ICA calls for boycott of CMA agency salary survey

Canada’s ad agency association, the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA), is calling for agencies across the country to boycott a salary survey being conducted by the Canadian Marketing Association.

One of the ICA’s primary concerns is that the agency salary information is “commercially sensitive,” and can be used by marketers, their procurement departments and pitch consultants—which are members of the CMA—to increase downward pressure on agency revenue.

“We want to prevent this commercially sensitive data from impacting the prosperity of the agency sector and the relationship between you as leaders, your team members and your clients,” said ICA president and CEO Scott Knox in an e-mail sent to ICA members and other agency and industry leaders on Thursday evening. The CMA, however, says it is conducting the survey because its agency members asked it to do so.

The ICA produces its own salary survey, but the findings are only shared with the agencies that take part, and it’s up to the leadership of those agencies who sees the information. Speaking to The Message Friday morning, Knox said there is a conflict of interest underlying the CMA survey, because it represents both agencies and clients, as well as recruiters and pitch consultants. On top of that, the CMA has partnered with a media outlet to raise awareness of the survey.  

As associations both representing ad agencies, the ICA and CMA vie for agency membership fees, but that competition is not what is motivating this boycott, said Knox.

“Yeah we are fighting for the agency sliver of the pie for our membership fees, but this is broader than the [ICA]. This compromises the sector,” he said.

Quebec’s agency association initially said it would partner with the CMA on the survey, but confirmed to The Message on Friday that it would no longer take part. “We will collaborate with CMA on future initiatives, but for this year, we will conduct the salary survey with ICA,” said Dominique Villeneuve, president and CEO of the Association of Creative Communications Agencies.

The boycott call is in keeping with the ICA’s more assertive tone in recent years to push back on behalf of agencies who feel they are being squeezed by clients to produce more for less compensation—a trend that follows the increased role of procurement departments and aggressive pitch consultants working to cut costs for marketers.

“Procurement departments continue to push agencies, asking for more and more information through the RFP process, including salaries of individuals that work there,” said Knox.

In that context, salary data can be used by marketers and pitch consultants against agencies during a review, he said. “What they are going to do is say ‘Hang on, you are over the average salary for such and such people in your agency,'” said Knox.

With the boycott just announced, it’s unclear how agencies will respond. But one agency president told The Message that they would not take part in the CMA survey. “We do  not need to give the procurement teams any more fuel for the fire,” they said.

CMA president and CEO John Wiltshire told The Message that absolutely will not happen. All information will be strictly confidential,  with only aggregate level data shared with survey respondents and only very high level data shared publicly, including with media.

“All the information is completely confidential. The CMA doesn’t even have access to it. There is no opportunity for any shenanigans,” he said. The survey is being conducted by RK Insights Research.

“All data will be collected and aggregated by RK Insights Research on a confidential basis,” said the CMA email asking agencies to take part. “The CMA and its partners will not have access to individual agencies’ data… All agencies who participate in the survey will receive the top-line report and access to the aggregated details, including results by geographic area and agency size. This information will not be publicly available. Only top-line insights will be shared publicly, with no specific references to individual agencies.”

“We won’t share anything that has the granularity to be of interest to search consultants,” said Wiltshire. “It is not going to have position granularity for sure.”

Asked specifically if average salaries by position will be shared publicly, Wiltshire said they will not. “We’re not going to share that level of data,” he said. “That level of data we will provide to the survey participants, that’s all.”

The CMA only decided to produce the survey because its agency members asked for it, said Wiltshire.

“We have an agency task force, and heads of some of the major agencies in Canada… they prioritized this as something that is absolutely critical to support agencies in terms of developing their business.”

The CMA said its study is “unique because of the number of agencies (versus recruitment firms) expected to participate, the scope of data we will be collecting, and the ability for survey participants to analyze results by region and agency size.”

The questionnaire will include “some controversial topics, including which positions are difficult to fill, gender balance, employee incentives, overtime compensation, compensation ratios, on-boarding protocols and more.”

Despite the ICA’s objections, the CMA will proceed with the survey as intended, said Wiltshire. “We’re just carrying on. We are committed to doing this survey,” he said. “The agency sector is the one that told us to do this, so we’re responding to their request.”


David Brown