Working your way into the review process

From independent boutique shops to global mega-firms, agencies of all sizes and disciplines share at least one common challenge: getting invited to participate in account reviews.

From independent boutique shops to global mega-firms, agencies of all sizes and disciplines share at least one common challenge: getting invited to participate in account reviews.

The first step is to be on the client's radar, says Jerry Swerling, whose eponymous Marina del Rey, CA-based consultancy has handled reviews for corporations including GM, Cisco Systems, and the American Cancer Society.

While it's true that some clients "feel more comfortable hiring firms whose names their CEOs will recognize," Swerling says, clients are increasingly looking at an agency's strategic insights rather than its brand name.

And regardless of its name recognition, a firm must be able to display its abilities both on RFPs and in initial presentations. When RFPs are on the table, differences in capabilities are vastly clear: Highlighting staff members' expertise and showcasing specific strategies allow clients a better understanding of how a firm can meet its business goals.

Another way an agency can draw positive attention to itself is by building a strong portfolio of current clients. Reputation and influence are real selling points, and firms with successful track records will be top-of-mind as clients compile review lists.

Another obvious - but often overlooked - way to reach potential clients is with a simple introduction. "Just pick up the phone and call," Swerling says.

Making contact with consultancies such as Swerling's and Santa Monica, CA-based Select Resources International, for instance, is vital to appearing in their review-selection pools later. The same goes for reviews conducted by clients themselves.

Even if an account isn't in review, "it's still about personal interaction," Swerling says.

Firms should introduce themselves and their capabilities, particularly when a client brings in new marketing or communications leaders, or there has been significant staff turnover at a client's current PR firm.

Lynne Doll, president of independent LA agency The Rogers Group, says that participating in reviews can definitely help an agency "get [its] name out there." But Doll cautions that over-reaching can actually hurt a firm.

"On RFPs in general, I think all firms - fledgling and established - should be selective about participating in reviews," she says. "To do it well requires tremendous focus and resources."

"Boilerplate is death," Swerling agrees. When RFPs are compared on otherwise equal footing, those tailored to the client's needs stand out - and those that fall back on one-size-fits-all responses "look like total duds."

If a response shows no real interest in or grasp of a client's history, structure, and philosophy, it's likely to be cut from the review.

In addition, when responding to public sector RFPs, Doll adds that it's essential to follow submission guidelines exactly as they're presented. First-timers, in fact, should consider teaming with a partner with government-contract experience.

"You must do all the things you do on the private side - be creative, demonstrate relevant experience," she says. "And you must follow the rules to the letter, and fill out a lot of paperwork."

This may seem like a lot of effort for a non-guaranteed result. But in the end, Swerling says, "there's no substitute for hard work."

Key points:

Do the research: Invest time and resources to gain strategic brand insight even before making a pitch

Demonstrate that firm staffers and partners have solid category experience

Rely less on one-size-fits-all PowerPoint presentations and more on personal interaction

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