Hiring An Ad Agency- the Next Steps to Narrow the List

Key steps to narrow the ad agency candidate field for review after the first round “long list” selection


In part one, Taking Your Business To the Next Level? , we covered readiness and  knowing your priorities and the right time to hire an ad agency. In Part two, Choosing the Right Ad Agency we looked at: identifying your needs and asking the right questions. It also touched on familiarization with various types of ad agencies, their location and setting a budget (the long list). This installment identities the steps are required to narrow the list which is integral to choosing the right agency with marketing goals prepared.

A next step to shortening ad agency candidate list is formal engagement by sending an emails to each of the principals explaining the search and interest in setting up a formal appointment.

First contact with the ad agency

  • If the email of the principal or managing partner is not on the website, call the agency and ask for it. The worst, most impersonal thing in the world is to send such a request to “contact” or “info” or “new business”. Personally, I would not trust an agency that did not have a name with an email.
  • Be as specific as you can in the email. Not that you have to reveal your budget right away, but something along the lines of “Dear Joe, I’m Charlie, CEO of Outstanding Widgets LLC. We manufacture widgets for use in the car industry. We are in the process of looking for our first agency (or our next agency, the one which will help us grow to whatever…) and I would like to make an appointment with you to see the agency. Right now, we are in a preliminary search mode, so we are not asking for anything more complex than a meet-and-greet and perhaps a brief credentials presentation. What date would work next week?”

An evaluation checklist.

Before you visit the agencies you should have an evaluation checklist:

  1. Agency principals – When hiring a small agency, you are not hiring “an agency”, you are hiring the principals of the agency, their talent and ability to move your business forward.
    • Experience/seniority (not necessarily category experience)
    • Area of expertise
    • References (suppliers, previous clients)
  1. Formal list of their clients
  2. Where would your account fall?
  3. What specific industry tools or research do they buy or are subscribed to?
  4. How is the chemistry?

One interesting aspect of our business is its huge insecurity. Agencies seem desperate to prove that they deserve your business. As a result, many trot out this “experience” in your field. Honestly, unless you are in a field where there are many specific rules and regulations (e.g., the pharma industry) that would take a long time to explain to the agency, most of the times this “experience” will lead to (1) Arrogance (we know more than you) and (2) cliché campaigns (this is the way everyone in your industry does it).

Rather focus on whether the agency has a solid understanding of consumers in that category, the decision-making process and how to persuade these consumers. Because, ultimately, you would want your advertising to differentiate you from others in the category and persuade consumers to use your widgets.

Re-visit the ad agency long list

Don’t send an Request for proposal (RFP). For small or medium sized agencies, RFP’s are killers. They take hours and hours to fill out and, most of the time, the information is not really used to make a decision.

Actually, if you want to get the best service ever, do this, send them a note saying that you are NOT sending an RFP out of consideration for the value of their time. They will love you at the agency.

Here’s what you should request for that visit:

  • Meet the actual people who will be working on your account. Apart from all the formal requirements, if the chemistry is right, it is right, if it is wrong, you are not going to be happy. Also, you want to know whether you will be getting the “A”, “B” or “Z” team.The team you get will be a function of three things:
    1. Your budget (be honest about this)
    2. Your growth potential (so you need to sell to them as much as they need to sell to you)
    3. Your potential to let them shine (so, again, you need to sell them as much as they need to sell you)
  • A credentials reel. Here’s what the ideal credentials reels should contain
    • The agency’s approach to consumer insights and persuasion: how does the agency gather consumer insights?
  • Creative shops:
    • Syndicated research
    • White papers
    • Proprietary research (e.g., online surveys)
  • Media shops:
    • Syndicated research (e.g., ratings)
    • Own analysis (e.g., cost/sale, cost/click)
  • Social Media:
    • Syndicated research (e.g., sentiment tracking)
    • Own analysis (e.g., cost/click, online research)

Two or three fully developed case histories showing how they approached a problem, came up with the solution and tracked the results.

Ever since Harvard came up with the idea of the case history, it is still probably the best way to illustrate a work approach.

Case histories have many advantages for you as a potential client:

  • It shows the agency’s thinking, its procedures and its approach
  • The information there (whether it is creative, social media, a promotion…) has got to be real
  • It shows how carefully agencies will work with you in evaluating results.

Some degree of knowledge about your industry and even your company. This knowledge can take several forms:

  • A quick market analysis
    • Sales, growth, near-future development
  • Some consumer insights
    • At FCB I was a fan of this path. We would do several things: online surveys, man-in-the-street videos, desk research… anything to show that we understood that company’s consumer

If an agency chooses to put some other examples of their work (e.g., a commercial, a promotion) feel free to ask the rationale for the inclusion after every example. It will show you their reasoning and will be important. If their reasoning is in line with your own, or how your company does business, the chemistry will work out.

The key thing to focus on during that visit is their attitude: Do they talk about them or do they talk about you?

One of the worst experiences in my life was when I worked for Siboney/USA in New York (it is closed now) and we walked into the presentation only to have the person responsible for the pitch begin “Siboney was founded in Cuba in 1954…” and continue in that vein for the entire hour. Some of us in the team wanted the earth to open up and swallow us. The client was visibly annoyed, we did not present anything about the category, or the client, or its consumers. It was one of the worst hours ever.

In contrast, at one of the agencies I was advising in Panama we had tons of heart-to-heart talks about the agency pitch. I finally convinced the owner that, for an upcoming pitch for the rural portion of a finance account.

The entire pitch should last 20 minutes, and focus on three things:

  1. The bank’s sales objectives (and whether or not they were achieavable)
  2. How the agency was going to help the bank achieve those objectives (in very specific ways)
  3. How the agency was going to implement post analysis to help the bank improve its performance for the next stage

No talk of agency history, philosophy, view on the world…

The client CEO was there (which is why I suggested 20 minutes), had some questions, “got it”. And, we walked out with the business for the entire bank that day.

Time spent: I would suggest that anything over one hour is either a complete waste of time or a clear sign that the chemistry is absolutely great. You judge.

If you have done your homework, by the time you have visited the 10-12 agencies in the long list you probably have narrowed the choice to the one or two agencies that you would feel comfortable partnering with.

Next page: The Final Choice


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