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How to select a marketing agency

Author's avatar By Mark Kelly 13 Nov, 2013
Essential Essential topic

8 techniques to choose the right marketing agencies to pitch to you

This article supports the Smart Insights agency selection template. The template helps businesses with the next step in the process, which is using a scorecard to help you choose the best agency when several are pitching to you. This workbook details a range of selection criteria which you’ll glean during either desk research, due diligence stage and/or at face to face meetings with an agency (either ‘chemistry’ meetings or pitch presentations).

In the first part of this article I suggest how you can pull together a short list of potential agency partners.  In a follow-up article I will look at approaches to running the actual selection or pitch process. I say ‘or’ because you don’t necessarily need to run a full-blown pitch process (which can be very time consuming for both you and the agencies involved) for smaller projects or where an agency has come highly recommended, you’ve got good chemistry upon meeting and they clearly understand your brief.

Selecting your short list

If you are looking for a new (or your first) agency it can be a daunting prospect. There are around 20,000 or so agencies of different sizes and service offerings in the UK, from enormous agencies with an international client base and integrated services through to a two person startup specialising in wordpress builds - and everything in between. I couldn’t get a definitive figure for the UK but that 20,000+ figure kept cropping up in discussion and whilst it sounds a lot (actually it is a lot) the USA has around 120,000 agencies to choose from.

Of course success, isn't just about getting a workable short list from those thousands of agencies, that’s just the start of the selection process. There’s a lot riding on getting the right partner that will share your vision (and possibly shape it) and provide the most effective marketing that helps you grow your business.

You may not be looking for a lifelong partnership but you should be looking for a long tenure (with the chance for both brand and financial returns to flourish) so there is definitely an element of dating going on here. Short of placing a lonely hearts ad (Growing brand with GSOH WLTM outgoing, creative effective Agency.. ‘) where do you look?

Sourcing your Agency List

There are a number of ways to get down to a workable consideration list who you can then (a) send a request for information to and then (b) supply a brief to short list from that stage. I don't recommend sending the actual brief to more than three or four agencies.

  • 1. Peer recommendations

Ask colleagues (in other parts of your business if in a large corporate) or ex-colleagues who may be using an agency or industry contacts who they have used previously or are using now and they would be happy to recommend.

  • 2. Asking on LinkedIn groups for recommendations

Others will be happy to share their thoughts if you explain briefly the type of agency service you are looking for, any brief parameters (e.g ‘ideally in Leicester area’, ‘can provide marketing strategy as well as design services etc’).

You might want to state that you are not accepting direct approaches from agencies at this stage, you’ll evaluate any recommendations via the group discussion thread etc.

  • 3. League Tables

Examples of league tables include the eConsultancy's Top 100 digital agencies

Note : these tables will typically include the larger agencies as they are ranked by turnover.

  • 4. Awards

Awards provide league tables of a sort in that it is often a combination of independent industry experts and / or the industry itself that selects great work e.g Big Chip  or The Revolution Awards (Revawards).

  • 5. Industry / Trade association websites

If you have a look on industry association websites, they often have a membership directory, searchable by agency type.

Two examples would be Bristol Media (actually for the wider South West region) and Manchester Digital members directory

  • 6. Google

There’s always Google to fill the gaps of the above approaches or as the starting point for a long list. You can be specific about geography (if that’s important to you), types of services you’re seeking and you can then use a clipping service like Evernote to save a long list of possible agency websites to review in more detail at a later date. And with Evernote you can add initial impressions and notes to each saved website / page.

  • 7. Intermediaries (a.k.a agency search and selection / pitch consultants)

The first seven points above are ‘DIY’ in approach but you could short circuit some of or all of those and use one of the Intermediaries in the market.

Intermediaries will generally not just offer an agency search service but may also look at agency benchmarking, account / relationship coaching etc.

It’s usually the agencies who pay a fee to be registered with the Intermediary, either a flat fee or a completion if they are successfully selected by the client.

Some example intermediaries are given here:

  • Find Good

FindGood have three ‘rules’ for clients who want to use their agency selection process - ones I agree with (see later) :' no more than 3 marketing agencies per pitch; budget transparency and realistic deadlines.

  • IPA

The IPA is a membership body and not an intermediary as such but they have a nice search tool (by geography and creative examples etc) and an agency being a member of the IPA is an endorsement of a professional approach in itself. Note, though, that it will be a limited field of choice in that these are the larger agencies in the UK and won’t suit smaller brands and businesses.

  • AAR

The AAR work across all types of agency and list some of the UK’s biggest brands as clients.

  • Creativebrief

Creativebrief is free for brands and you can do a basic agency search as a guest but you need to register to unlock some additional functionality (review any saved searches etc.). 

  • Agency Spotter

And there’s also Agencyspotter, predominantly States based at the present but I believe they are planning wider European/UK services at some stage and look to already have 900+ UK agencies on the site.

They have a nice LinkedIn feature: if you login to the site with your Linkedin profile you can see how you might be connected to the agency you are looking at (so you can see what your connections already think of the agency).

  • 8. Call for expressions of interest (RFPs)

You could put out a notice via your local /regional digital trade body outlining briefly what kind of service you are looking for and how prospective agencies can get in touch for more information.

You could also do the same on your Twitter account, with a link back to a landing page on your website detailing the overall pitch parameters and timescales etc. Note though that an open call could yield large numbers of enquiries and you’ll have to evaluate them all.

Author's avatar

By Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly is a digital marketing and agency growth consultant working with agencies and their client brands. He can be found at Mark Kelly Consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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