Can pitch consultants really be independent?

Oystercatchers' high-profile battle with WPP has put the integrity of all intermediaries in the spotlight, John Tylee writes.

As public apologies go, they don't come much more humiliating than the one just offered to WPP by Oystercatchers, one of the industry's most high-profile intermediaries.

Actually, it was more like self-flagellation as Oystercatchers chastised itself for its "entirely inappropriate involvement" in a breakaway set up by WPP staff, supporting their venture "in a manner that we know as wrong" and being complicit "in their flagrant breach of their duties" to the WPP operating companies for which they worked.

The big slice of humble pie that Oystercatchers has been forced to eat - plus the reported six-figure sum it had to shell out to settle the matter - stunned the industry, which has greeted the news with a mixture of anger and trepidation.

The first question raised by the incident is an obvious one. Why did Oystercatchers do it?

Lax judgment

The terms of the settlement prevent those who know from saying; however, industry sources suggest it was a case of long-standing friendships that allowed judgments to be clouded when it came to helping establish the new agency The Great Game, despite its founders' existing contractual obligations to Everystone and The Brand Union, both WPP subsidiaries.

The affair also raises the more pertinent issue of how far intermediaries can "run with the hare and hunt with the hounds".

By its own admission, Oystercatchers overstepped the mark by introducing The Great Game's founders to prospects and jointly pitching for business, so raising the matter of how far down the road an intermediary can go before conflict of interest kicks in. "Oystercatchers entered very difficult and dangerous territory," a leading pitch consultant remarks.

Its involvement with The Great Game is understood to have come from a previous working relationship between Peter Cowie, one of Oystercatchers' founding partners and a former senior executive at two WPP operating companies, and Crispin Jameson, one of those setting up the breakaway.

To be clear, the Oystercatchers principals are said to be insisting they acted in good faith, in the belief The Great Game's founders had no existing contractual restrictions and that WPP might actually be involved in the new venture.

It remains to be seen what the consequences of the case will be. As a marriage broker between clients and agencies, it operates in a world where it's necessary to stay friends with everybody.

Certainly, the last person you want as an enemy is someone as powerful as Sir Martin Sorrell. Few things seem to anger the WPP chief executive more than perceived threats to his business by breakaways from any part of his empire and - as the founders of Adam & Eve discovered - he has never shied away from using the law to protect his interests.

While sources close to Oystercatchers insist the incident has had no effect on its business, some wonder whether other prospects will take note of what's happened when it comes to appointing consultants.

Others question whether, in the wake of admitting such a breach, Suki Thompson, Oystercatchers' managing partner, should remain the chairman of The Marketing Society, having been appointed only two months ago. Supporters - of which there are many - say she has no intention of resigning.

That the matter has been raised is indicative of the rage that Oystercatchers' confession has provoked among other consultants who, between them, handle between 35 and 40 per cent of pitching activity in the UK and who are now bracing themselves for a possible backlash.

"What worries me is people will see what Oystercatchers has done and tar us all with the same brush," the boss of a rival operation, who prefers to remain anonymous, fumes. "I'm not sure whether its behaviour has been naive or craven."

This consultant is far from alone in preferring to stay off the record. No intermediary wants to appear to be crowing at a rival's misfortune. And it's equally true that very few others across adland will risk being publicly critical of intermediaries and their activities. The IPA hierarchy won't talk openly about pitch consultants and most agency bosses won't rock the boat. As one says: "We all need these guys."

It's not that there's any widespread belief among agencies that intermediaries indulge in questionable behaviour. "They ensure pitches are run in a professional manner to the benefit of both agency and client," Paul Lawson, the chief executive of Leo Burnett London, says.

And leading intermediaries claim their integrity is an essential by-product of being privy to confidential information from clients and agencies.

Kerry Glazer, the chief executive of AAR, says: "Our role is to provide agencies and clients with the best possible advice, and anything that undermines that view is clearly unhelpful, particularly in an industry where perception and reputation really matter."

Indeed, although the IPA fields gripes from members about alleged bias, excessively long pitchlists and consultants being economical with the truth about the size of a prospective client's budget, complaints about unethical behaviour are rare.

"Our problem with intermediaries is that they have entrenched views about agencies that are difficult to change," the marketing director of a large UK agency says. "But I've never come across one behaving unethically."

Of greater concern to agencies - and an issue highlighted by the Oystercatchers case - is the methods used by intermediaries to extract more money from agencies, and what the consequences might be if they don't pay up.

The issue has just been controversially aired in the US by Steve Blamer, FCB's former global chief and one-time boss of Grey London, who has set up a consultancy working exclusively for clients and taking no "pay-to-play" money from agencies. "The only reason consultants register an agency is for the money," he declares.

Unwanted services

Blamer is critical of the growing number of pitch consultants offering to "help" agencies fine-tune their new-business machine.

"This is served up to agencies as a post-evaluation audit or even a new-business university course," he says. "It's none of those things. It is simply a conflict of interest and extortion in making agencies feel they must participate in these endeavours if they are to be viewed in the most positive light by the review consultants."

The head of a major UK agency is also worried about this not-so-gentle persuasion. "Intermediaries are desperately trying to get involved with agencies beyond just the pitching process," he says. "They try to flog us stuff like 'how to pitch' seminars. Taking part in them can cost us a lot of money but we need to keep these people sweet."

Whether all these concerns could be allayed by a code of practice for intermediaries is an open question. The idea was discussed at an AdForum event in Amsterdam some six years ago but has not progressed.

"I'd have no problem with it," a leading consultant declares. "But how many of the two-man bands would sign up? It can only work if it's enforceable." Others suggest the Oystercatchers affair is a one-off and that intense competition between the top consultants ensures professional behaviour.

Whatever the outcome, some salutary lessons will have been learned. "You would expect people going into business for themselves to make sure they were under no contractual restrictions," Bob Willott, the editor of Marketing Services Financial Intelligence, says. "But Oystercatchers was pretty naive. This affair ought to be a serious warning."