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News Plus 6 Jul 2021 - 3 min read

IAG CMO Brent Smart on agency pitches: media a 'shallow field' for choice but make reviews fast, pay well for best thinking

By Paul McIntyre and Josh McDonnell
Brent Smart

IAG's Brent Smart: "It’s vital you pay for pitches and give [agencies] a very specific brief. They shouldn't be asked to solve all of our media problems or provide an annual media plan."

After a six week review of its media buying and planning contract, insurance giant IAG swapped GroupM's Mindshare for Initiative to run its $50m media business. CMO Brent Smart – a former Saatchi & Saatchi New York CEO – gives his take on the media agency sector and pitching best practice: Don't drag out the review process, pay agencies to pitch and invest extra in the right partner are three key takeouts. IAG's lead creative agency, Accenture Interactive-owned The Monkeys, is locked in but IAG's personalisation account, currently with CHE Proximity, remains in play.  

If you want them to operate at the pace we all know agencies operate at when a pitch is on, then the client needs to go at the same speed."

Brent Smart, CMO, IAG

What you need to know:

  • Four years after IAG CMO Brent Smart took the role, he has completed the insurer's first media agency review.
  • He says it's a "pretty shallow field" for choice after media agency competitive conflicts are worked through.
  • IAG was open to splitting the media buying and planning functions but Initiative's bundle delivered the thinking and capabilities to do both.
  • Smart said the review wasn't led by media deals or driving efficiencies but by the "best media thinking".
  • He wouldn't consider bringing creative and media together unless The Monkeys moved into media, and it's not.
  • Make pitches fast, pay for them and pay agencies better for better thinking.

Six-week cycle

IAG CMO Brent Smart thinks the media agency pool is shallow after conflicts are accounted for but he still got the depth of thinking and capabilities from Initiative and incumbent Mindshare in a duke out which saw Initiative win.

Yesterday IAG announced it had ended its decade-long relationship with GroupM's Mindshare, for Mediabrands' Initiative

It might explain why the CMO looked at alternative models, including the likes of indies such as Thinkerbell and This is Flow.

"It wasn’t just about scale for us, it came down to the very best media thinking, which Initiative had," Smart told Mi3. "We didn’t go into it looking for a particular model. There was potential for anything, even separating planning and buying – we weren’t locked into anything. 

"This pitch wasn't driven by media efficiencies or finding a better model that could make better publisher deals either."

The whole process, which took six weeks, was fast, reasonable and respectful of agency time, Smart said. 

Indeed, the past 12-months have seen several blue-chip brands, local and international, privately criticised by the agency sector for excessive lead times, price hunting around contract reviews and excessive briefing demands in which marketers exploit agencies for free ideas and thinking. The issues have escalated to a point where the peak advertiser body, the AANA, and the Media Federation of Australia (MFA) joined forces in a “world first” project to create industry-endorsed media agency tender and pitching guidelines.  

Then global chair of Initiative, Mat Baxter, said at the time the guidelines were released in April that "multibillion dollar companies like P&G" are asking "comparatively tiny businesses like agencies to bankroll them. Procurement is trying to get a cashflow advantage at the expense of agencies … this is the new very bad behaviour [globally]."

Mediabrands Australia CEO Mark Coad said when the guidelines were launched: "I'm not exaggerating. We can win or lose based on a heat map of the tabs on the spreadsheet where we are too expensive. All the creativity, innovation and strategy we were asked for is forgotten about."

Smart clearly agrees with the pitching guidelines and the earlier comments by executives at his new media agency group. IAG's media review was managed by Tumbleturn Media's Jen Davidson.  

"It’s important with pitching to have it done quickly because it can be a massive drain on everyone involved and you need to be respectful of an agency's time," said Smart.

"It’s also vital you pay for pitches and give them a very specific brief, they shouldn't be asked to solve all of our media problems or provide an annual media plan. Ultimately you should participate in the same way they do. If you want them to operate at the pace we all know agencies operate at when a pitch is on, then the client needs to go at the same speed."

Ever the advocate for brand building, Smart was clear on the directive for the successful media agency. "I wanted the same level of strategic thinking and creative problem solving from my media agency as I get from my creative agency".

For that, he said brands need to be willing to pay more, rather than trying to squeeze out savings.

Shallow pools

But on the depth of offerings in the media agency sector, Smart says he was a little surprised.

"We were really impressed with the final presentations. They were really impressive, right. But I would say it's a pretty shallow field of major [media] agencies in Australia. Once you take out conflicts and then you sort of see who's out there, we went to agencies we felt were leading, it's a small list."

Still, Smart found what he was looking for, and paid appropriately although he declined to answer whether he was paying more in his new agency deal. 

"What I will say is you can't get the best thinking and the best talent on your business if you're not prepared to pay for the best thinking and the best talent. With Initiative we've got unbelievable energy and optimism."

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