AAR Partners' Lisa Colantuono on the 'big whale syndrome', the 4Cs and the busiest 1H in 21 years

Like clients, we look for agencies that have engaging cultures, talented people on the team and breakthrough creative with solid results

by Carol Mason , AdForum (NYC)


AAR Partners
New York, United States
See Profile

Taking advantage of the summer slow down, this is a perfect time to hear from industry consultants on the shape of new business so far this year.

AAR Partners' Lisa Colantuono has been advising brands, agencies and managing pitches for more than 21 years. She opens the conversation with us saying that 1H 2022 was the busiest in new business opps terms in more than 20 years!

First, please set the scene and describe AAR's service: 

LC: AAR Partners is a 42-year-old agency search consultancy with offices in NYC and Atlanta that manages reviews for North America. For global reviews, we can partner with our sister offices in London, Johannesburg and Paris.

AAR Partners offers various kinds of agency search processes to fit the various client timelines and budgets. These reviews are managed by two senior executives that have been in the new business discipline for over twenty years bringing perspective from both the client and agency side of the business.

AAR Partners also offers an Agency Growth Program to help agencies with their new business growth via consultation, education, lead insights, and endorsement to thousands of marketers each year (since 75% of brand stewards manage reviews internally).

Taking a top line look at the industry in 1H 2022, how active has pitch / new business been this year? Do you see this metric as a barometer of industry health?

LC: 1H 2022 was the busiest first half of the year in 21 years! We stockpiled eight reviews by February and have more that we are currently pitching. There was a slowdown that started late May due to the “R” word, ongoing supple chain issues, the revolving door and summer vacations which now extend from June – September. We do predict an uptick after Labor Day for a couple of months before the holiday season begins. And we believe that marketers will continue to invest more in e-commerce, digital, social, and performance-based media

The Pitch Positive Pledge has gained momentum in the UK. Brands, consultants and agencies are making a promise to improve the entire pitch process. What can a brand do to improve the process on their side? And the same question about agencies?

LC: AAR Partners streamlined the process a number of years ago. We are agency-friendly but also want to be sure the process is comprehensive and allows the marketer to have appropriate information to make informed decisions about their new agency partner. Asking for spec creative is and should be off limits. Key decisions makers are requested to be in all vital meetings. The process should also be both qualitative and quantitative in order to provide proper feedback throughout all stages for the best review possible. The days of flying around the world for every meeting are gone but if clients would like to meet the agency team prior to the selection, we absolutely encourage one IRL meeting to shake hands. After all, it is a relationship business first.

What is your view of the growth in client-side in-housing, do you think this is a trend that will continue?

LC: This is a trend that we see ebb and flow every five years. It will continue for a while longer as the economy is on the downturn in an effort to save funds. However, most clients do not have the agency ecosystem set up appropriately, nor do they have the best-in-class resources most agencies have access to for brand success.

What advice would you give to a small agency looking to land a major client?

LC: Be very careful of the “big whale syndrome” – the major client also requires major resources, a lot of time and more. Like any proper portfolio, agencies should be diversified in various categories with both project and AOR work for all brand sizes but if any one brand is more than 20% of your roster, beware!

The best advice for small indies? Have a strong positioning – why you? Become an expert in something – have a superpower that no one else can imitate! Most importantly know why the agency wants to work on the brand and know when to say, “No!”

And finally, what gets you excited about an agency that you are shortlisting for a pitch?

LC: Like clients, we look for agencies that have engaging cultures, talented people on the team, keep an ear to the ground, walk the talk and not just talk, and develop innovative, breakthrough creative with solid results… work that works! To quote a past client: “I hate the flavor “vanilla” - give me non-referential, salient creative that works”!

Just as important and if not more so… Kind, cordial people who really care and help to make a great partnership. In the end it’s all about the 4Cs – Confidence, Competence, Compatibility and Cheeriness. ? A recent past client of AAR Partners selected the agency who felt that they can start working together tomorrow even though some of the checkboxes were left unchecked.

When summarizing the best relationships, think of STREAC: Support. Trust. Respect. Empathy. Authenticity. Communication 

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