Great idea! Now, how does one go about finding the right partner without spending excessive amounts of time and money? For small and medium-size organizations that are not accustomed to agency review and selection processes—and not paying consultants for this purpose—such a task can be mind-boggling and a distraction from running the business.
Of course, there are the more formal approaches such as pushing out an RFP at numerous agencies, reviewing submissions, deciding on semi-finalists, arranging multiple presentations and then going to a finalist round, etc., etc., etc. Here we will talk about a less formal, more time-efficient approach to select the right partner.
First, let’s establish that selecting an agency partner is a whole lot more than just about who’s good at filling out RFPs or who does “sexy creative work” on spec. It should go much deeper than that.
There is certainly no “one way” or perhaps even “perfect way” to get the right result. Here are a set of suggestions that our experience (as clients and as agency managers) suggests might pay dividends for those smaller and medium-size organizations looking for an agency partner:
• Get a small list of agencies you want to consider by checking colleagues for referrals. Also, check quality resources such as the agencysearch.com feature at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s). In an era of fly-by-night “virtual” agencies, consider membership in the 4A’s as the first step in prequalification since requirements are strict. The average 4A’s agency has been a member for more than 20 years.
• Then do some research on them in various ways, e.g. examine websites, ask colleagues, etc. Think about location, assuming that’s important to you. For smaller/medium size companies, it is probably better to be seeking a partner that is convenient geographically. And check for direct conflicts of interest among their current clients.
• Prepare yourself well to talk to them. They want to know as much about you as you want to know about them. What are your marketing objectives…short and long term? What specific expectations do you have for the agency? What issues exist? How will success be measured? Budgets? If it’s to be a partnership, define what you want and what you expect. No hidden agendas. If you want to be a collaborative and supportive partner… act the role.
• When you’re prepared, seek an informal meet-and-greet meeting so that you can explain all of above. And, in that process, agencies that do not express interest and/or have current clients that pose conflicts can be eliminated. Also, you can eliminate those where “the chemistry” does not feel right… and make no mistake, the chemistry is important to the long-term relationship. Ask each agency for a 15-20 minute explanation of capabilities as part of the agenda.
• Select finalists from the above. Hopefully, no more than a couple. Ask them to return with some short commentary on how they would work with you to achieve the objectives desired. Limit the amount of time that they have for such discussion. Don’t ask for a bunch of speculative work or solutions to all your problems. That’s work that agencies get paid for.
• Then it’s your turn to ask a host of questions, if not already answered. Make the questions tough. Such as: Who will I work with every day? Who are the team members? What experience do they have? What strategic capabilities are apparent? Why would they want to work on this account? What is their preferred compensation method (not specifics—just general viewpoints)? And yes, before you leap, check the references.
The goal should be to find the partnership that will provide a return on investment for both parties over the long term. You don’t want to constantly churn ad agencies and have to train a new set of people. Long-term relationships pay dividends for all.
Oh… you might ask one other question. Is the agency a member of the 4A’s? If not, why not? The association provides its members with access to a ton of best practices and information databases related to various industries as well as monitoring industry ethics and standards.