ICA calls for boycott of YMCA Canada RFP

The non-profit claims the nature of the assignment makes a budget difficult to provide and that spec work is not required.

The Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA) has called for agencies to boycott a recent RFP from non-profit YMCA Canada until it makes “significant changes to ensure fairness for all who apply.”

The main areas of concern with YMCA’s RFP, as identified and outlined in an announcement from the ICA yesterday, are that:

1. There is no clear budget declared for the required services and there does not appear to be one defined internally by the YMCA.
2. The RFP does not declare that speculative work will be returned or disqualified, though there is a clause in the RFP that retains the rights to use any ideas presented at no cost.
3. The YMCA won’t declare how many agencies are being invited to pitch.

Jennifer Holmes Weier, SVP of advocacy, communications and public policy at YMCA Canada, says that it has been made clear to both the ICA and the agencies invited to pitch that spec work is in no means required as part of the RFP, which was clarified to participating agencies after the ICA initiated discussions with YMCA and Round Table Procurement Services, a third-party firm the non-profit is working with.

Scott Knox, president of the ICA, says the issue the organization is most concerned with is the clause about YMCA retaining the rights to use any spec work it might be presented with anyway, something he says there would be no harm in removing if the YMCA were not interested in spec work. He says that not explicitly stating that spec work will be disregarded leaves the option open for some agencies to show they are willing to go “above and beyond.”

“We’ve seen time and again that agencies get told not to submit spec, then one or two do, and then the client looks at it and an agency gets appointed because clients feel that shows they wanted it more,” Knox says. “Well that’s not fair. Either you want spec or you don’t, and if you’re going to ask for it, do the decent commercial thing that will allow these agencies to grow and thrive by saying how many agencies they are up against and what the budget is. The three things together is a perfect storm to drain resources out of the industry.”

Holmes Weier says that, as the RFP has not been publicly posted, it is not in the organization’s typical process to state specifics beyond that “a small number” have been invited.

In terms of budget, Holmes Weier says the nature of the RFP also makes it difficult to set out a detailed budget. Having previously worked with agencies on a project basis, she says the RFP is seeking out an AOR for the first time.

While the YMCA is keeping the details of the RFP confidential, Holmes Weier says it does not outline specific work its preferred agency would do, but rather lays out the YMCA’s overall brand objectives, how it supports member associations across Canada and “the type of work” YMCA might undertake, ranging from corporate communications, masterbrand event materials, annual reports, messaging and campaign resources.

“It’s more comprehensive than anything we’ve ever done,” she says. “What we’ve asked to understand from firms is, what are the arrangements they typically employ? How do they price their services, and how could this type of arrangement work for them? This is us seeking to understand that, so when we do enter into a relationship [with an agency], it’s really clear.”

But Knox says organizations should not be issuing an RFP unless they can provide some certainty around the work an agency can expect to do.

“Without giving agencies any guidance at all on what the outcome and what the win might be, how can they make a decent commercial decision that is going to allow them to grow and invest in their people and so on?” Knox says. “Yes, things might go up and down over time, but to ask for an AOR on the possibility that the only ticket item is an annual report is absurd.”

Holmes Weier says that discussions with Round Table have confirmed that the YMCA is acting in good faith and does not have plans to alter the RFP.

The boycott is part of “Pitch Watchdog,” a program launched after Knox joined the ICA in 2016 to monitor and report agency search practices deemed unfair to the sector. It has resulted in four boycotts being called over the last two years.

The first was in 2017, when the ICA called for agencies to boycott another non-profit, the Toronto Zoo. At the time, the zoo claimed it was caught off-guard. Later in 2017, the ICA called for a boycott of a TD RFI that included suggestions for ways to minimize the amount of tax that would be charged and structure services under categories that would be tax exempt. TD attributed it to a “poorly worded” template that was subsequently amended after being contacted by the ICA. Last year, the ICA and the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD) brought attention to an RFP issued by the Toronto Transit Commission that called for spec work illustrating a creative concept for an Emergency Alarm System; after discussions were opened, the TTC removed the spec work requirement from the RFP and extended the deadline for applications.