Fairbrother pitches in to help clients

With his vast experience as a media executive, Ian Fairbrother is well placed to offer guidance on the often fraught area of pitching. He tells Harriet Dennys about his new joint consultancy venture.

Ian Fairbrother, The Agency Review Business
Ian Fairbrother, The Agency Review Business

Mad Men is an "incredibly good" television series, according to Ian Fairbrother, chief executive of Fairbrother Lenz Eley, because it shows a golden age for advertising, where "people felt anything was possible".

However, although Fairbrother welcomes Mad Men's "beguiling spray-on nostalgia", he feels the media world has changed for the better since the 1960s - not least that the media sector has grown from a cluster of men relegated to the corner of the office, as in Mad Men, to multinational media buying and planning businesses.

He says: "The client spends 80% of the time worrying about the creative and 20% of the time worrying about the media, when the money is the other way round."

As a result, changing media agencies can be a complex - even painful - activity for a client. Whereas pitches for a new creative agency focus on the work and are "partly a chemistry thing between client and agency", splitting with a media agency is like a messy divorce, involving contractual agreements with media owners.

Offering guidance to clients during the fraught pitch process is the thinking behind Fairbrother's new venture, The Agency Review Business, which he launched last month with Brian Jacobs, managing director of Brian Jacobs & Associates, and Charlie Thelu, managing director of consultancy Purchex.

Pitch focus
All three have known each other for many years through other pitch work - Fairbrother jokes that Jacobs has already "resisted his advances" to start a firm together, three times.

The new pitch consultancy will focus on media pitches only and will be funded solely by clients, with no fees paid by agencies. Rates will be calculated on a cost-per-day basis, with a typical review running for around three to four months.

Fairbrother explains: "At some point a pitch becomes inevitable, and we feel the process can often be done better. If somebody wants a pitch to be properly run, we feel our collective experience on the media side makes us better than anybody else."

The Agency Review Business, which is in talks with its first clients, is divided into three arms - procurement, media auditing, and strategy and insight - and each director will bring their particular expertise to each area. Fairbrother, as chief executive of auditor Fairbrother Lenz Eley, will focus on fulfilment; Thelu, who has been involved with media agencies for 35 years, is the strategy man; and Jacobs, the former head of procurement at EMI, will "translate the hard numbers into the final contract".

Fairbrother says: "Charlie makes sure the process works likes clockwork. My experience of working with him on the EMI and Ministry of Sound pitches was that the brief did exactly what it said on the tin.

"For example, if you want an agency that combines planning expertise with heavyweight negotiation, then say so. We believe you should set a pitch brief that demonstrates the agency in action."

The trio's international leaning will give the venture a point of difference in the near-saturated UK market, where most clients already have a relationship with one of the UK's three principal auditors: Fairbrother Lenz Eley, Billetts and Accenture. Fairbrother's outfit has six international offices and partnerships with overseas practices such as Australia's Faulkner Media Management, and Fairbrother plans to use his global connections with clients such as Volkswagen, Coca-Cola and Microsoft to source commissions.

International coordination
Fairbrother, who typically spends two days a week abroad, says: "Brian and I both envisage a lot of our work coming from big American fast-moving consumer goods companies who are not necessarily very experienced in running European pitches. We wouldn't always advise clients to pitch their business on a global basis; it is perfectly comfortable for some clients to align their business on a regional level."

The "big issue" for agencies, says Fairbrother, is to coordinate their business across international markets. He says: "Agencies are not good at making sure their planning and buying is of a comparable standard in each country. They believe their individual offices work efficiently. However, sometimes we have been to more of the agencies' offices than the people who are supposedly coordinating those accounts."

Meanwhile, the looming recession and ever-shrinking campaign bud-gets mean that clients must look at making their advertising more effective. "One thing that concerns us is that clients tend to spend less money on researching the effects of their campaigns," says Fairbrother. "This is where clients must step up to the plate: are they interested in finding out how their advertising works?"

Ultimately, The Agency Review Business will not force clients to hold pitches: it is a "floating media auditor" that will convene when its pool of experts is needed. In the meantime, the trio will continue running their own separate firms. Fairbrother says: "If nobody is running a big pitch, then we will get on with the rest of our lives."

2008 Co-founder, The Agency Review Business
2002-2008 Chief executive, Fairbrother Lenz Eley
1990-2002 Co-founder and managing director, Fairbrother Media Company
1988-1990 Managing director, WM Media
1977-1990 Broadcast buyer, then director, CIA (now Tempus Group)
1977 Graduate trainee, Saatchi & Saatchi media department

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