Want a best practice agency search? Here’s how.

Whatever kind of agency you may be searching for, whatever your challenges, whatever stage of the process you may be at, here some key questions worth considering – preferably before you start – to help find the best agency for your specific needs, and create a framework for a best practice search.

If you find yourself reaching for the Advil, or struggling with any of the answers, chances are you have some homework ahead of you.  But take comfort that the better prepared you are, the better the outcome of your search will likely be: 

Why are you doing an agency search?

Yes, it’s a pretty basic question but you’d be surprised how many marketers we meet who struggle with a definitive answer.  We’ve heard everything from “we don’t like our (insert function here) on our business…” to “too expensive” to “we just want a change” – or worse – “we just want to see what’s out there.” 

The question is important because you want to delineate between an issue that may be fixable – thereby saving you the trouble of a search at all.  Equally, a clear definition of why you’re wanting to start an agency search inevitably leads to a more focused and concise set of criteria when you meet prospective agencies.

Are you prepared? 

Agency searches can be costly, time consuming and disruptive – particularly when you consider you have to keep current initiatives moving through your incumbent agency at the same time. 

Once the decision has been made, most marketers just want to get on with it and get a search underway.  But when they start thinking about contractual obligations, potential implications to budget, corporate governance procedures, and details like the structure of a potential search team, the magnitude of the task ahead starts to come into focus and how important is to be properly prepared. If you’re not prepared – you can expect delays and a more drawn-out process.

What kind of search process is best?

There are many kinds of search processes that go beyond the traditional RFI and RFP methodology most marketers may be familiar with.

There can never be a cookie-cutter search process because all marketers are different and all marketers have different needs, wants and goals when search for a new agency.  Depending on whether you’re looking for a creative, strategic, digital, media or specialist agency, marketers need to think beyond “ticking boxes” or formulaic question / answer methodologies, to really uncover an agency partner that’s right for the long term.

Do you know which agencies to see?

With so many agencies providing individual or combined services, what’s the best way to identify and narrow down the best agencies to add to your search list? And what if there’s pressure to include agencies that you feel shouldn’t be on the list in the first place? 

The number one thing we hear is “we want the most creative agency in this space…”  But thorough preparation or a robust stakeholder interview process will help uncover the barriers to (the marketer definition of) “creative” and why the incumbent agency isn’t (or can’t) deliver.

What about logistics?

Logistics around an agency search can be more complex than you might think. For example: How long should you give agencies to prepare? Should you pay for pitch participation?  How much?  Where should agency presentations take place?  And who should come to presentations?

All these questions point to the complexity of any agency search process, and marketers need to be adept at managing these kinds of logistics – or find resources that can help manage a search process.

What should you ask?

Preparing for a search, defining agencies to see, and managing the logistics gets you set up for the search process – but what should marketers be asking to get to know potential agencies?

We’ve never been fans of asking questions just to tick boxes and marketers shouldn’t be either.  The faster you can get to a dialogue about your business, with smart, well considered questions – the more likely you are to determine how well equipped agencies are to help manage your business.

How do you evaluate agencies?

How do you ensure your team evaluates agencies consistently and correctly – how do you create a template or scorecard for your team?  Will you use a numerical scorecard or are there deeper, more complex aspects to evaluate that go beyond a numerical evaluation?

I’ve written before the development of agency scorecards, but whatever approach you choose – make sure it’s not just about adding up a score.  No score can give you a perspective on chemistry and whether the agency is real fit for your needs.

Evaluating agencies on the functional aspects of their submissions or presentations can take you so far, but defining what constitutes real value and assessing fit with your organization can be far more complex.

What about negotiating fees?

When it comes to fees, agency rate cards provide only a very narrow window of insight on agency costs – so what other aspects of agency fees should you evaluate and how do you evaluate them?

This is a huge topic, but marketers should have a point of view whether a retainer, variable fee, commission, and / or some kind of value or performance based remuneration is right for their specific needs – before asking the agency about their fee structure.

Are you ready to award the business?

Awarding the business may not be as straightforward as you might think because like everything else, it requires careful preparation.

It starts with a carefully choreographed timing plan that contemplates how and when you’ll notify your incumbent agency, how and well will you notify those agencies that participated in the process but weren’t selected and how and when you want to notify the winner. 

Marketers should also have a plan to manage internal and external communications to ensure messaging is disseminated correctly.

What are the big mistakes to avoid?

And finally, even if you’re well prepared, you’ve worked out which agencies to see, what to ask and how to manage all aspect of the process, what are the big mistakes to avoid?

From underestimating the importance of chemistry to miscommunication with your incumbent agency, there are any number of mistakes marketers want to avoid to save time, angst or even choosing the wrong agency.

Perhaps the best reference for agency search best practice in Canada is the Association of Canadian Advertisers guidebook on Searching For A Marketing Communications Agency Partner. As its author, we can help ensure you have a best practice framework for your next search process.

So, what’s your definition of best practice?  How can you avoid bad practice?

Take time.  Prepare thoroughly.  And if you’re in any doubt contact your friendly agency search consultant.


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: Igal Malis

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