Close-Up: Live Issue/Agency Assessment - Shops react to COI’s agency performance review/Sceptics appear as the COI looks hard at assessment, Eleanor Trickett discovers

It’s a familiar feeling, recalling that gut-churning, knicker-wetting moment when your parents opened the annual white envelope. You see the facial expression sink from vain hope to frank disappointment. ’Could do better,’ they read from your school report, as a warm puddle forms on the floor by your feet.

It’s a familiar feeling, recalling that gut-churning,

knicker-wetting moment when your parents opened the annual white

envelope. You see the facial expression sink from vain hope to frank

disappointment. ’Could do better,’ they read from your school report, as

a warm puddle forms on the floor by your feet.

The moment was relived by the chief executives of 13 advertising

agencies last week, when the Central Office of Information announced

that its first full year of nit-picking assessment was complete.

Agencies were told to pull their socks up in two areas: being proactive

in ideas and opportunities, and proposing measures that add value or

save money.

This stern admonishment was only a small part of the story. Overall, the

COI declares that it is happy with the 13 agencies’ performance -

indeed, marks for key criteria such as achieving campaign objectives,

speed of response to creative amendments and strategic input to the

brief garnered 70 per cent-plus scores from all the agencies.

Furthermore, the top four agencies scored more than 80 per cent


Cynical observers have suggested that this is all rather convenient; a

cosmetic pat on the back for the agencies, masquerading as a bid by the

COI to remind the Government that it is still ’terribly useful’. One

agency source with extensive COI experience says: ’If it is not seen to

be adding value by the government body, it is told to get out of the

way. The COI is a cost, but it doesn’t actually produce anything -

policies, strategies or ad campaigns.’

But client assessments are becoming increasingly popular across the

board, and it could be said that the only criticism fairly levelled at

the COI would be that it has taken so long to formalise the process.

Peter Buchanan, the COI’s director of marketing services, refutes any

suggestions that the assessment is not a genuinely valuable


’We introduced the system to improve accountability, raise standards,

motivate agencies and recognise the highest achievers,’ he explains. And

of the criticism that the first year’s results were just too good to be

true, Buchanan admits that the system will be far more use at the end of

year two, when there will be a bigger bank of data from which to spot


But the problem areas revealed are ones that agencies are unlikely to

hurry to correct, as long as the payment structure is largely commission

rather than fee-based, according to a senior industry figure. ’In order

for agencies to be motivated and proactive, they need to be paid well

enough to have the resources on the account to do this. And the COI

doesn’t pay very well.’

Furthermore, he continues, coming up with cost-saving ideas - another of

the COI’s targeted areas for improvement - will only serve to diddle

agencies out of potential commission. Buchanan counters: ’If agencies do

come up with new ideas, then they will generate additional commission

income. Or if the idea is outside conventional advertising solutions, it

might generate a fee.’

But there are ways in which the process can benefit agencies. It might

just reduce the length of pitchlists, another source says: ’The COI can

be real cheeky monkeys when it comes to roster pitches. They draw up

lists that are far too long for a tiny project, demanding huge amounts

of time and effort from the agencies. You wind up doing an awful lot of

work with a relatively small chance of winning, and a small reward even

if you do.’

Few people would argue that a formalised and open assessment system

paves the way for more honest and effective communication between agency

and client - all the better if the process is two-way. Rupert Howell,

the president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the

chairman of HHCL & Partners, explains that it is a good way to get

grievances aired: ’It tends to pre-empt bigger issues, and a

constructive dialogue means that things can get tackled before the

agency finds itself in a review situation.’

And it can work to the agency’s financial advantage in two ways: first,

if a bonus arrangement for the more quantifiable elements is woven in

and, second, on a cost-effective level if agencies are able to thrash

out issues higher up the hierarchical ladder.

Ian Taylor, a managing partner of Lowe Direct, says that assessment is

even more appropriate for direct marketing agencies, who appreciate the

opportunity to consort with the more senior clients, rather than the

numerous specialists that look after myriad aspects of the account. He

also says that it’s the clients who don’t do this that are the ones to


’In ’Cowboy and Indian’ films, there’s always a scene in which someone

says, ’I don’t like it - it’s too quiet out there’. Lack of

communication allows problems to fester in clients’ minds, making them

far more susceptible to approaches from our competitors,’ Taylor


Accounts can be won and lost on rigid criteria such as the COI’s 18

categories - which is why many people registered surprise on hearing the

unexpectedly high scores of the COI’s agencies.

Buchanan’s aforementioned explanation notwithstanding, an insider says:

’If you had picked the roster, issued the brief, run the pitch, picked

the agency, agreed the campaign strategy and approved the creative, you

wouldn’t want to report bad results back to Whitehall, would you?’


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