“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” -John Wanamaker
R-E-S-P-E-C-T—it does not come easy for people working in advertising. It never has.
In an examination of one of the most intense pressures on agencies, Campaign examines the pitch process today. It’s not a pretty picture.
Matt Weiss, president, strategic growth at Huge, says: “We will be exploited until we stop the madness and just say no. No to bad practices. No to unfair practices. No to abuse. No to ridiculous time frames and no-budget pitches. There is no other industry on the planet that provides as much value as ours and has such low esteem that we can’t even set an industry standard.”
There it is, raw and unvarnished. “We will be exploited.” All ad people know this fact of business life going in, and yet we keep going. It’s a form of collective madness.
There are active and vocal resisters, thankfully. Lisa Colantuono, president of the agency search consulting firm, AAR Partners, argues that intellectual property should come with a price tag, just like creative ideas from agencies to brands.
“The bottom line is simple: A review is not one-sided!” she said. “Pitch abuse is an inexcusable red flag that agencies should use as an indicator of the prospective client (will be) a true partner or not. Moreover, the agencies’ pitch IP is not free. And this also applies to search consultants.”
What Will the Advertising Lobby Do?
Marla Kaplowitz, president and CEO at 4As, says, “Regarding marketer requests to own work shared during the pitch process, the 4As and ANA are aligned on best practice where the agency owns the rights to their work unless paid fairly by the marketer. Architecture firms do not give away their designs for free. Engineering firms don’t give away their plans for free. Lawyers don’t give away their guidance for free.”
In other words, the responsibility falls on the agency to clean up their prospective client’s acts.
Nancy Hill, CEO of Media Sherpas and former president/CEO of the 4As, says, “The fact of the matter is the clients hold all the cards,” she said. “They always have. It is a power dynamic that allows clients to take advantage of agencies as they balance the merits of choosing to agree to these stipulations or not be given a chance to pitch for a piece of business that they sorely need.”
Which begs the question, why do agencies need the 4As or ANA or anyone to help them fight a problem that only they, as individual actors, can solve?
Where Goeth All the Membership Fees?
For many smaller agencies, the price of the membership, which is based on an agency’s adjusted revenue, is just too steep. “We had a few conversations with [the 4As] and really did consider it, but the cost barrier was a big [deterrent],” says Chris Witherspoon, president and chief growth officer of independent creative agency DNA Seattle.
Instead, Witherspoon says DNA Seattle is a member of the Association of National Advertisers and ICOM, a global network of independent agencies.
Your Mess Will Become My Mess
Ad professionals have an opportunity to change the score, but it will take a level of coordination and bravery, not seen before. The first step is to blacklist shitty clients. Let’s keep a public record.
The next step is to find a way to get comfortable with the word, “No.”
- No, we don’t reply to unsolicited RFPs
- No, we don’t do unpaid spec work for a pitch
- No, you don’t own our ideas unless you pay fair market value for them
- No, we’re not that impressed with you, or the fees that you may one day pay
Clients have a job to do. We all do. We can learn to work as functional teams and begin to achieve the brand’s Marcom objectives in an effective and cost-efficient manner, or we can play a game with no winners. An abusive client never wins, because they never get the agency’s best work or the best people on the account. Toxic accounts run by toxic people are open wounds—obvious to all, and something in need of first aid.
Abusive clients are tolerated for their money. That’s it. They provide no other value to the agency. What agency owners and operators must ask themselves, every day: What does it cost the agency to allow the abuses to continue? Brain drain is a cost that doesn’t make the bean counter’s spreadsheet, but it’s a weighty tax on the agency nevertheless.
A solid agency with business-building ideas helps to make their clients rich and famous. So why the subservient posture? It makes no sense.
Nancy Hill claims that clients “hold all the cards” and always have. I disagree with her assessment. If clients didn’t need advertising and the people who make it work, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. What’s missing isn’t a strong business need for our services. What’s missing is a universal backbone. If you fail to tell a bad client (or a good client who has wandered too far afield) “No,” you fail yourself, your team, the client, the client’s customers, and you fail the next ad person that comes along.