10 Tips for Finding an Agency
By Jackie Walts
The by-product of a sagging economy, managers are being asked to produce results with significantly fewer resources than before. Even with budget cuts and leaner staffs, management expects top performance. At the same time, perhaps your agency is not performing well. Smaller staffs, fewer resources and a revolving door of junior account people add up to less responsiveness.
It may be time to find a new agency. Here are 10 steps for picking the right agency.
1. Assess the situation.
First, determine if hiring a new agency is the best solution. You may only need to re-evaluate and redirect the agency you currently have. Examine your reasons for a change. If compensation is the only issue, ask your agency to reconsider its contract. Or, if responsiveness or personnel are the issue, have a frank discussion with your agency management about expectations. A specific list of goals will help you get what you need.
On the flip side, if the creative is never up to par, the agency is always over budget or can't make a deadline, it may be time for a change.
2. Think ahead for an interim solution.
Decide how you're going to continue your marketing efforts while you conduct your search. In the best case, it takes a minimum of three months to find a new agency. Once your existing agency knows the account is in review, don't rely on it to complete any work. Stop assigning it new projects and consider staffing up internally to get work done while you're looking. Consider using an agency that will do projects in the short term, but may not be a fit for long-term use. Have a workable solution in place before you proceed.
3. Plan how you will manage the search.
Conducting a search is a full-time job. Consider using an agency search consultant to maximize your time. They have the agencies screened, the experience and processes in place to run a search smoothly, and their advice can be invaluable. Pick your search consultant carefully. If you're looking for a direct marketing agency, hire a consultant with experience there. Be sure to ask about compensation—some search consultants are paid by both the client and by agency "listing fees" and only recommend those agencies that participate. This considerably shrinks the pool of talent for your search.
If you don't use a consultant, use other available resources. Ask colleagues who have conducted searches for suggestions. Consult resources such as the American Association of Advertising Agencies, The Direct Marketing Association and the Advertising Red Book for lists of appropriate agencies.
4. Notify your agency.
Once you have a plan for interim work, let your agency go. Check your contract terms to make sure you give the appropriate amount of notice and give it to the agency in writing. Visit the head of your agency team and be direct about your reasons for leaving. Discuss options for a smooth transition.
While most agencies respond professionally, some may have more drastic reactions. It's not unheard of for an agency to immediately quit work on unfinished projects.
Note: It has never been my experience that keeping an existing agency in the review is wise. In most cases, all you get from your current agency is a temporary improvement and a return to old habits. Be prepared for this request and have an answer ready.
5. Set your criteria.
Gather the decision-makers in your company and get their wish list of agency needs. What do they love or hate in an agency? Prioritize these needs into a specific itemized list of criteria. Quantifiable objectives help keep the selection process on track. These criteria are used to prepare questionnaires, evaluate responses and choose an agency. For instance, if your programs are primarily direct marketing, make that experience a high priority.
Determine the size of agency you require. If you choose too large an agency, your account may get lost in the shuffle. Likewise, if it is too small you may overwhelm it.
6. Start your search.
Prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP) to screen agencies. A good RFP contains an overview of your company and its current programs and gathers information from the agency, such as contact information and ownership, questions about specific client relationships and experience, staff and their backgrounds, and how the agency charges. Be specific and keep the RFP brief.
Next, contact the agencies of interest. Call and speak with its new business person or principal and send them the RFP. Give a firm deadline, but be fair about turnaround times. Two weeks is reasonable. Be available to answer questions during this period—a good agency will ask questions to make sure it understands what you want and need.
7. Review and visit.
Review the RFPs and evaluate them using your hot button criteria. Then, go visit your top three or four selections. Communicate what you'd like to learn to the agencies and use it as an opportunity to test for compatibility. If you like to give detailed, written direction, do so when you communicate the purpose of the meeting. If you're casual, send an e-mail or make a phone call. It's important that your agency be able to work well with you. Ask to meet the staff that will be your day-to-day contacts and take the time now to review creative case studies.
It is preferable to go to the agency's location to see the agency in its own environment. These meetings will be time consuming, so don't visit more than two agencies a day.
8. Review the results.
Start with your hot buttons again. How does each agency stack up after the presentations? Put them in priority order and then get to the subjective side. Which team did you learn from? Which group got you fired up with enthusiasm? Lastly, look at the practical—if two agencies are tied for first place, consider the one located near a sales office.
9. Choose and inform.
Put all the information together and call the winner to share the good news. Some agencies decline business even after participating in a review, so confirm it still is interested. Discuss a few specifics—goals for finalizing contracts and fees—to make sure you're on the same page.
Once the contract is signed, call the remaining participants and let them know you chose someone else. Don't be coy about the reasons, it's only fair to answer questions about what factors made you eliminate a specific agency.
10. Determine compensation/contract.
Agency compensation is highly flexible and negotiable. Almost every agency has a preference, but as long as it makes a reasonable profit, negotiate what works best for you. If your company does all production in-house, you may prefer a fee basis. If your work is all projects, you may want to consider a bottom-line approach. If you're looking for strategic help, consider a retainer to ensure you get enough time from the senior team at the agency.
The search is over and you're on your way to improved results, a better working relationship and a fresh perspective for your marketing programs. Don't forget to thank everyone on your team and the agencies that pitched your business.
Jackie Walts is a marketing consultant specializing in agency searches and direct marketing. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jackiewalts.com.