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When It’s Time to Evolve: Advice For a Successful Agency Search

Posted by Jeff Jones on Fri, Nov 2, 2018 @ 10:11 AM

With Atlanta traffic bordering on ludicrous, I’ve become a podcast junkie. This has been the only way to maintain my sanity during the daily commute. One recent NPR/Radiolab podcast, “Breaking Bad News Bears”, piqued my interest. It introduced me to the phenomenon of the grolar bear, a new hybrid of a polar bear and a grizzly. With the Canadian Artic shrinking, polar bears and grizzlies are living in closer quarters and (literally) becoming strange bedfellows. The grolar bear, or pizzly, blends the best characteristics of both species allows it to hunt on both land and ice.

So, what does this have to do with marketing?! It reinforces the need for marketers to evolve. To embrace change for the good of the brand. Sometimes this requires shifting agency partnerships to a firm that truly understands the changing ecosystem and the pervasive effects of digital on every aspect of marketing. When you recognize that this change is necessary, there are steps to successfully navigate this oftentimes uncomfortable process. Whether you’re looking for a creative firm, media agency, public relations company, or digital partner, here are some steps to successfully navigating these perilous waters.

Know what you’re looking for

The first step seems simple, but it is oftentimes replaced with immediate Googling. Be sure to clearly define your needs, in writing. Begin with the necessary services:

  • Brand development
  • Creative design services
  • Media planning and buying
  • Public relations
  • Social media management
  • Research

Now, add the other variables: compensation, communication style, staff structure, agency personality, expected length of partnership, etc. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it. Keep this information internal. If you share this with the agency prospects, everyone will design their responses to look like a winner. After all, they’re in the marketing business!

Start your search

Now it’s time to Google! Put together a list of agencies that meet your target criteria based on a review of their websites. Be sure to ask your trusted partners for their suggestions; these recommendations will probably turn out to be your best options. The agency websites will provide a wealth of information. Most will include a list of services, clients, case studies, staff profiles and their mission statement. And, how they’re using their website to market themselves can be a good indication of how they can help you! Don’t discount smaller or boutique agencies. Specialization is a tremendous benefit and these firms oftentimes are nimbler and provide greater account attention.

Once you have your list of 5-6 prospects, develop a questionnaire, and contact the agencies. Their responsiveness to your request will be a clear indication of their client service and hunger for your business. Be sure that your questionnaire is comprehensive and have several people in your company review it to gain additional perspectives. Provide an overview of your company and outline your needs. Allow the agencies at least a week to respond to this baseline information:

  • List of services
  • Location(s)
  • Years in business
  • Compensation options
  • Capabilities
  • Strategic partnerships
  • Staffing – longevity, breadth, scalability
  • Relevant case studies
  • Client and vendor contact information for references

Some companies create expansive RFP’s to vet the agencies. Be careful here. An agency’s most valuable assets are their ideas. Asking them to give away their ideas for free during an agency search can alienate some highly qualified prospects. Focus on their experience, reputation, capabilities and work style. If you’re asking them to create sample work, be prepared to offer some reasonable compensation.

Narrow the field

After reviewing the questionnaires and talking with the agency references, it should be very clear who the 2-3 finalists are. Make sure that your team is involved in this process, as the decision will impact your entire company.

Inform the agencies that did not make the cut by phone. Nobody likes to get a “Dear John” form letter. If you can, it is good business practice to let the agencies know where they fell short. Don’t burn bridges here. You never know if you’ll need their services in the future!

Get to know the finalists

Now it’s time to schedule your in-person team meetings. If you have the time, it’s always beneficial to meet multiple times before making your decision. You want this partnership to last, so it’s worth the effort to meet at their home base, at your company or (perhaps) over a meal.

  • At their agency – This will give you a clear understanding of their company work style and corporate personality. It also gives you a chance to meet support staff that might not be present in a formal pitch meeting.
  • At your company – If an agency has an opportunity to see your workplace, it gives them keen insight into your company that cannot be inferred through a questionnaire. There’s no need to be secretive. You’re searching for a partner!
  • Over a meal – There’s something to be said for seeing how people interact with the service industry to gauge their perspective on customer service. And, oftentimes having a meal with someone lowers their guard and provides some insight into their personality and values.

During this phase, the agency should share specifics about how they would structure your account --- services, compensation, staff structure, communication guidelines, deliverables deadlines, etc. Don’t discount first impressions and chemistry. These factors are intangible, but oftentimes telling. It is critical that you feel comfortable with their team and are confident that they possess the qualities you’re looking for:

  • Similar philosophy and culture
  • Enthusiastic team
  • Long-standing clients and employees
  • Relevant and varied experience
  • Clear understanding of current trends
  • Genuine interest in your success
  • Ease of communication
  • Community and industry involvement

Make your decision

After the last set of meetings, you should make your selection decision within a week. Again, involvement of your staff is key, but you must be confident and definitive in your decision. Professionally inform the other candidates of your decision and rationale.

Now, begin investing in the partnership by providing your new partner agency with all the necessary tools and information to be successful. Clearly define expectations and compensation through a formal contract.

Lastly, pat yourself on the back and enjoy a nice glass of Shiraz. This is a time-consuming and challenging process and you’ve done an excellent job.

McCulloch+Company is an advertising media services company that integrates the innovation of digital media with the strengths of traditional paths. Founded in 1984 and located in historic Roswell, Georgia, McCulloch+Company is regarded as one of the Southeast's preeminent media agencies. The agency is skilled at managing B2B and B2C clients in a multitude of industry categories.

Topics: searching for a new ad agency, Advertising pitch, new business

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