The popular Ontario-based grocer Farm Boy has selected Toronto’s Mass Minority and Markham-based Brandfire Marketing Group for new digital assignments, the culmination of an unusual process that has drawn praise from the marketing community, along with some light finger-wagging from the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA).
Farm Boy’s co-CEO, Jeff York (pictured), announced the decision on Wednesday via LinkedIn, the same place he (somewhat unconventionally) kicked off the agency search process just one month earlier, with a post reading: “Looking for a GTA digital ad agency to help us grow our Farm Boy brand in the GTA. Send me your pitch to get a chance to win our business.”
Farm Boy, which was acquired by Sobeys parent Empire Co. for $800 million last year, is in the midst of an aggressive expansion plan that has pushed its store count to 28.
York’s entreaty caught the eye of ICA president and CEO Scott Knox, who admonished York and Farm Boy. “Not sure this is the best way to go about finding an agency partner,” he wrote, followed by the hashtag #pitchwatchdog—the name of the ICA’s process for calling out what it believes are bad client RFPs. Farm Boy did not respond to requests for an interview.
Knox says the ICA contacted Farm Boy in the wake of York’s post but received no response, and says he has since learned that some agencies who also responded to the initial outreach “got no contact whatsoever.”
But he also acknowledges that the ICA’s main concern isn’t how calls for agency partners are made, but how the process unfolds from there. “Put [the request] on a hot air balloon, or a giant duck and float it across Lake Ontario if you want,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. But the process you use has to be right, both for the brand and the agencies.”
Both Mass Minority and Brandfire are ICA members, and Knox says that conversations with their respective principals indicated that they were happy with how the month-long process unfolded.
But Knox still likened it to a “open cattle call,” and called it a “worrying starting point,” for an agency review. “What this points to is that at times, client organizations’ knowledge of the agency landscape is really woeful, which means they may default to things like this.”
Knox contends that Farm Boy received multiple agency responses without a clarification stage. He argues the process should have started with a request for information that better outlined the scope of what it was seeking from an agency partner.
Several marketers and agencies have praised Farm Boy’s approach, however, using terms like “innovative,” “refreshingly honest,” and “clear” to describe the process, which York detailed via regular LinkedIn posts.
Graham Robertson, founder and CMO of Beloved Brands and former VP of marketing for Johnson & Johnson, responded on LinkedIn that it was “A very modern approach, and [a] refreshingly honest approach to the selection. Using your laptop and social media to find a digital agency…makes sense.”
Two weeks after his initial post, York announced that he had listened to 15-minute pitches from 12 agencies over the phone and narrowed the list of possible agency partners down to four, who were subsequently given 30 minutes to present to Farm Boy executives and ask any questions.
Asked by one marketing professional what he had learned as the process unfolded, York responded “Lots. We know how to run stores, others know more about connecting with our customers and future customers digitally.”
The final four agencies were invited to make a one-hour presentation, with Mass Minority and Brandfire both selected. Announcing the decision on Wednesday, York wrote “What a powerful experience using Linked In to market this process.”
Brandfire owner Rob Levy, meanwhile, added that the process was “proof of the power of LinkedIn.”
Mass Minority founder Brett Channer, who is also an ICA board member, calls the experience “exceptional,” noting that the process was “incredibly efficient.”
While Farm Boy didn’t request spec creative as part of the review, Mass Minority did present what Channer described as “thought starters” based on an analysis of Farm Boy and its competitive set.
Channer says he has no misgivings about how the review was conducted. “I absolutely love it,” he says. “It’s an advantage for the client because they’re creating transparency around what they’re doing, [plus] efficiency in the process. And it’s exceptionally rewarding to the agencies because the winner is defined.”
Channer says the process was also “relatively easy” from a financial standpoint, since it didn’t require his agency to invest heavily in spec creative or hundreds of man hours to complete an RFP. “If you’re good at it, it maximizes your ability to tell your story and it doesn’t require a 60- or 100-page document that, frankly, I don’t even know if clients read,” he says.