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Selecting a new marketing agency

Life's A Pitch (Part 1 of 3): The pitch process and agency selection

Identifying the need for a pitch

First thing’s first: Why have a pitch?

  1. Your current agency relationship/s is/are tired.  There’s nowhere else to go; the agencies you’re working with are all out of ideas and, as a result, your competitors are leaving you behind.
  2. Attitudes.  A very common reason for brands to decide its time to move agencies is as simple as a change in attitude of their incumbent – either arrogance, complacency, or just that they no longer come forward with new and exciting ideas or observations.
  3. Relationships. Your account director’s gone, the creative director’s gone, the agency has changed hands and frankly, things just aren’t the same.
  4. Dynamics of your brand.  Your brand is moving with the times (as it should) and you’re mad keen to adapt to new consumer trends and to innovations across channels.  Your agency, sadly, is not…

There is an argument to say that just because one or more of the above happens, agency relationships are just like any other supplier/partner relationships – i.e. there’s a lot more to them than a short list such as the one above.  Well that may be.  So with that in mind, start by asking yourself this: If a staff member were displaying one or more of these traits, what would you do?  Hopefully, you’d start by addressing the situation, stipulating a serious need for improvement – and setting some sensible deadlines for said improvement.

If after all attempts to rectify things, one or more of these issues is simply not going away; then do yourself (and your brand) a favour and dash on.  One thing this world is definitely not short of is fresh, creative, hungry firms – all keen as mustard to explore the opportunity of working with you.

Too many decision-makers, too many cooks…

This was one of my mum’s favourite expressions – along with “empty vessels make more noise” and “imitation is the biggest form of flattery” – all of which seem more relevant in business today, than they did when I was a young lad.

Anyway, like many other things our mums said to us, “too many cooks” genuinely can spoil the broth.  With this in mind, be clear from the offset about who will be running your pitch.  What will their responsibilities within the process be?  Who will decide the selection criteria?  Who will provide the brief?  Who will meet the agencies?  Who will make the final decision?

Now without wishing to over-egg the pudding (there she goes again!), clearly defining the team who will manage the pitch is very important indeed – and, if done right, will ensure an efficient and decisive process.

In stark contrast to this, a disorganised approach to the process could quickly result in ‘decision by committee’ – or (which is more common).  For some reason, public sector pitches are renowned for turning out like this.  Why?  I can’t rightly say.  Experience tells me that this is because non-marketers often run public sector pitches, which is scary to say the least.  So, the basics:

  1. Ensure you have a lean (manageable) group of people from your organisation;
  2. Ensure that all of the group members play a specific part – e.g. a manager/owner, a marketer, a salesperson (someone ‘at the coalface’), a relationship manager – whatever you feel is needed to obtain a balanced perspective;
  3. Ask yourself how inefficient it is if you have no decision-makers from your business on the team.  Running a pitch with no such people present means you will end up re-presenting everything to them (out of context).  You will likely be hit with a load of questions you do not have the answers to, and the decision-makers will not have met any of the agency team;
  4. Ensure you’re all 100% agreed on the brief, the process and what it is you’re all looking for from your new agency.

Searching for (and selecting) agencies

So you’ve committed to having a pitch and to checking out some ‘new blood’ – good for you!  Now there’s the small issue of how you select some agencies and whom you select…  This is a veritable minefield, so here’s a list of things to consider:

Recommendation: Turns out that, regardless of anything else, word of mouth is still the best form of marketing.  If people you know (and respect) suggest you have a chat with a certain agency, then crack on!  Selecting an agency on this basis usually ensures that you dispense with a lot of the nonsense and time inefficiencies surrounding this process.  If you don’t know anyone who can recommend an agency, perhaps check out colleagues’ LinkedIn pages – see who they’re recommending online.  Or perhaps use an accredited agency roster?

Google: Clearly you may simply type ‘creative/digital agencies in X’ into your search engine.  It’s scattergun, but if they’ve got useful websites, then you can do your own shopping from there…

Blogs/outposts: You digest blogs in countless other areas, so it would make sense to consider looking at the outposts you rate.  See if any agency principles are writing.  As you know, whilst it’s plausible that someone might write the odd blog that is not reflective of them/their business, it’s a lot more difficult to do so consistently.  Read the thoughts of agencies; see what makes them tick and what drives their culture.  Good comms agencies tend to be active in this area for obvious reasons.  Why?  Because they read the likes of Seth Godin and they’ve accepted that their businesses have to change – and that producing interruptive creative messages has an ominous future.  With this in mind, they may be writing their thoughts in the hope that you like the ‘cut’ of their ‘jib’ so to speak.  Wild, huh?!

Awards: You may wish to choose an agency that’s got a raft of awards.  Fair enough.  Awards = recognition + achievement.  Though be cautious, as unfortunately the industry is rife with awards events, which genuinely are less than credible.  Ask yourself whether an award for a piece of work that didn’t happen is as important as an award for an effective/measured campaign.

Client list: It always makes sense to review an agency’s client list.  Look for a depth of experience across sectors and across channels (or at least across the channels they purport to be experts in).  Perhaps you’re only interested in working with agencies that work with household brands; perhaps you want a B2B expert or a digital expert – i.e. you’re more interested in evidence of specialism.  The main thing is to evaluate the agency’s client list and portfolio, alongside the agency’s level of growth – and ensure there’s a likely match between the agency’s experience and what you need them to do for you.

Creative: Stating the obvious I know, but do ensure that one of the main reasons you choose an agency is due to their creativity.  There are countless creative agencies, but they are not all creative agencies.

How many agencies to invite?

This is an area of great controversy – more so recently, as everyone’s been made to work a little harder to acquire or retain business.  For some reason unbeknown to me or anyone else in the agency business, many clients have, do and (sadly) likely always will think it’s a great idea to invite up to 10 agencies to pitch for their work.  This, believe it or not, is really quite stupid – for the following reasons:

  1. Putting 10 agencies through round after round of the pitch process is phenomenally labour-intensive for clients and agencies alike.  If, as a client, you genuinely feel you’ve got time to do this, reconsider.  Also ask yourself whether your employers would feel it’s a valid way to spend your time.
  2. The cost for agencies to pitch can be incredibly high (tens of thousands).  Traditionally none of this is recoupable.
  3. Whilst agencies are pitching, they are diverting resources from their current client work (how would you like it if you were one of those clients?  Is this in any way considerate?)
  4. You can gauge a considered view regarding an agency’s quality by way of the work it’s already done; its awards (the real ones); and its reputation.
  5. What does it say about your decision-making abilities that you have to ask so many agencies to pitch?
  6. There are many agencies that refuse to be involved in a pitch of more than 4 agencies.  Arrogant?  In some cases I’m sure that’s true.  However, conversely one might also consider that they have integrity and self-respect.

In early 2010, agencies (including JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi, and McCann Erickson) in the Belgian Association of Communication Companies publicised their irritation with this issue by having a virtual strike (http://ow.ly/7fth3).  They took a stand against ludicrously long pitch lists by replacing their home pages with a message of distain.  Back in the UK, the issue has also been a hot topic, sparked again recently by Matalan – who ran a 15-way pitch, whereby every agency was required to provide creative work.

There’s a good article on this subject in The Drum: http://ow.ly/7ftlD.  I think Sue Little (CEO, McCann Erickson, Manchester) sums up the best way forward: in as much as it’s entirely acceptable to meet with up to 10 agencies to see credentials/meet key personnel etc., there should then be a short-listing process, whereby a smaller number of agencies is required to formally present creative/strategy etc.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertisers (http://www.ipa.co.uk) provides advice to members (and non-member) on pitch best practice.  You can find out more on their site here: http://ow.ly/7fAHc.

Next week I'll share, part 2 of 3, I'll share my experience of writing an effective creative brief. 'Til then!

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