At its essence, a review or agency search should be organized to simulate what it would be like to actually work with the agency on a day-to-day basis…to answer the question, “Are these our kind of people?”

To that end, below are a few things to keep in mind and an agency search process to follow:

  • It’s less about what the agencies think of your company and more what they think about your consumer.
  • Encourage frequent and informal communication in a variety of settings…business meetings, field visits, meals, working sessions.
  • Whenever possible, meetings should be held at the agency’s offices because you’ll get better insights when interacting in their environment.
  • In addition to the pitch team, get to know the people who will actually do the day-to-day work.

1. Agency Search Process

Your agency search procedure should be customized to identify and prioritize the qualifications that will differentiate the agencies for your specific needs such as:An Agency Search can be a challenging process!

  • How important are bench strength, international capabilities, and ownership issues?
  • How does the agency’s creative style fit with your business and industry?
  • How important is category experience versus customer experience?
  • Are conflicts a concern…and why?
  • What range of services will you need: creative, strategy, media, public relations, internet, sales collateral, promotion?
  • Manage communications so the review remains an internal decision versus a public spectacle.
  • Avoid the tendency to look at prospective agencies through the filter of what the incumbent has done wrong and focus on how the prospect’s process will be right for you.
  • It’s a two way street as the agency will be choosing a partner, too. You need to let them know what kind of a client you’ll be.

2. Project: Choose an Agency, Not a Campaign

I believe it is neither in the client’s nor the agency’s best interest to make “spec” creative part of the agency search. Instead, we recommend you give the agency a spec strategic project.

Why? Because the critical objective of the review is to identify the cultural fit, the chemistry between the two organizations. That means focusing on how they work, and how they work with you.

Spec creative generates only a superficial snapshot often judged on poorly defined or sometimes even irrelevant criteria. However, a spec strategic project can give you penetrating insight into how the agency thinks and works and, most importantly, give you a sense of what it would be like to work with them.

And since most reviews keep the agency at arm’s length, you are essentially asking them to work for free to come up with a creative solution without the benefit of working collaboratively. So it’s a matter of which agency “guesses” the answer you’re looking for. That’s decidedly not a strategic way to solve marketing problems.

All the agencies on your finalist list should be able to do the job creatively given the right input and guidance—they wouldn’t have made it that far if they hadn’t already demonstrated that. But actually experiencing the process offers much more insight than the spec creative results can.

Most importantly, asking for spec is just plain wrong. Alder Yarrow created a post about it the other day, and here’s a link to a YouTube video which puts the process into perspective.

3. How Do You Know Which Agency Is Best for You?

There are many specific criteria to use to help narrow the choice: national/regional, industry specialization, size, independent or part of part of a communications holding company, category experience, geographic location and so on.
Beyond these criteria comes the more difficult task of identifying cultural fits. Is stability important both in terms of agency retention of staffers as well as clients? How important is bench strength? Is there a creative “look” of the agency, and how does that dovetail with the client’s business and category?

Ultimately, no matter how large or small the agency is, the client-agency relationship boils down to a relatively small group of people in three key disciplines: account service, creative, and media. It is important to meet and get to know the actual people who will be working on the business day-to-day, not just the “new business pitch team” whom you’ll see in the presentations.

4. Why Does the Agency Search Have To Take So Long?

It doesn’t. You decide the timetable. The process can be as thorough or rapid as needs demand. There are some common steps to be taken but no “standard” procedures. The whole process should be customized to the client’s particular needs and circumstances in terms of timing, number of agencies, assigned projects, and agency visits, among other factors.

5. Why Can’t I Just Meet with a Few Agencies?

Choosing an agency shouldn’t be a beauty contest with selections made on superficial characteristics. It is important to have clearly stated objectives and criteria against which agencies can be judged followed by a thorough job of identifying and screening potential partners to a focused few.

Ultimately, the decision will boil down to answering the question, “Are these the people who I want to entrust the future of my brand to?” But you need to make sure they fit the criteria sufficiently well that that answering question is relevant.

6. What about Compensation?

It’s always a thorny issue and surprisingly one where the agency often leads the negotiations. For the sake of clarity and objective evaluation, the guiding philosophy should be to unbundle the compensation system to facilitate monitoring and managing activities to fit the clients’ budget and reporting needs…by brand, by service function, etc.

Fee vs. commission? Markup or net? What’s included? These are all issues to be explored during the agency search process. However, it is important to identify compensation preferences and procedures in discussions prior to the final agency presentation to make sure the subject won’t become a deal killer. Actual details can be negotiated after choice is made and client and agency can both share real numbers and plans in detail.

7. What Is the Agency Search Process?

There are three phases: Screen out, screen in, and select.

1. Identify client needs

  • Thorough debrief of client needs, agency history, business objectives, etc.
  • Identify what is working and not working with the current agency relationships.
  • What is changing about your business and driving the need to search?
  • Identify communications needs and specify the service capabilities the agency would provide.

2. Develop list of potential agencies

  • A thorough search of potential agencies leads to the creation of a master list of agencies that fit gross qualifications in terms of size, services, locations, structure, etc.
  • Revise the list based on refining criteria such as conflict issues, category experience, agency strengths in terms of industry, category, media specialization, etc.

3, Request for Proposal

  • Develop and distribute the RFP (use the 4A’s questionnaires) and narrow the list down to four to six potential agencies.
  • Hold credential meetings at the offices of the four to six finalist agencies.
  • Check references on all agencies.
  • Discuss compensation methods.

4. Project

  • Develop customized project assignment that will allow the client to evaluate agencies based on key discriminating criteria.
  • Hold agency presentations.
  • Conduct customized quantitative and quantitative evaluation. And remember, it’s not a beauty contest. You should set up measurable evaluation criteria that weight factors for what’s most important to your organization.