Close-Up: Live Issue - Why COI Communications revamped its roster

Of the 136 agencies that approached COI Communications, only 20 made it on to the creative roster, Peter Buchanan says.

Our greatest challenge in running COI Communications' creative pitch was sifting through the 116 detailed applications in order to arrive at a roster that represented the best 20 London-based agencies.

Have we chosen wisely? Only time will tell, but our analysis has been exhaustive.

Applications were sent to 136 agencies that expressed an interest and 116 were returned duly completed. The information requested covered areas as diverse as experience in targeting hard-to-reach audiences to in-house press production studio facilities.

There were 13 separate categories of general information that were requested at this first stage.

Each completed application was substantial and, to give you an idea of volume, 116 tomes is a roomful. A locked room, that is, with each document numbered and sealed on arrival.

Each application was assessed by three senior people, independently, to ensure consistent analysis and fair marking. Our marking system allows every agency to be ranked from the first to the last and all relevant information can then be displayed on a spreadsheet. We draw a line once we've decided how many agencies we want - in our case, around 20 London-based agencies (plus a further six or so agencies based outside the capital).

There are five major criteria that contribute towards an agency's score.

One of these is the submission of two detailed and independently endorsed campaign effectiveness case histories and another is the profile of the agency's current account list, including recent gains and losses. At this stage, we may need to go back to the agency for some clarification or seek independent advice from the AAR. We also invest in a Dunn & Bradstreet financial check for every agency. There were several cases where the agency's financial position required further investigation.

The eventual size of the roster reflects the need to offer our clients a wide choice, balanced against giving the agencies appointed to the roster a reasonable prospect of pitching during the contractual period, which is normally four years.

From previous experience, we estimate that a roster list of around 25 gives an average of seven opportunities to pitch during the contract period.

That feels about right to me and, on the previous roster, most agencies felt they had been given a fair crack at pitching.

We have no prejudices against any type of agency, but I did want to add the best of the recent start-ups if they met our criteria. Most did, although a couple didn't. So in this regard, we visited six of the newer agencies and four were successful. In advance of our visits, we asked the agencies to respond to some unusual and searching questions on the day. For example, we asked: "How would you persuade a major consumer brand to feature a disabled person in the lead role in its next TV commercial?"

Towards the end of the process, we contact agencies that are not going to be reappointed and offer them a face-to-face debrief. The final lap is to send out terms and conditions (which run to 16 pages) to all the successful agencies.

I also needed to think about new-business opportunities for COI. First, there are an increasing number of government agencies and other public sector bodies setting up outside London, so I wanted to develop a good footprint of agencies right across the country.

An even bigger opportunity for COI is in public sector recruitment advertising.

Although expenditure runs into hundreds of millions of pounds, the market is highly fragmented. I believe the Government could benefit from a central COI offer with marketing professionals included as an additional resource to busy HR departments. Our offer would include creative product, response handling and analysis, and, of course, centralised buying.

With this opportunity in mind, we have increased the specialist recruitment agency roster from three to nine.

What has changed in the agency market since our last review? Well, in one sense very little - the advertising village in the UK remains very conservative. However, there are a few rustlings of change taking place.

Some talk much more confidently about integration, with advertising and direct marketing creative teams and planners sitting together - although that's not revolutionary. There is also evidence of a more holistic approach to communications, which includes branding, employee strategies and stakeholder communications, plus a much better grasp of the potential of interactive TV, SMS and opportunities on the web.

Following the recent election, we have gone through a quieter period regarding pitches, but I can promise the successful agencies that there will be plenty of work to do in the foreseeable future.

- Peter Buchanan is the deputy chief executive of COI Communications

THE NEW ROSTER Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Bartle Bartle Hegarty BDH/TBWA (Manchester) Cheethambell JWT (Manchester) Clemmow Hornby Inge Cravens (Leeds) DDB London DFGW Different (Newcastle) DLKW & Partners Farm Golley Slater HHCL/Red Cell Leo Burnett Lowe & Partners M&C Saatchi McCann Erickson Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy Mother Mustoes Publicis Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R St Luke's VCCP Walsh Trott Chick Smith WCRS Wieden & Kennedy (Manchester)