10 essential requirements when selecting a new marketing agency
Selecting an agency from a short list - using the scorecard and transparent process
In the first post in this series I outlined 8 options to shortlist alternative marketing agencies as part of the process of managing pitches to select an agency. In this post, I look at the next step, covering 10 steps or requirements, that in my experience, help make the pitching process run smoothly and help towards selecting the best agency.
These tips support using the agency selection scorecard we have developed to help marketers review potential agency partners on both a qualitative and quantitative basis as part of the pitching process. You'll see that some of the evaluation criteria are more relevant to initial short listing whilst others are more relevant to a detailed pitch evaluation.
We have kept all criteria on one scorecard; though you’ll gather the information at different times but it is helpful to have one at-a-glance document for all criteria. And rather than breakdown those criteria by ‘stage’ we have organised them by type of things that are important to determine (and cement) a great client: agency relationship ie. overall agency capabilities, the agency culture (and how that resonates with you), thought leadership or industry standing of the key agency staff etc.
Full-blown pitch process or not?
I’m assuming at this stage that either you don’t have an agency or the ‘shine’ has gone from your incumbent. If the latter is true is it worth talking to them about what you think has changed in the relationship and where you think their service now falls short?
See if you can agree a period of ‘rebuild’ after which you both evaluate the situation, you may well have turned things around. And you will have avoided the pitch process and saved yourself and some agencies a lot of time (and money).
There’s a perennial debate in the agency world about the pitch process: how much of a drain it is on agency resources, how pitch lists are too long, why clients should pay pitch fees (or not) etc.
I think pitches can be bloated (in terms of how many agencies are involved, how much creative development and strategy an agency is expected to share (for free) before the working relationship really starts but they are a sound approach if all parties are honest and transparent about the process from the start.
So in that spirit, if you think you may well stay with the incumbent once you have had some honest discussions (both ways) - don’t go through a pitch process with other agencies. If you are in need of a new agency though, this process should make best use of you and your colleagues (and the agencies) time.
It might look a protracted process and it involves more than one meeting with the candidate agencies but that’s the only way you can commit your marketing budget to a new partner with confidence.
10 key activities in the marketing agency selection process
Here are the tips which I recommend to support the process as a whole:
- 1. Create a long list that’s not too long
Decide on a long list of a maximum of six agencies (from a combination of the routes in point 1 above).
They will have made it onto your long list through a mix of having the right services, the right geography (if that’s important to you), a strong recommendation from an industry peer etc.
Contact these agencies, outline the type of service you are looking for (integrated, full-service digital, pure SEO, content creation etc), give them an overview of the project/ campaign or overall marketing objectives you are looking for and also give them a ballpark budget and any delivery milestones you already are aware of.
This can be a one or two page overview, you are just gauging interest from your candidate list at this stage. Some may well deselect themselves due to timescales (and resource clashes), experience and/or the stated budget. Those that express an interest in being part of the process should then be sent a full brief.
- 3. Let them know what you expect
Be clear with the agencies what the overall pitch process will be. They’ll need to know the timescales to respond within, who they can ask questions of and any cut off for asking those questions, how many people (and what roles) in your business will be involved in the decision-making process, any weighting you may be placing on elements such as creative proposals, experience of a particular technology platform etc.
The pitch process is just the start of a hopefully long relationship so start with real clarity/transparency so it has a solid foundation.
From this stage on you should be using the scorecard - provide copies to your colleagues if appropriate, to complete and compare notes against. Select colleagues with different experience and skills to you, e.g call in your Technical Director, in-house design or another sales or marketing colleague.
A panel of three allows you to sound out the agency offering from different angles, spot any potential issues early on and ensures you haven't missed out any questions etc.
- 5. Use a robust brief template
Use a brief template (e.g for a website design and build project use our template) to ensure you get consistent responses back, making it easier to evaluate the agency proposals in combination with the scorecard.
- 6. Start thinking chemistry
Give the agencies the opportunity to meet with you and your colleagues before they submit a written, costed proposal. For expediency at this stage allow an hour or so for that meeting and have them at your own offices. Depending on the size of the agency they’ll field a new business person and/or the senior digital practitioner or the person who will be writing the proposal so they can quiz you directly (and to say hello : two-way chemistry evaluation starts at this stage!).
For the written proposal, judge whether you need to see creative (for your business) from the agency at this stage. You should certainly be looking at their existing creative and marketing/ROI case studies but asking an agency to work up campaign creative and/or web designs from your initial brief may be counter-productive for you and a big time drain for them.
Counter productive in that they may well have to redo all of it once you appoint : best practice web design and build process says you shouldn't get into actual ‘creative’ until the project starts.
That’s because the agency needs to undertake their discovery stage to really understand the type of overall user experience, content and messaging that will work best for your specific customers.
You may want to see ‘indicative’ creative ideas based on your brand and outline brief objectives so ask the agencies for a style setter/mood board approach rather than a pixel-perfect set of page designs.
- 8. Written response evaluation
Short list the four or five (probably) written proposals using the scorecard, to get down to two (if there are two clear ‘leaders ‘ at this stage) or three agencies that you want to come back in and pitch fully.
The pitch meeting itself will be a recap of their proposals, expanding on any areas you have asked for clarification on and will be an opportunity for you to meet an expanded team from the agency.
At the pitch itself, allow for more than an hour, if possible set aside say two to three hours for each prospective agency. That way you can pick up any of their initial thoughts and ‘workshop’ where that may collectively lead you. You're not looking for definitive solutions here but to get a feel for their problem solving approaches and their creative, technical and/or marketing know-how in a way that you can’t with just a written response.
- 10. Go back to their place
Before you make a final decision go and visit their places of work. Ask to look around the whole agency not just the board room where you might meet the senior team. Get a feel for the ‘buzz’ and look for the real company ethos and culture which may of course be expressed on the website but being in the agency environment and talking to as many people as possible is really important.
Cultural fit is vital for you both, so much so that it’s placed fairly high up on the scorecard.
You may want to have a final short stage which is to set a real and meaningful but small project brief for the selected agency (or the final two if you think both were as strong). You should be paying for agency time at this stage though so make it a brief that will have a clear ROI for you. And set a short delivery timescale - this isn't to be unfair to the agency/agencies but to see how they perform under pressure, which is real world marketing services after all!