What it's like on the other side of the search

I spent many years on the agency side - at Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, and GCI Group - pitching business and always wondering what it would be like on the other side of the table.

I spent many years on the agency side – at Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, and GCI Group – pitching business and always wondering what it would be like on the other side of the table. 

Now I know.

My firm doesn't do a lot of agency search for our clients, but occasionally we're asked to help out. Coincidentally, we've been involved in a few situations just since the beginning of the year.

The process is enlightening. Here are some lessons learned that agencies would be well advised to consider.

Stand for something. During an RFI stage, particularly if the agency's information is being communicated only in writing, be sure you write your information in a concise, crisp manner – and absolutely be sure your firm stands for something. Have a point of view on measurement; articulate a client service model or an approach to audience insights that you believe works exceptionally well for your firm and for your clients.

Pure capabilities are only a starting point; why would having good capabilities mean you should win? Don't you think the client is only talking to firms with the requisite capabilities? And sell yourselves, don't sell against others. Selling against others is usually off-the-mark and is almost always unappealing.

Read the rules. When clients are considering a range of agencies, they're looking for reasons to either include or exclude firms from the next round. Don't give them easy reasons to exclude you. Sounds ridiculous, but in just a few situations, I've already seen firms respond to a request for two or three paragraphs on a subject with eight or nine paragraphs; with a request to provide a three-to-five page narrative on a client situation with a 19-page PowerPoint deck; with a request for certain insights into international market credentials with a link to the company's website. Don't make it so easy to cut your firm.

Think team. There seems to be a remarkable tendency for firms to have about four or five people in a room to meet with a prospective client. The most senior person does most of the talking. The second-most senior person does a reasonable amount. The other people only talk when asked to. Trust me: bad idea.

I've always had a theory that whoever the most senior agency person is in the room is somewhat set aside by the prospective client as not being the account leader and as someone who may be available when needed. The result: They zero in on the number-two person as their number one.

The insight: Tell your number one to talk less. And, tell your number three and four to talk more. The client wants to learn about the team. How bright are they? Do they know my business? Are they personable? Are they the type of people I can work with? When questions are asked, the precise answer is less critical than the larger issue of the questions I just posed. Let people talk and engage!

Respect women. I've already seen too much testosterone in a room where men keep answering questions and talk over women who want to answer. Bad idea. Guys: You may always think, "That's not me." Double-check; maybe it is.

Share insights. Perhaps like all the other points above, this ought to be obvious. Even if you're not being asked to develop a program, at least be prepared to share industry insight with the prospective client. Understand market conditions and the competitive set. Maybe even package these insights with analytics. Show off your relevant knowledge or the client will assume it doesn't exist.

Show passion. Passion for the client's business is tangible. And appealing. Find a way to show it or, again, the client will assume it doesn't exist.

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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