10 problems in the agency search, selection process according to agency execs

Agency CEOs, asked about the agency search and selection process, described a highly dysfunctional approach by the majority of prospective clients.

The new Global Communications Report released last week by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Public Relations predicts the public relations agency industry will increase in size from $14 billion today to nearly $20 billion in just five years.

That’s astonishing growth, especially if you consider how poorly many agency execs think clients handle the agency selection process.

Somebody is doing something wrong here. I asked a cross-section of agency CEOs about the agency search and selection process, and to a person they described a highly dysfunctional approach by the majority of prospective clients.

I spoke with a range of highly respected CEOs of firms that range in size from the largest global powerhouses to well regarded niche boutiques. (I had to promise anonymity to get the truth, so forgive my lack of attribution.) This month’s column features their thinking and advice. Next month, I’ll share insights I get from the client side.

Here’s what agency execs had to say about the current process. I didn’t ask them what’s wrong with the process; I asked them to comment on it – good, bad, or otherwise. Although my question was neutral, their replies were anything but:

  • Poorly written briefs with prohibitively short turn-around times that limit the ability to deliver thoughtful, creative proposals.

  • Lack of budget guidance.

  • Lack of access to clients for business insight.

  • Too many firms invited into the mix; three is fine, but five? Plus, the process too often drags on. Make a decision!

  • Procurement often wielding way too much power; clients need to stand up and take control of their function.

  • Asking for "your best strategic/creative thinking" — with no pay.

  • Client management often delegated to junior staff resulting in poor direction, poor judgment.

  • "Ghosting" (i.e. after the pitch, silence for weeks on the outcome).

  • Silly requests like breakthrough creative — with proof you’ve done it before.

  • Search consultants who often add extra steps to the process, make it more complicated, and inhibit client access.

Wonderful, huh? As the former CEO of a global PR firm, I’ll add one more:

I believe the selection of an agency partner is more important to the client than to the agency. If the agency wins a new business pitch, great; if it doesn’t, life goes on. But if the client picks the wrong agency, it’s a disaster for the business and not a great career move for the person who made the decision. They live with the decision for too long a period of time. As such, clients owe it to themselves to listen to the criticism and to do a better job.

Here is some advice:

  • Objectively assess if you are best served by conducting a full dog-and-pony show. If you have worked with a number of agencies, you probably know each firm’s senior leadership, as well as each firm’s strengths and weaknesses. Consider bringing in two or three of the firms you hold in high regard for in-depth conversations about your business. Assess each firm’s team, strategic insight, business acumen, and cultural fit. You’ll probably make a smarter, better choice this way, with much less drama, time, and resources.

  • If you do a full search, the senior comms exec or key decision maker should own the search, own the RFP, drive the process, and stay engaged with the agency after the selection is made. Try to limit to four the number of agencies you invite to pitch. Do better screening and you’ll get better results.

  • Be realistic. Any good agency is busy, but too often you want the perfect team to drop everything and focus on your pitch. And work for free during the pitch process. And if you happen to pick them, to drop everything else and stay as your team. And then have procurement squeeze them hard. C’mon!

  • Here’s another dose of reality: Among larger firms, the hourly rate you’re paying for a mid-level exec is likely at least three times higher than his or her salary. So, if you have a project for $400k, for example, assume your team’s total salary is maybe $150k. Spread that over the team and you may understand either why your budget doesn’t go as far as you’d like, or why you may need to be sure you have a tight, focused team — not one spread too thin with too many members.

  • It doesn’t take a lot to be a great client. Just be better than what you read above. You’d be surprised what kind of loyalty that engenders and how much extra effort you’ll get from your firm.

  • Shrink and focus RFPs. Spend more time together getting to know each other substantively. Have meetings in which you discuss the business and challenge the firm’s thinking. It shouldn’t all come down to a deck and presentation.

  • Provide access to select business leaders to improve the quality of the agency’s insight and work. I always felt that clients should do everything possible to make the agency decision really difficult. You want three or four great firms. Invest in them so they do their best for you. If your decision isn’t painful, you did as poor a job as the agencies you didn’t like.

  • Be honest. If your budget has certain constraints, say so. If I had a dollar for every time a client said, "If we get a great idea we can find the money," I’d be rich. And if I had a dollar for every time they found the money, I’d be poor.

  • Provide honest feedback when the process is over. Agencies genuinely want to learn and it’s amazing how often the feedback is polite yet bland. It seems like there are only winners and everyone else finished in second place!

  • Be human. Respect the agency’s time. They are investing a lot with a one-in-four (or worse) chance of getting your business, and still often give you some very good insights and ideas. Appreciate that. A little graciousness goes a long way.

I’m looking forward to hearing from clients!

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

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