ICA launches new Pitch Watchdog service

Updated: The organization formalizes a process for agencies to call out bad pitch practices.

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This story has been updated

The Institute of Communication Agencies is biting back when it comes to bad practices, launching a formalized service to tackle unfair and onerous requirements in the pitch process.

The new Pitch Watchdog service will allow ICA member agencies to flag client pitch requirements they deem unfair. The program is the Canadian follow-up to one launched by new ICA president Scott Knox when he served as managing director for the Marketing Agencies Association in the United Kingdom.

The service will cover pitches for all kinds of agencies, including creative and media. In some cases, agencies may want the ICA to step in and represent them specifically. More often, though, Knox says he will be verifying claims coming from a given agency and speaking with other shops (in multi-agency pitches, for example) before approaching marketers and representing agencies collectively.

Knox points to issues like payment terms and spec work as increasingly problematic parts of the pitch process. He says bad pitches often aren’t malicious but are a product of legacy thinking and procurement departments who aren’t grasping why their requirements are problematic, he says.

The Association of Canadian Advertisers, which represents client-side marketers in Canada, has its own nine-step guide that it believes represents the best practices when searching for a new agency partner. Ron Lund, president and CEO of the ACA, says the organization welcomes the ICA’s move and anything that could motivate dialogue about issues impacting the industry, so long as it results in progress and isn’t merely a vehicle for “naming and shaming.”

“We’re hoping there’s going to be some positives to this,” he says. “If somebody does have a problem, we hope they do seek to dialogue, versus adjudicate it through the media.”

The ICA’s move to formalize the watchdog process comes following its call for a boycott against the Toronto Zoo’s pitch for a new agency.

Situations like that will be a relative anomaly, based on how things went in the U.K., Knox says. Knox says he was bounced between the zoo’s marketing and procurement departments to the point that the call for a boycott was necessary.

The Toronto Zoo’s senior director of marketing, communications and partnerships Jennifer Tracey told strategy that she thought the talks were in fact productive and that she was “taken aback” by the call for a boycott.

Lund says the ACA was not consulted by the ICA in regards to the Watchdog program. He would be open to talking with the ICA about it and other best practices, but says he is not interested in developing a prescribed processes that risks being too rigid. While not mentioning the Zoo boycott specifically, Lund says, for example, taking issue with an RFP just because of the number of agencies involved (one of the issues the ICA had with the Zoo’s pitch process) is the kind of thing they’d like to avoid. The ACA’s own guidelines recommend including as many as a dozen agencies during the request for information stage in certain situations, as many of those agencies may not pass the requirements to make it to the pitch stage.

“I know agencies are feeling upset about this, but they are involved in the procurement process or the exchange of remuneration for services virtually every single day,” Lund says. “Most clients don’t do this very often, so having a prescribed process doesn’t work for us. Clients have various-sized marketing departments, some use procurement, some use an outside consultants, so there’s a range of things that can go on.”

The ICA and MAA in the U.K. will work together in cases that need a trans-Atlantic response. There is nothing formalized in place for Canada-U.S. specifically, but Knox says he will reach out there as needed.

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