What role do agency intermediaries play?

Once known for their discreet behaviour, agency intermediaries – or matchmakers – have begun to fight like cats and dogs in order to secure the attention of marketers ready to review their agencies.

Suki Thompson

Once known for their discreet behaviour, agency intermediaries – or matchmakers – have begun to fight like cats and dogs in order to secure the attention of marketers ready to review their agencies.

The latest tussle has been over British Airways’ &£60m advertising account. While the Incorporated Society for British Advertisers (ISBA) handled initial agency submissions, virtually every other intermediary is thought to have pitched for the chance to hold the client’s hand through the review process, with Haystack winning the final brief.

In a world where businesses have grown more complex, the matchmakers have grown in power and influence. By appointing an outsider, marketing directors can claim a degree of fairness and transparency in handling a process that is often seen as being shrouded in mystery. One marketer says: “They have an insight into the market in terms of quality and costs, but some of them take the ultimate decisions for the clients because, in most cases, marketers lack an in-depth knowledge of the advertising world.”

However, brokers are sometimes accused of shortlisting only the “trendy” agencies. Another advertising executive sees “brokers” as a “marketing mafia” that can wield extreme power over agencies. Talking about the BA business, he says: “The fact that, a day after scrambling all over ISBA’s [director of membership] Debbie Morrison, all the agencies went after [Haystack’s] Suki Thompson shows the measure of control all the intermediaries have.”

But opinion of these brokers is by no means all negative. M&C Saatchi UK group chairman Moray MacLennan says that marketers appoint intermediaries when they need to outsource for expertise and skill. “These [intermediaries] can then draw on a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of agencies and help the two sides work together.” Publicis chief executive Grant Duncan says that brokers also help the client refine its brief and manage the pitch, thus saving time. JWT new business director Peter Cowie says that with shrinking marketing departments and a larger number of agencies offering “something different”, the pitch consultants offer a valuable service for both clients and agencies.

The match-making business has grown enormously since 1975 when Lyndy Payne set up the AAR. Agency Assessments, Agency Insights, Haystack and online business Creativebrief have all since entered the market, with varied fee structures. The review-specialist AAR, led by former JWT new business director Martin Jones, charges both agencies and clients. Andrew Melsom’s Agency Insights is free for agencies but not for clients. The Haystack Group, which initially only operated as a direct marketing specialist, charges agencies to appear on its website. Clients are then billed depending on the service, from overseeing a review to helping to assess an entire agency strategy. ISBA is, however, free for both agencies and member clients.

A new business director says: “While the AAR is seen as more of an early sorting-out process because it primarily asks for credentials presentations, Haystack is seen as nurturing the whole client-agency relationship. But there is room for all these different models.”

Whether brokers provide impartial marketing and advertising expertise is debatable, but with fewer advertising reviews taking place these days due to client consolidation, matchmakers will only continue to grow in importance.

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