ICA calls for agency boycott of YMCA pitch

The Institute of Communication Agencies’ (ICA) has unleashed its Pitch Watchdog, calling for agencies to boycott YMCA Canada’s creative agency review until the organization makes “significant changes” to how the pitch is presented.

In a release Monday, the ICA outlined three key areas of concern about the YMCA’s RFP:

  1. There is no clear budget declared for the required services, and there does not appear to be one defined internally by the YMCA;
  2. The RFP doesn’t declare that speculative work will be returned or disqualified, although it contains a clause stating that the organization retains the rights to use any ideas presented at no cost; and
  3. The YMCA won’t disclose how many agencies are being invited to pitch.

ICA president and CEO Scott Knox told The Message that “a handful” of agencies first contacted the association with concerns about the pitch issued by the charity organization three weeks ago.

Knox said the ICA subsequently reviewed the RFP and identified several problems, including the YMCA’s refusal to categorically state that it does not require speculative creative as part of the process.

“Our concern is that, are they saying ‘If people send it in anyway we might have a look?’ at which point the playing field does not become level. Either you want speculative or you don’t,” said Knox. “You have to be absolute, and they are leaving it vague.”

However, Jennifer Holmes Weier, senior vice-president of advocacy, communications and public policy at YMCA Canada in Toronto, said that the organization and its procurement firm, Oakville, Ont.-based Round Table Procurement Services, has made “extensive attempts” to work with the ICA to resolve the impasse, including addressing concerns around spec creative in a Jan. 23 clarification. “We have not requested speculative creative as part of the process,” she said.

“I am disappointed that [the ICA] chose to go ahead with the boycott,” said Weier. No agencies have dropped out of the RFP process, which has a Wednesday deadline for responses, as a result of the ICA’s call for a boycott.

According to Knox, the RFP also fails to disclose a budget or even what the assignment will entail. Small to medium-sized agencies could be allocating anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 in time and resources—and more if spec creative is involved—to tender for an account of indeterminate value, he said.

“What you’ve got is an unknown number of agencies going through an RFP process with a lack of clarity over whether spec is a valuable thing for them to do or not, for a potentially non-exist budget,” said Knox. “You cannot, and should not, be going out to the marketplace asking for submissions unless you know there is spend.”

Weier said the RFP is intended to select a “preferred” creative agency and outlines the type of work that might be undertaken by an agency partner. “Our priorities and budget change each year, so what we’re really looking for through this process is a relationship with an agency who can help us with that.”

Asked to outline a potential scope of services that agencies would be asked to provide, Weier listed an annual report, corporate communications and messaging related to the YMCA’s services among the prospective agency requirements.

Weier said the YMCA undertook the RFP process to understand the capabilities, methodologies and approaches of potential agency partners.

As for the ICA’s claim that the YMCA is refusing to divulge the number of agencies participating in the RFP, Weier said that it approached a “small number” of agencies that may have previously worked with the organization or been referred by other YMCA chapters or organizations within the charitable sector. The YMCA has never had a formal AOR relationship, she said. “This is us trying to think strategically about the services and approaches available to us, and respecting the firms and their expertise.”

Knox said that calling for an industry boycott is an act of last resort for the ICA, a step the organization has taken on just three previous occasions—with the Toronto Zoo, TD Bank and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). The tactic was “100%” successful on all three occasions, said Knox.

The ICA last spoke with the YMCA on Friday, with Knox telling The Message that the organization indicated it had no plan to alter the language in its RFP to address the ICA’s concerns.

“I’m concerned that some agencies may continue to [respond],” said Knox. “It’s an unfortunate state of the market that people feel pushed towards the RFP process whether it’s good for them or not.”

Knox instituted Pitch Watchdog in 2017 as a way for the ICA to monitor and formally respond to marketer RFPs it deems to be unfair to agencies. Knox  implemented a similar process with the U.K.’s Marketing Agencies Association about eight years ago.

The ICA has worked with approximately 60 brands, most of whom have approached the ICA on a voluntary basis, to ensure that their RFPs are aligned with the ICA’s pitch guidelines.

– Chris Powell

Chris Powell