How to pick the right agency

As we go into the communications agency review time of year, many client executives will be tasked with selecting a new firm, or deciding to keep their existing one. Here is how to pick the perfect agency partner

Charles Lankester is managing partner at SharpeLankester Hong Kong
Charles Lankester is managing partner at SharpeLankester Hong Kong

I have managed large communications and brokerage firms in Asia, the USA and the UK and seen life from both sides of the fence – client and consultancy. After so many years it is amazing how little the process of selecting an agency has changed. In my opinion there are three simple criterions to pick the right agency. These are – Performance, Payment and People.

On Performance, clients should be much more specific about what success looks like. This is often tricky, but it is worth the effort. Don’t accept that the work of your communications firm can’t be measured. It can. If you are the client, tell your consultancy precisely what you want to be different or better after three, six and 12 months. If you are the consultancy, present your plans grounded in delivery or results. We recently advised a financial institution to promote an innovative capital raising assignment that secured US$120 million. Result? Our marketing campaign delivered more than ten sizeable new prospects for our client.

With Payment, there is an argument to rethink how consultancies are compensated. Clients should build in a significant degree of performance as part of the compensation agreement. Rewarding success is good for both parties. Consultancies can achieve greater revenues for exceeding targets. Clients know they are paying for value and delivery. Performance should be built in to every relationship.

Somewhat counter-intuitively for someone running a communications firm, I would always advise clients to be cautious of large retained relationships. They rarely deliver the value expected. It is often just the opposite: they allow the agency to forecast a nice, comforting revenue line. Good for them, less so for their clients. It’s much better to work on a project basis, with a clear beginning, middle and end and a tangible result. Projects also keep your consulting team energised, fresh and focused and clients can keep track of results vs. investment.

The final P is the People at your agency. Clients should like, respect and value the specific people on their team. It’s also vital that the agency team likes each other which is not always the case! Look at the body language between your potential agency partners. It speaks volumes. What is it telling you?

Remember, you are not buying the global agency vision, or the CEO’s "we really want your business" video: you are buying the people in the room. You will spend a lot of time with them so make sure you have good chemistry. As a client, confirm that the relationship with the consultancy involves specific individuals. If they leave, agree that you can renegotiate terms. Or even the entire relationship.

Another important part of the People dynamic is your agency’s culture and environment. Visit their offices. Walk the floor. Meet their people. Is their energy infectious? Ask about their work and clients. Feel the atmosphere. Healthy, happy, engaged consulting firms have a distinct buzz about them. Be cautious if this is absent. Also worry if you are receiving emails from your consulting team after 10 or 11pm. It means they are over-stretched, tired and you are not getting their best work. Before appointment, ask for, and take, references. Call the people named. Sounds simple. It works.

At the heart of a great communications firm is a passionate belief in what they do. Are they proud of their work and clients? How are they changing their world and how will they change yours? What real difference have they made for their other clients? In our case, it’s simple. We believe that all our work should deliver a defined business goal. We quantify, precisely, what success looks like and then link a portion of our compensation to delivering against this goal. It’s a model that our clients like and means our team is crystal clear as to their mission and objective.

Clients are regularly sold an "integrated network" from their agency. This can sometimes work, but I’d counsel caution with a one-size-fits-all solution. Why? Because networks are people and people are different. I have had the privilege of working with some of the best communications firms in the world. But try as the big networks might, it’s impossible to get consistent depth and delivery across all offices. Remember before you sign up for a six-office deal, you are buying all the weaker links as well as the stronger ones.

You should always judge a restaurant by its bathroom. In other words your decision of picking the right agency should be defined by the smallest touch point. How quickly emails are replied, calls answered and meeting reports issued all represent the little parts of your bigger client experience. So the next time you arrive at the reception, notice if it is all smiles and check if they know your name. Bottom line: it should always feel like your consulting firm only has one client.


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in