CMA introduces new agency search best practices

The Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) released new best practices in agency search Wednesday, addressing specific hot-button topics like contract size transparency and spec work.

“Agency search is a hot topic. It is for agencies anyway,” wrote Kim Koster, principal of Koster Strategy, in a blog post introducing the new principles. Koster is chair of the CMA’s Brand Strategy Council, which drafted the new best practices. (See the members of that council here.)

“But an effective and fair process is also important for clients and the Canadian marketing industry overall,” added Koster. “Considering how closely marketing effectiveness can be tied to the quality of partnerships between marketers and their communication agencies, the foundation of these partnerships is often an agency search.”

Agency search has long been a tense, acrimonious process, but the strains and stresses have increased in recent years, with both clients and agencies feeling new pressures to contain costs and compete in a fast-changing environment.

General Mills recently came under fire for its agency review process that saw some well known shops refuse to take part, while several prominent U.K. agencies have also dropped out of what has been described as a “procurement driven pitch” for Audi’s creative assignment.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Communications Agencies released its own framework for a non-RFP based selection process described as qualification-based selection. The Association of Canadian Advertisers also has a best practices guidebook that is currently under review. Unlike the ACA and ICA, the CMA claims membership from across the marketing sector, including both clients and agencies.

“Ensuring a fair and respectful process is important for everyone,” said Sara Clodman, the CMA’s vice-president, public affairs and thought leadership in a press release. “Searches are all about matching an organization’s marketing needs to its best agency partner and the process should be designed to accomplish this.”

The CMA framework is built around seven principles divided into four parts: Information in an RFP; Requirement of an RFP; Communication during RFP process and Result Notification. The principles are not intended to be exhaustive, said the CMA, but rather to address key pain points.

“The first two principles reflect two of the most important pieces of information that are, surprisingly, missing from many RFPs,” reads an explanation of the new principles. Those two pieces of information? Contract value and members of the client search committee.

With principle #1, “State the contract value,” the CMA provides this rationale:

  • Knowing “the size of the prize” helps agencies develop their most relevant approach to a client’s specific problem. A contract worth $1,000,000 requires a different approach, and possibly a different agency, than one worth $100,000. The more input agencies receive on budget and fees, and what they will include, the more useful their responses to the RFP will be.

For principle #2 “Identify members of the client search committee,” the CMA provides this rationale:

  • If an agency knows its audience, it can tailor its communication to be that much clearer and more relevant, which can only help in accurately evaluating the agency. Designated client contacts confirm for agencies who they may communicate with during the pitch, to avoid the confusion and potential unfairness brought on by agencies connecting with different people in the client organization.

On the contentious issue of spec work, the CMA does not say “No Spec,” but does recommend that clients “Avoid or Limit Speculative Work” as principle #4 (read all seven of the principles here).

The CMA said the new principles are part of an Agency Search Toolkit, with additional pieces in the works—including principles specifically for not-for-profit and PR, as well as direction for how to craft an effective procurement brief.

The changes released Wednesday are part of broader revisions to the CMA’s Code of Ethics & Standards of Practice. Other updates were made to best practices in cannabis marketing, environmental citizenship and promotional contests.

David Brown