Every so often I’m asked how a business can search for, review and hire an advertising agency. While it might seem simple to those who haven’t gone through this process, it really is difficult. Think about it, you’re hiring a partner for what you hope will be a long term relationship, yet you have to make such a decision with relatively little information. It’s a bit like having to decide whether to get married after a few dates. Other than not suffering through the heartache of the relationship’s demise (although there could be some of that), separating from your agency is similar in that you have to get your “stuff” back, reestablish relationships and new processes, and move in a new direction that starts at square one just to name a few of the troubles. Your job doesn’t need this headache so it’s important to take your time and get this right.
So first I’ll cover how you can find suitable agencies for your review, then examine what you should expect when you meet, and wrap it up with what you should be looking for in their presentations.
So where is your next advertising agency? You should start by saving any and all advertising work you see that matches the style, personality and professionalism you want your advertising to convey. Make a note where the advertising ran (ie what newspaper, tv station, radio station, etc.) then call the sales rep you have for that medium and ask her who produced and placed the spot. Chances are, if that agency can do what you like for one company, they can easily do it for you. Next you should review the agencies listed in your industry association’s membership directory. Those pubs are good sources for agencies who are familiar with your type of business and the many restrictions placed on advertising. For instance, medical advertising has to follow HIPAA privacy rules while real estate agencies have to be familiar with HUD guidelines. Finally, you should talk to anyone you trust in your field to see who they know and use. Many times this dialog will not only yield you a list of good agencies, but also a list of agencies to avoid.
I do not believe you should seek any recommendations from media salespeople. Advertising can be a seedy business, with a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality that leads media companies to recommend only those agencies who will, in turn, recommend their particular media as a good buy. Of course, there are exceptions — but in general, media people recommend those agencies who treat them best, not those who focus on their clients’ best interests. In fact, my agency is rarely ever recommended by the media and I say this with some pride. From what they’ve told me, we’re too pushy on getting better rates (the nerve of us!), too picky on their quality, and too demanding of their staff. While those are all good things for any potential client to hear about us, the clients are unfortunately never told because the media reps will never bring our name up. Well, I shouldn’t say never — we have a few media partners who actually like how we work with them since it helps them improve their product, but they’re in the minority.
After you have some names worth researching, visit their websites and think of it as if you’re anonymously visiting that company’s office. Is it clean and easy to navigate? Does the personality match yours? Are there dead links? Is the information old? Is the portfolio up to date with work you like? If it looks good, write down some questions you will pose to them when you meet concerning their thinking behind the site, such as “why don’t you have a map to your office?” or “what happens in the client admin section?”
So you have your list and you’ve narrowed it down to between five and ten agencies. What next? Send an RFP? Schedule a meeting? Schedule a conference call? Well that all depends on how involved you want your agency to be and how involved you want to be in the advertising. All agencies should want an introductory meeting where they can explain who they are and how they work, and also show some samples from their portfolios. At that meeting, they should also want hear your take on things: why you’re looking for a new agency, what your advertising likes and dislikes are, the general scope of work, and how you think an agency/client relationship should be. After sufficient pleasantries and fact finding dialog, you’re ready to get down to the true point — what you want them to do to prove to you that they should be your marketing partner.
This meeting is, to me, critical. Follow your gut. If you and the agency are not communicating well in this meeting, it’s extremely likely that things won’t get better. Sure, people can be nervous and some stumble in this early stage. But that’s their problem, not yours. It’s up to them to make you comfortable. There is no reason for you to ask an agency to go through the trouble of “pitching” your business if you already suspect they won’t cut it. It saves both of you a lot of time and frustration. Simply end the meeting by telling them that you’ll be seeing more agencies and narrowing your list down to a few for formal proposals. Then, a few days later, call them (don’t write a letter — it’s too impersonal and hurts your reputation) and explain why they weren’t selected.
After meeting with someone who has promise, give them a written RFP to guide their formal presentation which you should schedule no less than two weeks later simply to give them enough time to think it all through and give you their very best. Any presentation done in less than two weeks is not worth seeing. Plus, if you give them two weeks and their presentation is still weak, chances are they left it until the end because they’re either too busy or too important and you won’t want to be working with them anyway. Two weeks is plenty of time for agencies to research you and your market enough to give you some good ideas.
This RFP should explain exactly what you seek and it should include general budget numbers — specifically if you’ve already established the method by which you’ll be compensating the agency (no sense having an agency pitch you if their fees are higher than you want to spend). Is this a creative pitch that just focuses on how to communicate your strengths to the market? Is it a strategic pitch that focuses on new markets and the ways to reach them? Do they include a rough media plan showing where they’ll spend your investment for the best return (remember, the rates may be off)? Many agencies will want to know what you did in the past that worked, and what didn’t. They’ll also want to know where you see yourself against your competitors. Good agencies will ask you why something worked and why other things didn’t, not to disagree with you, but rather to make sure that whatever you did that worked or didn’t work was a result of the work itself and not the media buy or confusing message. Also, don’t be put off by numerous calls from the agencies who are going to present to you. Yes, their goal is to lay the foundation for a good relationship by getting to know you. But their other goal is to make sure their presentation is covering all you expect. So if they ask a question, answer it.
In this day, no potential client should pay for a pitch. It’s an agency’s cost of doing business. If they don’t like it or already have enough clients, they may pass. So be it. But if they’re eager to work with you, they’ll do everything they can to show you.
So it comes down to the presentations. I can assure you that no two agency presentations are the same. Some are extravagant, well rehearsed productions designed to impress you with the fanfare. Others are simple discussions with “the work” being presented at specific times in their outline. My advice is to not put too much emphasis on how well-polished a presentation is to you, but rather how well-polished the work is. After all, your “new” agency is not going to be giving presentations to your market. It’s the work that matters. Pay close attention to how well they’ve connected with your existing brand (so long as you’re not looking to redo the brand!) because that ultimately means there’s less of a learning curve. Also give more weight to those agencies who follow your RFP. They are the ones who will understand and follow your direction in the future.
Last, if they haven’t already supplied this, ask the agencies for a list of clients they would like you to contact as well as a list of all of their clients, including the names and contact info for each. Then in the days following the presentations, only contact those clients who are not on their referral list. These calls will allow you to get an honest opinion about the agencies work, relationships and processes from those clients who use them but aren’t necessarily getting the “best” treatment. Sure, it might be the client’s own situation that has them lower on the list, but it’s more important to hear from them than to talk to someone who knows what their great agency wants them to say
If possible, before hiring one agency as your “agency of record”, give a few different projects to at least your top two finalists along with a budget and timeline (the agency should be compensated for these projects). It’s almost like getting an apartment together before you decide to get married (minus the moral argument) in that it allows you to experience each agency’s process, creativity and teamwork from start to finish. But make this process clear to all agencies involved, and let them know when you will be making your final selection and stick to it. By the end of this review, you should have more than enough information to make the right call. And you should review all compensation contracts, etc. with your selected agency prior to the date by which you said you’d have your decision simply so that when that date arrives, you can call the losing agencies to let them know of your decision.
In summary, finding a new agency takes time, patience and an open mind. Rushing the decision can lead to huge problems down the line, so it’s always best to do your homework. In the end, you just might find your new best friend.