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Selecting a Marketing Communications Agency

From BMA Knowledge Base

Selecting the right agency is no different from successful performance in your company’s other operations. Yet few executives do it often enough to achieve even minimum competence. However, some simple, common sense approaches, will help you do it efficiently.

Do You Need to Switch? Sometimes it’s smarter to solve problems with your existing agency, since both you and the agency have made major investments in the relationship.

Would changing 1-2 key people, correct the problems, saving the knowledge of other team members? A heart-to-heart talk with your account executive or agency principals may be all that’s needed.

If you must switch, determine what went wrong and why. Identify ways the agency’s performance fell short. Identify problems your company caused or exacerbated. Be brutally honest. Plan ways to prevent similar problems through a better selection process, or better day-to-day procedures. If you don’t, you’re certain to repeat the same problems with your new agency.

The Electrician Can’t Fix the Plumbing
Next, identify the specific attributes you seek in priority order. Build the rest of the process around finding the agency which matches up best.

Agencies will claim they’re skilled at a wide range of activities. Some are, but none is equally adept at everything. Make sure they prove their expertise through recent client work, and provide client references.

Which attributes are most important? Your first reaction will probably be “creative.” But what’s most important varies from company to company. Perhaps you value strong marketing and strategic skills, or specific market experience. For others, media negotiating or media planning may be at the top of the list. Or you might favor integration of a full-range of communications activities.

BIG vs.small
It’s nice to be a big fish, but your needs may overwhelm an agency that’s too small. It may not be able to provide the total package of services and skills you need. A larger agency usually offers broader skills and services, but you may be relatively unimportant, and therefore find it hard to get their attention, let alone their best people.

Who Should be Involved?
A small committee is usually more effective, more relevant and less political. Limit yours to 1) the person who will work with the agency day-to-day, 2) that person’s boss, 3) the head of marketing (if different) and, 4) the CEO or GM.

The person with the most agency contact should be charged with culling agencies to a reasonable number, distributing information to them, and facilitating the selection process. The weight of each person’s vote will vary from company to company, but the people who will work with the agency on a frequent basis should have an important voice in the decision.

Before the Word’s on the Street
It’s finally time to start talking. Make the first call to your current agency. Tell them you’re conducting a review and why. If they will be seriously considered, tell them. If not, thank them and tell them you’ll be naming a new agency. And, don’t do them the “courtesy” of involving them unless they have a real chance. Don’t try to hide the review. Chances are they’ll find out anyway.

Too Many Agencies, Too Little Time
Most companies interview too many agencies. They think saying “we talked to 42 agencies” makes them look thorough and important. In fact, a “cattle call” is an almost certain sign of an amateur who hasn’t done the necessary homework or someone looking to impress management.

Well-managed reviews rarely include more that 6-8 agencies. Do your homework and narrow the field before serious conversations. Visit Web sites. Ask knowledgeable friends, colleagues, media reps and vendors for their suggestions. If some names pop up repeatedly, give them a closer look.

Informal discussions with more agencies is OK, but limit RFPs or questionnaires to serious contenders. RFPs often take dozens to hundreds of hours to answer. Don’t waste the agency’s time, or yours, unless there’s a better than fair chance the agency might be selected.

The Interview
Invite the select few for an exhaustive interview. Before the meeting, tell them precisely what you expect from them, in qualifications and in the meeting. Be sure your questions really work at finding who meets your priorities.

Your team’s chemistry with the agency is important. Before a good relationship can occur, you must like and trust the agency and WANT to work with them. Never hire an agency you aren’t excited about, because they scored highest on a scale. If you don’t like them now, you probably won’t like them any better in a year.

To “Spec” or Not To “Spec”
Many clients ask for speculative creative presentations. In most cases, it’s a waste of time. It’s extremely rare that agencies are able to get enough background to produce meaningful work. “Spec work” is scarcely ever produced. But agencies generally feel they have to do it, if asked. There may be times when “spec” makes sense. Perhaps if the agency has little experience in your market or related businesses. Or, if TV is important, and one or more agencies have little TV experience. In short - make sure there’s a good reason to ask the agency to submit speculative work. And if you do, provide lots of information, and a limited scope to the project, so the agency’s efforts can be meaningful and on-target.

The Long and Winding Road
The selection of an agency is a grueling, expensive process for the agency and the client. Don’t subject yourself or a group of agencies to it unless you truly seek a partner for the long-term. If you need only short-term project help, you can find an agency to help. But the process, and your expectations of agencies should be much different.

Finally, make a commitment to the agency you hire. The cost, the learning curve and the disruption of your program make this absolutely necessary. Good client/agency relationships are like a good marriage. They require respect and effort from both sides.

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