The recent Advertising Age story about search consultants raises a very important issue, although not the one that was most prominently featured. The debate about the ethics of some search consultants "double-dipping" is an old concern and one that is hopefully becoming less prevalent.
The concern I believe is more relevant to agencies and clients--especially to those that believe in the value of advertising--is what is an acceptable measure of compensation to the talented people who are managing brands and crafting business-building communications programs.
It seems to me that brands are still fundamental drivers of value in an organization, and that the process for aggregating and monetizing an audience that is likely to connect with a brand proposition has become dramatically more complex and difficult in today’s highly fragmented communications world.
At the same time, the advertising industry has lost a considerable amount of talent to other creative industries in recent years. The net result is that I cannot recall a time where the gap between the good and not-so-good agencies has been as wide as it is today, especially when you consider the good agencies that have learned how to navigate the undulations of a rapidly churning digital landscape versus those agencies still attempting to retrofit bygone approaches in a new communications world.
So to me, a client that values the contributions a smart, creative agency can bring to their business should not be seeking a search consultant whose model is based on paying talented professionals less (because compensation has already been squeezed so significantly) but rather looking for a consultant who can attract the best and brightest and most qualified agencies to compete for a client’s business and theoretically drive more value.
Although it remains an often-overlooked fact, it has always been true in this business that the most desirable agencies are busy enough that they don’t have to chase every new business opportunity that comes along. The better the agency, the more likely they are to already be involved in new projects with clients that already value their contribution.
So one of the many benefits that a strong search consultant brings to a client is the ability to attract the best agencies to participate in an agency review. Otherwise, clients will be left with second- and third-tier agencies competing for their accounts and faced with an increased likelihood that their efforts will ultimately disappoint.
If the agency community is ever going to earn the respect of clients again, it needs to learn how to decline offers to compete for client business where it is abundantly clear that the reason for the review is financially based rather than talent-based.
And that, I think, is the most critical issue to be debated.