Clients need to get better at agency search

Despite being a long-time agency guy, I've always thought a client's decision on selecting a firm was much more important to the client than to the agency.

Despite being a long-time agency guy, I've always thought a client's decision on selecting a firm was much more important to the client than to the agency.

Why?

If a firm doesn't win a piece of business, life goes on. If a client picks the wrong agency, it's a disaster: at least a year of nightmares, executives who wonder about your competency, the need to fire the firm and repeat the process, etc.

In my previous two columns, I reviewed the agency-selection process with an eye toward how firms could improve their outcomes. This column will focus on how clients might focus their efforts toward better outcomes for themselves.

The reality of the agency-selection process is that it requires a considerable investment of time by the client organization. Specifically, this should mean not only the time of the head of communications, but also that of those client executives who have a vested interest in the outcome (e.g. CEO, CMO, brand managers, etc.).

Here's the simple truth: There's a direct correlation between time invested and the quality of the outcome. As such, here are suggestions for the next time you consider an agency search:

• Focus on the need. Too often clients take a standardized approach to the entire process. Be specific about what you need and measure every agency against that need.

Focus the RFI. Here are a couple of common – and ridiculous – questions we often see in RFIs: What is the agency's annual revenue for the previous three years? Who are your top three clients by practice area and how long have they been with the firm?

Folks, if you're qualifying the agencies properly in the first place, these questions are a waste of time. Focus on what matters and get the agency to spend their time on work that's of value to you.

• Read agency submissions. All those extraneous questions have unintended consequences: your own people don't want to read dozens of pages of information that aren't relevant to the problem they're trying to solve. Ask for what you really want; then commit you and your team to thoroughly reading what each agency submits. Sound obvious? Maybe. But I've seen plenty of clients not read important agency-submitted proposals.

• Invest in in-person meetings for the first round. A common mistake is only meeting the finalist agencies in-person. But you can take this to the bank: meeting “first round” firms (let's say eight agencies before you whittle it down to three or four) is worth the investment. Why? Evaluating firms based strictly on paper is a bad idea. A great deal of knowledge is acquired through personal meetings on each agency's premises. Do it. The right agency will be with you for years; you can find the time.

• The pitch. Don't limit the time to just the agency's presentation and Q&A. Allow another hour for a free-wheeling discussion about the business. See how these folks think on their feet, how they work as a team, how they engage your own team and your senior business executives. Better to learn this now than later.

• Decide on a timely basis. Decide quickly. Maybe give it a few days after the final pitch, but no more. Then let the agencies know. And for those who lost, give them constructive, honest feedback. They'll appreciate it, even if it hurts.

• Don't let Procurement lead the negotiations. In many companies, the procurement department plays an active role in negotiations. Fine. But don't let them drive the process. When they do, priorities often get misplaced, negotiations can drag on, and a balanced perspective is often missing. Stay involved and lead the process.

• Onboard seriously. The bigger the engagement, the more essential it is to do a thorough onboarding of your new agency. Invest the time for the agency execs to meet all the key, relevant executives in the company, hear the business plans, etc.

• Include an agency management workshop for your people. Very few communications pros have had training in managing agency relationships. And, many companies delegate agency management to mid-level professionals. To get the most from your firms, make sure your people know how to measure and maximize that value. Invest in a professionally conducted workshop.

Bob Feldman is cofounder and principal of PulsePoint Group, a management and digital consulting firm. He can be reached at bfeldman@pulsepointgroup.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.

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