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An association of Canada’s advertising agencies is calling for the sector to boycott the Toronto Zoo’s search for a firm to work on its 2017 marketing campaign.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

An association of Canada's advertising agencies is calling for the sector to boycott the Toronto Zoo's search for a firm to work on its 2017 marketing campaign.

Last week, Scott Knox, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of Communication Agencies, asked ad agencies not to participate in the zoo's Jan. 9 request for proposal (RFP) for an advertising agency partner to work for the zoo, preferably on a pro-bono basis.

The boycott is due to what the ICA calls "unfair practices and pitch requirements" in the zoo's RFP.

A key sticking point is that the RFP was posted on the zoo's website, which could result in dozens of agencies bidding. Mr. Knox prefers a vetting process first, so only a handful of agencies – three or four – spend time and money pitching.

A second objection is the 20-page RFP itself, which Mr. Knox says is overly complicated for business that an agency will receive no money for. The winning agency is also not guaranteed to get the work and must terminate contracts with clients that conflict with the zoo, such as other Toronto-area attractions and wildlife activist groups. Mr. Knox believes the process is a burden to ad agencies, many of which are independent small businesses.

"The zoo is asking far too much from far too many businesses to make it fair and get the results they want," Mr. Knox says. "I just don't think it should continue in this format."

On Jan. 12, the zoo's chief operating officer, Robin Hale, demanded the ICA call off the boycott and apologize for criticism of its agency search.

Jennifer Tracey, the Toronto Zoo's senior director of marketing, communication and partnerships, defends the zoo's agency search. The RFP, she says, is nearly identical to ones used in the past few years, without complaints. The zoo's most recent agency was Toronto-based Public Inc., which says it does not plan to bid on the account this year. The agency did not disclose a reason.

Ms. Tracey says the RFP was put on the zoo's website to ensure all agencies have a chance to bid, and she contacted nearly 20 agencies to inform them it was available. "As a public-sector agency, we don't want to be accused of not having a transparent process."

The dispute highlights simmering issues dividing marketers and agencies. One is the bigger role that companies' procurement departments, such as the Toronto Zoo's, have in selecting agencies. Critics argue that having the same department that buys photocopy paper buy creative advertising makes little sense.

"Procurement is about getting the lowest cost, marketing is about building the brand," says Stephan Argent, founder of the Argedia Group, a Toronto-based management consultancy that helps companies hire and work with agencies. He believes the zoo is asking too much in its pitch. "It's excessive and I think it's inefficient as well."

Ron Lund, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Advertisers, takes a different view. "I don't see this as being onerous." Agencies, he adds, are under no obligation to bid for the zoo account.

Another issue is that of pro-bono work itself. Ad agencies have long done ads for free for charities and non-profits. A big reason is that pro-bono clients tend to allow agencies more creative freedom than, say, a big bank or insurance company. That can result in award-winning ads that raise an agency's profile. But pro-bono work is also expensive for agencies and some have in recent years reconsidered the amount of free work they do a year.

The Toronto Zoo, which is owned by the City of Toronto, is a non-profit. Mr. Hale, the zoo's COO, says the zoo prefers pro-bono work, but it doesn't rule out paying some fees to agencies, and it has done so in the past.

Either way, he says, the zoo is eager to hire an agency and get ads ready for its summer marketing campaign.

About 80 per cent of visitors to the zoo come from June to Labour Day, so having ads ready is vital, he says.

Mr. Knox, who joined the ICA in September, says his ultimate goal is to remind marketers of the value of ad agencies and "not to treat creative advertising as a commodity."

That's something Mr. Knox believes he got across during his 16 years as head of the Marketing Agencies Association in Britain, helping curb what he calls "corporate bullying" of agencies and questionable agency search practices.

One way the MAA did that was to set up a hotline called Pitch Watchdog so agencies could register complaints anonymously. In one instance, the MAA learned that a large multinational had demanded ownership of ideas made during pitches – a practice abhorred by ad agencies. Mr. Knox says the company agreed to withdraw its demand after speaking with his association.

"My role coming to the ICA is to transform, amplify and protect the advertising agency sector of Canada, and that hasn't really been done to date," he says.