't work out," a source close to one of them says. "This should ensure it doesn't happen again."

One pitch consultant adds: "If clients want their agencies working closely together, it's better the lead agency has a direct specialist it knows it can get along with rather than having one forced on it. The downside is that no agency could track the market as well as we can."

Equally moot is whether what W&K is doing just perpetuates the feeling that creative agencies still rule the roost while others are second best. Wethey thinks this is inevitable, partly because creative agencies tend to have the most experienced people, while Jon Ingall, a managing partner at Archibald Ingall Stretton, views it with suspicion. "This is a very strange thing to be doing and not something I'd care to get involved in," he says. "This arrangement would make it very difficult for the direct agency if it found itself disagreeing with what the lead agency was doing."

With only a handful of even remotely comparable situations, it is unsurprising that there seems to be confusion about how Visit Wales' decision will affect the industry - although everyone seems to agree that this won't be the last time this sort of pitch is held. As one direct agency boss says: "This has the ability to turn into a big issue that won't be going away any time soon."

Got a view?: E-mail us at


"To suggest that we are getting Wieden & Kennedy to handle the entire process on our behalf is quite wrong.

"The fact is that we have a contract with them in which they, as the lead creative agency, bring in other partners as necessary to meet our communication requirements.

"As the client, we have been involved at all stages of the process and the choice of agency will be taken jointly by ourselves and W&K.

"If we were sitting back and not getting involved, then it might be said we were putting too much responsibility on the agency. But that's definitely not the case."


"More and more clients will want to work with their lead agencies in this way and I don't necessarily think it's a problem.

"The most important thing for a client is that their strategy should be right - this is much more complicated than it was before.

It's not just a question of getting a bloody good ad out any more.

"It just shows how much has changed from a time 25 years ago when those working above and below the line just sneered at each other. Today, there's no such thing as above and below the line any more."


"I think that having a creative agency handle a pitch for a client is a daft idea. It's not what agencies are for. It's one thing having a lead agency represented at a pitch but it's quite another having them run the whole thing.

"I suppose it will perpetuate the idea that the creative agency is the most important. But it's inevitable because it's the creative agency that's the brand guardian in most cases and it will be a very long time before that changes.

"That's because creative agencies have the most experienced people. And, with so many mergers going on, it's going to be some time yet before the digital sector can match them."


"We'd only pitch on this basis if we were sure the resulting relationship was one we were going to be comfortable with and not of the 'you'll do as you're told' kind.

"It's fine if the lead agency is looking to find a good fit with people it knows it can work with.

If it just wants an agency that it can control then it may end up with the most malleable rather than the best.

"My fear is that this is a cop-out by the client. Maybe Visit Wales feels uncomfortable doing this itself. But it puts an awful lot of responsibility on its lead agency."