Throughout my marketing career, I have participated in countless agency reviews, both as a member of agency teams as well as on the client side of the table. Digital agency reviews, brand agencies reviews, shopper marketing agency reviews, PR agency reviews. For as long as I can remember, the review process has been one that leaves clients exhausted, agencies frustrated, and both parties asking the question, “Is there not a better way?”.
I believe there is but it takes constraint, collaboration and commitment.
Agency: “How many agencies are participating in the review?”
Client: “We have 10 agencies presenting in 90-minute time slots over five days.”
No wonder everyone is exhausted and frustrated. Inevitably, many people throughout any client organization have worked with a variety of agencies; everyone has “a friend in the business” or an agency that they are comfortable with. Although I respect the attempt at inclusion and collaboration to drive ownership of the agency decision throughout your organization, how can you effectively evaluate 10 different agencies? Resist the urge.
Making it better:
- Allow the Marketing Department to run the pitch. Sounds obvious, but it’s not always done this way. First, identify a cross-functional group (i.e. Marketing, Executive, Sales, Operations, Procurement, Finance) to participate in the review process, and then leave the final decision to the Marketing Team, as they are the group who will be working with the agency day-to-day.
- Establish a very tight list of agency criteria (e.g. experience, work, results, geography and culture) and narrow down your list of agencies to only those that meet each of your criteria.
- Invite no more than three agencies to pitch your business
Agency: “Can we meet with the review committee prior to the pitch?”
Client: “In addition to the information we have provided in the RFP, we will set up phone calls with the marketing team and each agency to review further questions.”
In it’s current state, the RFP and agency pitch process is not a collaborative engagement. The client identifies a list of agencies, sends out an RFP, asks the agencies to tackle an assignment and unveil their best thinking during an in-person meeting. Most clients do indeed share a great deal of information about their business, as well as establish times for agency Q&A prior to the formal pitch, but for the most part, the parties work very independently of each other. But there are still a few flaws in this model. If you are giving agencies one chance to show their best work, you have to let them behind the curtain.
Making it better:
- If you want an agency’s best thinking, they need access – access to your web analytics, access to your front line sales teams, access to your customers, access to you. I cannot tell you how many times we changed our recommended strategies after spending time in a client’s retail channel, with a franchisee, or with their sales organization. Really great insights are not manufactured; they come from looking beyond the “what” and really understanding the “why”.
- Spend at least one full day with each of the three agencies at their offices in a working session. Give them a topic, challenge and/or opportunity specific to your business, give them access to the data they need to prepare, and have them conduct a strategy session with your team. Let them refine the strategies and bring the outcome of this session as the assignment for the pitch. I can think of no better way to battle test their process and their people, as well as to get a chemistry check. Demand that the agency team working on your business is part of the session; and if you really want to test the chemistry , take them to dinner afterward. It’s a small investment, and although this is business, it is personal. Get to know each other before you make a decision.
Client: “It’s not fair to the other agencies for to us to spend a full day with your agency, and not with them. And we just don’t have that kind of time to spend with every agency.”
Agency: “Do you want to be fair or are you looking to find the best agency partner?”
Do both. Be fair, and, make the time to spend with each agency. This process requires a commitment, and your executive team is relying on you to make a wise decision. You’re asking your potential agency partners to invest time and resources to present business-building ideas. Set aside the appropriate time and resources on your end as well.
Making it better:
- Give yourself at least 90-120 days to run a full pitch. There’s a tremendous amount of prep work that has to be done before you talk to a single agency – data gathering and formatting, identifying agency criteria, securing recommendations, finalizing a short list of agencies, writing the RFP. Agencies need time to do great work on your behalf, while also continuing to do great work for their existing clients. And you need time to evaluate them effectively.
- Pay the agency a stipend. This doesn’t have to be much – $5k, $10k, $25k -depending on the scope of the pitch and the overall marketing spend. This is more about the gesture and the recognition of the time and resource requirements associated with the pitch. I cannot stress to you enough how far this will go in sending a message of respect and partnership to these agencies. My guess is that the agency you ultimately hire will give the money back to you (I would), and the other two will walk away feeling as if they were treated fairly.
Constraint, Collaboration, and Commitment. A little bit of love will go along way.