An Effective and Painless Way to Select an Agency

In ancient India, a Swayamvaram was held so a woman could choose her husband from among selected candidates expressly invited for the purpose. More recently, it became a hit reality show where contestants would perform assigned tasks hoping to woo their bride / groom of choice. Sounds awfully close to the agency pitch, I thought.

The creative agency pitch is a painful process for all participants involved, not just the agencies pitching. Having helped a few clients choose their communications agency – all with happy on-going partnerships as I write this – here are a few thoughts on how the process can be made more effective and painless.

Don’t run a creative pitch: there’s no guarantee that the team working on the pitch will be the same one working on your brand. Don’t ask for a strategy presentation: the prospective agency will never have enough information to do a thorough job; so this will be a waste of time.

Instead, here are three simple steps:

1. Shortlist prospective agencies. From the list of agencies available to you, ask for (a) credentials, highlighting cases the agency is proud of with reasons why, and (b) references – current clients you can speak to. Select no more than four agencies for the next step.

2. Engage deeply with the shortlisted agencies. Meet the agencies in their offices – where they will be most at ease – and assess them. Specifically: (a) Ask to meet the people who will work on your brand. (b) Ask why the agency wants to work on your brand. (c) Ask them what they think of the advertising (communications) in your category. (d) Ask them what they would expect from you, as their client. (e) Ask them if they have any questions to ask of you.

a. Meet the people: The work on your brand will be carried out by a team. Meet them. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Get to know them and assess how they might impact your brand. Are you satisfied with the size and composition of the team the agency plans to assign? Does the team’s structure show the Agency has understood what your brand needs?

b. Why your brand: Clients love their brands, find them challenging and rewarding; and assume agencies would want to work on them for the same reason. Not always the case. Some agencies might see your brand as an income opportunity, some as a strategic or creative challenge, some as a foothold into a new category, etc. What motivates this agency?

c. Communications in the category: Agencies will be prepared to discuss the advertising on your brand, the competition; and perhaps share a few thoughts on what they would do. Broaden the discussion and have them talk about the category as a whole. What do they see as the challenges? Is there evidence of mastery and expertise – do they talk about what is needed as well as what is wrong?

d. Expectations from client: Most agencies expect proper briefs with sufficient time to execute them, and fairness in financials. Some would want to be involved in the business strategy / brand planning phases as well. Few would enunciate other expectations: Probe in-depth. What do they expect to learn? What challenges would they want?

e. Questions to client: Reactions to this can be quite revealing. Does the agency have questions they have thought about? What does the agency consider important enough to ask? Are they approaching this potential partnership as equals?

3. Involve the procurement department in step 2. It’s important that everyone involved in making the decision is aware of all the dimensions of the agency being selected. It’s not enough to look at agency options as cold numbers on a comparison chart. Getting procurement involved during the process will make it more participative and less adversarial.

Follow this process, and you will challenge agencies brought up on a diet of the creative pitch. Your choice will be better, more informed and rigorous.

It’s well known that when an agency team with the required skill and attitude is provided a challenging brief, great work usually results. So start by assessing the agency team’s skill and attitude. The challenging brief really is up to you.

For more detail on this, visit the Inspiration section on this site and download the 3 page pdf file.

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