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Why BMW showed its pitching agencies a complete lack of respect - and sadly it's not alone

The manner of BMW's ad agency appointment in the US was disgusting, deplorable and sadly all too common, argues the founder of Brand Architects.

This article was first published in Campaign in March 2018

My first break into the advertising world was a two-week student placement for Saatchi & Saatchi back in 1998 – a fairly unfortunate time in which to be joining the belt-tightening period of a previously extravagant, high-living industry.

Gone were the absurd tropical photoshoots, replaced instead by the burgeoning use of Getty Images and Photoshop. No more lavish expense accounts (under the top floor, at least) and agencies, floating on their own cloud of hype and hyperbole, were having no trouble at all hiring young talent on a stipend and a promise, if they paid them at all.

My own glamourous introduction saw me making storyboards for two weeks, the perk being I could smoke at my desk, the pay cheque coming via the proximity of a free coffee machine. What the hell, it was still fun and without it, I would never have got through the door of the various graduate recruitment schemes I applied to a year later.

These days, new graduates are treated in a much fairer manner. Minimum wage is in place, unpaid internships are reviled (at least at agencies of note) and a slew of HR guidelines are comprehensively followed. Agencies take care of new starters with everything from training to mental health being placed high on the priority list. Advertising is a significantly better behaved industry than it once was.

On the ground floor, at least.

At the client/agency level, we appear to have reverted – in some cases, it seems, to Victorian times. If Isambard Kingdom Brunel had built the Clifton Suspension Bridge with the same haphazard laziness with which some clients now treat their agencies, then a casual stroll from Bristol to North Somerset would be considered an extreme sport.

The most recent and galling example can be plucked from the decaying corpse of BMW’s US agency pitch. Bavarian Motor Works (the ‘W’ word already, I suspect, transposed for something more onanistic on the creative floors of at least four agencies) are one of advertising’s prized scalps. With a budget running to the hundreds of millions and a fleet of shiny motors to peddle, they originally cherry-picked 25 agencies to prostrate themselves in the general direction of Munich.

Following what was, no doubt, an extremely onerous preamble (costing 80% of the agencies significantly in dollars and days for no conceivable return) BMW deigned to appoint a chosen few in a shortlist of five agencies – namely Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Droga5, Wieden & Kennedy, Anomaly and Hill Holliday.

After what we can only assume was an exhaustive period of work, delivery and presentations, BMW swung its golden gavel and anointed Goodby as its lead creative agency. They even put a cherry on top with a procession of swanky German motors to do a Maverick-style fly-by of the agency to announce the news. It’s the kind of thing Caesar would’ve done if he didn’t think it was a bit over the top.

It’s worth noting at this stage that the pitch process was managed by Roth Ryan Hayes. These guys are what’s known in certain elevated circles as ‘search consultants’. In fact no, sorry, I’m underserving them here – they’re much, much more than that. Get your bullshit bingo cards ready, hyperbole-fans, as they are (in their own words) "…a pioneer in the search consulting category. The firm has forged a reputation as a trusted adviser to some of the world's leading companies as they seek to optimize their agency resources and efficiently navigate the evolving media and marketing landscape".

Now here’s the rub – a global car brand with nigh on a billion dollars of global ad spend and the services of, well, whatever Roth Ryan Hayes are when they’re not blowing smoke up their own exhaust – and they didn’t bother to give the losing agencies the bad news.

Even notorious bastard Genghis Khan released one prisoner to tell his enemies they’d been vanquished.

As reported in AdWeek, most of the losing agencies got the news from the minions at RRH rather than the client at BMW. Others learned from the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners social feeds or the AdAge news email.

It’s disgusting, deplorable and sadly all too common. It defies decency, professionalism and simple good manners. In fact, it’s skirting perilously close to the kind of uncouth behavior the Australian cricket team employed in the recent ball tampering scandal. Above all, it’s not fair.

But who’s going to change it? The money involved is too big for even the largest agency network to turn down. It’s like a EuroMillions rollover, when the most absurdly poor odds and promise of riches induce even your risk-averse mother to have a flutter.

It’s down to clients. BMW is singled out here, not that they’ll know or care, but others are guilty of the same. We live in a world of ever more prohibitive communications guidelines, media ring fences and copy rules so perhaps some best practice legislation around the tendering of new business wouldn’t go astray?

It’s only fair.

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