It's 10,000 B.C. The first client in the history of human civilization has just sent out an RFP for the very first advertising review. The client says its account is worth 100 lbs. of mastodon meat annually (although TNS Mastodon Intelligence says it only spent 80 lbs last year).

When prehistoric shops get the RFP, they all complain there's no provision for them to be paid any mastodon meat for their ideas and they don't do spec creative. Then they all roll their credential rocks up the hill to the client's cave and pitch the business anyway.

Okay, I made that up. Still, agencies have been bitterly criticizing how clients run reviews at least since I've been in the industry, which, trust me, is a very long time. The complaints rarely vary: spec creative, too many contenders, shortened search times, and that media agency search staple, the search is an ill-disguised ploy to cut costs.

While all the above does happen, I think the constant complaining is counter-productive. We are not going to get real review reform until we understand that there are much more important things to discuss about this issue than whether or not your shop is getting its fair share of mastodon meat.

The genesis of this commentary was a story in Advertising Age last week entitled "Marketer-Led Reviews Have Shops Crying Foul." My first reaction was, "here we go again." The piece led with a tweet by DDB North America's top rainmaker complaining about an RFI that was sent out June 29 and was due back July 6, prompting Snow to write that "clients think agencies don't need holiday time off." The story also quoted the head of the 4A's agency management services declaring that some client-led reviews are "the original amateur hour," with procurement a prime catalyst. Then the article veered off into truly startling new territory by praising search consultants, a favorite agency bogeyman for decades, because at least they understand the ad business.

All of that at times can be true. But what we need is more rationality, less name-calling—and a more strategic approach to the challenge.

My good friend Mike Drexler's column in this space last week also deconstructed the Ad Age article. Mike's one of our best media minds and he made a lot of good points focused on the tactical aspects of the issue. But before we can even begin to address ground-level challenges such as timeframes and number of contenders and so on, we need to find a new conceptual approach to evaluating and choosing communications partners.

For example, I can certainly attest to the need for insight and industry experience in the often complex and difficult task of conducting a review, and naturally I'm all for supporting the value an advisor can bring to the table. But search consultants are no more panaceas than they are bogeymen.

Our perspective when we're asked to manage a search is that we must provide context even more than logistics. In other words, our task is to offer perspective on the business environment the client is operating in, what best practices may exist for meeting that client's particular challenges and opportunities, and how well the thinking of the agencies in the pitch align with those needs, rather than simply curating credentials or booking a conference room.

Moreover, singling out the role of procurement is counter-productive because in an agnostic environment, ideas come from everywhere and everyone has a stake. And those ideas must be cost-effective. That's an important role that purchasing executives can and should play in reviews.

As I've said before, procurement deserves a seat in the orchestra—just not as lead violin.

As for short lead times and cattle calls, clients may see that as a necessity. I'm not suggesting it's fair to force people to work on Independence Day—that might even be unpatriotic—but there is a business rationale for moving fast that might not have existed, or at least was far less of a stress point, in an analog world. The pace of modern marketing demands that in reviews, as in everything else, the nimbleness and flexibility we always talk about must be part of the mix.

There is an opportunity here for real dialogue and smart reform of the way we evaluate and choose agencies. The Ad Age story notes that the 4A's and the ANA are working together on guidelines for agency searches, which they hope to present to the industry in the fall. Let's hope those guidelines take into account a transformed marketing world and are based as much on substance as they are on sniping.

Michael E. Kassan is Chairman and CEO of MediaLink, LLC, a leading Los Angeles and New York City-based advisory and business development firm that provides critical counsel and direction on issues of marketing, advertising, media, entertainment and digital technology. Michael can be reached at

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