Agency complaints about the increasing dominance of procurement over marketing are almost as old as time itself. It’s a convenient excuse to be trotted out when an agency loses a piece of business coveted by others. But the ongoing Audi ad pitch has thrown this narrative into sharper relief.
The ethics of diesel emissions cheat Volkswagen Group calling a pitch for its Audi brand after 35 years with Bartle Bogle Hegarty might be a subject for priests and moralists to pick over. But to others, it raises fundamental questions over the current and future relationship between clients and their agencies.
It was therefore pleasing – and rare – to see some agencies standing up against what could be seen as Audi’s distinctively sharp practices and moral relativism. While BBH has chosen to repitch for the account – quite rightly as no rival could hold a torch to the work that it has done for the car company over the years – others have not. Among those to have chosen not to take part are Lucky Generals, Ogilvy and, perhaps less surprisingly, BBH’s sister Publicis Groupe agencies Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi.
That is not to condemn those agencies that have taken the opportunity to have a tilt at one of the hitherto most creatively exciting clients around. "Business is business" as the hoary old cliché goes. Yet it’s equally true (to use another old shibboleth) that these agencies must be careful what they are wishing for. Aside from the insurmountable challenge of trying to match (let alone better) BBH’s consistently excellent work on the business, the relationship will be one that’s been decreed – and will therefore presumably be guided – by the Volkswagen Group’s procurement department in Wolfsburg and not by Audi’s castrated UK marketing department. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for particular success.
As poor pitch practice goes, this Audi one seems to be right up there with the worst of them – led by cost rather than value. BBH, remember, not just produced some of the most memorable ads of all time for Audi (as well as coming up with "Vorsprung durch technik"), last year it won the Grand Prix at the IPA Effectiveness Awards, showing that its work also consistently delivered. There are countless examples of clients and agencies getting it wrong – rumours of clients stealing IP, demanding payment to get involved in pitches and inconsistent pitch attendance from the so-called decision-makers.
So cometh the hour, cometh the man (men)? Angus Crowther and Vlad Komanicky, formerly managing partners at Oystercatchers, have just launched an intermediary that claims that it will do things rather differently when it comes to pitch management.
Their company, called Alchemists, promises that it will not conduct pitches over high days and holidays, which may seem like a populist gimmick but will play well to agencies for whom this topic is an increasingly throbbing headache. Instructing staff to spend their weekends and evenings working on pitches is clearly no fun for the people involved (most agencies cannot afford to keep staff waiting on standby in case a pitch comes in so they obviously have day jobs to do). And, more crucially, it goes against all the principles of allowing people – particularly parents or those with other caring responsibilities – a more flexible work-life balance that the best companies (and clients) insist on providing.
More important still, however, is that it will not charge agencies pitch fees, club memberships, registration fees or entries for awards that could in certain circumstances be seen to, erm, distort the pitch but to which most agencies still cravenly submit.
Instead, clients (and for whom, ultimately, the pitch is being held) will pay, which Crowther and Komanicky claim will bring full transparency and integrity to the process. The "alchemy", from which the intermediary gets its name, comes from "combining creativity with the logic of data".
The launch has gone down well with agencies (beyond the obvious cost-savings that it will provide) for providing a level playing field that is evidently open to all-comers and not just those who pay to play. Whether clients are also as pleased will no doubt be played out over the coming months – but the tenacious Crowther and the former client-side marketer Komanicky could be on to something.
After all, anything that rebalances the scales of power between clients and agencies can surely only be a good thing, particularly while the questionable Audi pitch (which is being handled internally) drags on in the background.