12 essential questions to answer before starting an agency search

So you’re ready to go find a new agency…? Really? Are you sure about that?  Because the reality is you will likely make any process almost impossible to complete without having a clear picture of what you’re searching for and how you’re going to find it.

So here are a dozen questions to think about before you start.  And if you think this is hard work – trust me – it’s way harder not answering them:

Why are we doing this?

Do you know why you’re looking for a new agency?  What’s changed in your requirements that’s causing you to contemplate a new agency, and why can’t your current agency fulfill your needs?  If those initial questions are even remotely difficult, you’re falling at the first fence and need to get your reasoning clear. Because without understanding why, you can’t begin to define the kind of agency your organization needs.

Have you done your homework on yourself?

The better equipped you are in understanding your own organization, the more likely you are to find the right agency partner. If your current agency relationship has run into difficulties, it’s essential to understand what role your team and organization played in navigating those difficulties.  By being honest with yourself, you’re able to identify internal challenges and roadblocks, and proactively deal with them before looking for a new agency and potentially duplicating those problems before you start.

Are you prepared for disruption?

No matter how well prepared you are, marketers should be aware that any search process is going to be disruptive. Marketers should consider what current initiatives are being worked on and whether to expedite or delay those initiatives, pending the appointment of a new agency. Even once appointed, expect delays resulting from handover from one agency to another and the inevitable learning curve that comes with any new agency.

Have you defined your scope of work?

This is often one of the hardest exercises for marketers to pull together – either because they’ve not defined their scope recently, or it’s such a moving target that committing pen to paper is difficult.  But when it comes to finding a new agency, it’s a challenge that has to be addressed before you start.  Why?  First, because you want to define the services you want your new agency to be able to deliver.  And second because eventually you’re going to want a cost against that scope of work.

What’s a realistic timetable given our internal calendars?

We often get called in to manage a pitch with the mandate that ‘we need to get this done as soon as possible…’ We propose a timetable and the client says ‘so and so is away, we have a conference that week and, and, and’. Add in logistics and preparation time for agencies, and the timetable moves out.  So before you start, create a realistic workback schedule and share big picture timing with your chosen agencies to ensure they can accommodate key dates.

Do you have a budget?

Eek! Even if you’re not asking for some sort of spec work that would need to be properly paid for, you’ll need to set aside a budget for travel (yours and your selected agencies) and legal work. If you’re asking for any spec work you need to budget more than a nominal feel.  As a general rule of thumb, that means the actual fair market cost for the work, less profit – shared equally between you and your prospective agencies. For more on best practices around spec work and appropriate payment, please ask.

Do you have the ok to proceed?

Many organizations have corporate governance and / or specific procurement requirements around sourcing services greater than a certain amount, so it’s worth checking to ensure you’re clear before you start.  Marketers should also be familiar with their incumbent agency contracts, notice and termination requirements – before initiating a search for a new agency.

Have you told your incumbent?

Allowing your incumbent agency to find out you’re searching for a new agency from someone other than you is a complete no-no.  Your incumbent agency should be the first agency you share the news that you’re going to market with, together with your anticipated timing and formalities around termination in accordance with the terms of your contract.   

Do you have a search process?

Today, there are many search processes from which to choose beyond the traditional RFI / RFP.  Whatever you decide, it’s essential to have a defined process to share with your chosen agencies so they can understand what they’re getting into.  In the event they see the process and choose not to participate, it’s better to know that sooner rather than later.

Who’s your search team?

Any marketer searching for a new agency needs to appoint a search team who can be available and will attend all agency meetings. Your chosen resources have to make a commitment to make time for all agency meetings and have the time to assess and discuss each agency during evaluation.  While your team can comprise diverse resources across the organization, it’s important that whoever you appoint are fully empowered to make the best decision for your organization

What are your evaluation criteria?

You and your search team need to define and align on your search criteria, together with your scoring mechanism, before beginning.  This is needed to align teams around specific evaluation methodologies and to provide guidance to agencies around how they’ll be evaluated and what’s critical to success.  For more on creating the perfect scorecard read this.

What are the politics?

Yes really. It’s important for marketers to be aware of the politics of their own organizations and be proactive about dealing with them. If, for example, there’s pressure or bias to see or favour a particular agency or eliminate a particular agency early on, then those issues have to be dealt with and all biases eliminated before you start. Simply put, if you don’t have a level playing field, you’re not ready for an agency search.

Pulling the trigger on an agency search isn’t something any marketer should take lightly. Careful preparation is essential to any search process and if any of this has made you sweat a little, perhaps we can help.

Stephan Argent is Founder and Principal at Listenmore Inc  offering confidential advisory to marketers looking for truly independent insight and advice they can’t find anywhere else. Read more like this on our blog Marketing Unscrewed / follow me @StephanArgent

Photo: Phillip Stewart
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