—Whenever Headspace Marketing president Eric Blais has written for The Message, his deep industry knowledge and forthright attitude have proven enormously popular with readers. So, we asked him to become a regular contributor. This is the first in a new column we’re calling “Free to Disagree.”—
According to a report by agency search consultancy Listenmore, there was a “stratospheric 195% increase in pitches” in 2022 over 2021. That’s good for the matchmakers, but it might be a worrying sign about the health of client/agency relationships.
Listenmore’s Stephan Argent, who has conducted agency searches for some of Canada’s leading advertisers, recently published the sixth edition of his firm’s Canadian Agency Pitch Report. It reveals that “the Canadian agency pitch market is buoyant”.
Those numbers might put search consultants in an optimistic, even cheerful mood for 2023. And hungry ad agencies may also get excited about RFP bonanzas, happily participating despite the significant investment required to pitch.
But such a large increase in client/agency breakups suggests something, or some things, may be wrong in Canadian adland. I’m offering these thoughts on what might have led to the dramatic increase, and what it says about relationships.
A post-pandemic itch, and the lockdown ‘couple bubble’ burst
Advertisers hunkered down during the pandemic. Many initiatives were put on hold. Others pivoted to pandemic-related messaging about unprecedented times and how we were all in this together.
We were socially-distanced and working from home. We were also checking up on each other. And we became more empathetic and resilient. Clients putting their ad agency on notice and looking at other shops would have gone against that very idea. But, just like in many marriages, this doesn’t mean that all was fine in the relationship.
There are countless surveys suggesting that the pandemic-related quarantine has been damaging to relationships. Many couples struggled being together 24/7 while confronting major COVID-19 related stressors. And there are those who got together during the pandemic—those romances that began during long walks, for example—and are now finding that keeping their relationship together is a struggle in a world that is once again open and full of possibilities.
Many advertisers likely postponed an inevitable breakup during the pandemic. Zoom calls were productive, but might not have been conducive to couples counselling. It’s also less exciting to meet with agency team members (including some who were quietly quitting) on screen in their kitchen or bedroom than at a cool agency office, or fancy drinks at a trendy bar.
Others likely began looking at the relationship differently once suitors started reaching out with unsolicited proposals—or when eager search consultants proposed their services to help build back better.
While the post-pandemic mood certainly played a role, I suspect there’s something more structural at play: the rise of “situationships.” Less than a relationship, but more than a casual encounter, situationships refer to a romantic relationship that is, and remains, undefined.
In her recent Masterclass on the subject, Emily Morse (host of the hit podcast Sex With Emily) listed the pros and cons of being in a situationship. “You can see other people—and have no commitments.”
This might benefit the advertiser, but the agency that thinks it won the pitch and is in an exclusive relationship will be disappointed. “You deal with ambiguity, you feel like you’re in limbo, questioning your relationship status and you lack stability. You can’t make regular, long-term plans with the other.” This adds to the short-termism already plaguing the industry.
Agency search consultants as marriage counsellors
I was once involved in a pitch being handled by a corporate recruiting firm that was attempting to expand its services by offering agency search consulting. We won the business, and the firm naturally assisted in staffing for the assignment.
This sort of integration is to be expected. However, it could be argued that it was in that firm’s best interest to ensure that the incumbent did not keep the business, and the winning agency would retain their services to recruit staff.
Of course, search consultants do not make the final decision, but based on what I’ve seen, they can have considerable influence on the outcome, even if a rigorous scorecard is being used.
Perhaps because their value has been questioned by clients more in recent years (Lisa Colantuono, co-president at AAR Partners told Digiday back in 2015 that search consultants have become a commodity “because we’re all pitching on price”), many search consultants now provide consulting services to improve relationships instead of facilitating new ones. Global consultancy R3 has made it a part of its pitch: We help marketers find, pay and keep the best possible agency relationships.
I’ve seen plenty of break-ups even when the strategy and creative were solid and had delivered results. In those cases, the chemistry just wasn’t there anymore—often the result of too much staff turnover on both sides.
A marriage counsellor could have perhaps succeeded at getting both parties to acknowledge how productive the relationship had been, and helped fix the problems. It would have been cheaper and less time-consuming for all involved.
A less buoyant pitch market would be offset by robust growth in the relationship counselling market. Research firm IBISWorld is forecasting robust revenue growth in the marriage counselors industry as demand for marriage counselling rises. The same opportunity might exist for search consultants to help foster deepening relationships.
Eric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at feedback@headspacemarketing.