Identifying the key factors clients consider during an agency search

There are some major agency searches going on now, and many PR firms are either trying to get their foot in the door or understand why they weren't included.

There are some major agency searches going on now, and many PR firms are either trying to get their foot in the door or understand why they weren't included. While many marketers and search consultants try to be inclusive, they typically must narrow the field from hundreds to perhaps 10 to 15. Since getting a shot at the business requires agencies to make it onto this list, the question often arises, “Why not us?”

Here's a peek behind the scenes at how clients decide which agencies are asked to participate:

•Criteria development. The first step for a marketer is to define and gain internal consensus on criteria for a new agency or agencies. In our case, as the search consultant, we have the marketer do a review of their recent agency relationships, what's worked and what hasn't, and we gather their initial thoughts on wants and needs. Often, the criteria is logical; i.e. they are a retail fashion company and only want to consider firms that specialize in that field. But sometimes, past experiences – good or bad – guide the client in directions that defy conventional wisdom. I have had clients who have always used a global agency, for instance, now only wanting to consider specialty firms, and visa versa.

•Agency location. For their next firm(s), marketers have to decide whether they want: 1) an agency office “down the street” that can provide in-person service on short notice; 2) multiple agency offices in key markets where the client does business; or 3) New York City, which most marketers still perceive as the center of the media universe.

•Conflict vetting. If an agency fits all the criteria above, the next step is to vet conflicts. Many marketers won't consider a firm that is handling a competitor. Even if the agency is willing to sign an NDA, some clients worry that proprietary information will inadvertently be shared. There are exceptions if a client is agreeable to considering a firewall or if an agency is willing to resign an account should the business be won. But if there is a sufficient pool of candidates free of conflicts, the search might not get to this stage with the firm in question.

•Proprietary considerations. Some firms hear about a search through word of mouth and assume they are a logical choice to be included. It's important to note that most briefs detailing criteria are under an NDA and information shared indirectly is usually incomplete, out of date, or wrong. Again, it is important to know that there are proprietary givens that are non-negotiable.

Because much of the long-list screening takes place before the candidate agencies are contacted, it's critical to keep public information – Web site, capabilities, areas of specialization, and client list – up to date.

If you don't get the call, don't assume you haven't been considered or proposed as a candidate. And know, too, that the next proprietary givens that are non-negotiable might be exactly what gets you onto the list.

Dan Orsborn is a senior partner at SelectResources International, where he heads the PR agency search practice. His regular column focuses on new business issues. He can be reached at

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