Close-up: Stuart Elliott in America

When is an account review not an account review? It's a question Madison Avenue has found itself confronting more frequently in recent months, much to its dismay and disappointment.

Just as the Watergate scandal brought the phrase "non-denial denial" into the US lexicon, meaning a statement that seems forthcoming but actually is evasive, so too have clients lately been popularising the non-review review - when a marketer starts to seek another agency to replace the one on its roster, but is as loathe to admit it as Richard Nixon was to 'fess up to the high crimes and misdemeanours that got him impeached.

The latest examples came last week, when the US divisions of Subaru and Cadbury Schweppes put on notice their incumbent creative agencies; the former, Temerlin McClain, after more than ten years, and for the latter, Young & Rubicam, after nine. The r-word was scantly present in the back-and-forth spokespeople engaged in with journalists eager to follow up surprise reports that the accounts were ... what? In review? Up for grabs?

On the loose? Hanging by a thread? Dating after a longer stay in the convent than Audrey Hepburn spent in A Nun's Story?

According to the websites of Adweek and Advertising Age, Subaru of America was "set to contact agencies", "looking at every aspect of business", "looking at what the market has to offer" and "evaluating other agency options". And, according to Adweek, Dr Pepper/Seven Up decided to "reach beyond its roster shop" by asking at least two other agencies for creative ideas for the 7Up brand along with Y&R.

Call it anything you like, the clients seemed to say, only don't call it a review. A Subaru spokeswoman denied the account was officially in review and would not comment on whether the company had started to get in touch with any other agencies. Making the dance of the seven veils even more opaque was her acknowledgement that whatever the heck the company was doing with its account, Temerlin McClain would be included in the process.

A spokesman for Dr Pepper/Seven Up said the term review "should not be used as a label" for what his company's doing but didn't offer an alternative, stating: "We're always looking at creative options."

For an industry that has coined enough euphemisms and weasel words to provide adulterous spouses with excuses for a gazillion illicit hook-ups, maybe such obfuscation is simply just desserts. How can anyone be frank and forthcoming when the day is spent creating terms such as "pre-owned" for used cars?

Of course, it's always possible that the news of the Subaru and 7Up rev ... er, um, processes, leaked before the companies were ready to talk. It wouldn't be the first time in the gossipy agency industry that a feline emerged from a sack prematurely. Loose lips sink ships, or shops? Surely you jest, the prevailing attitude retorts.

But however it's described, or not described, there's no doubt the non-review review is a bad break for the incumbent agency. Maybe even worse than a formal review, which at least gives the incumbent a fighting chance to assess its options and prepare for the worst.

How, on the other hand, do you decide whether or not to take part in a process?

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