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How to vet agency partners to find the best fit

To find an agency that understands you inside and out, look past cost and reputation - look for value

Few decisions are as important in your business as finding the right agency to partner with. Choose wisely, and a partner can help your business reach extraordinary heights; choose poorly, and you can bleed time, money, and resources with little to show for it. Just ask the 65 percent of high-potential startups that failed as a result of partner conflict.

When the stakes are that high, how do you make such a crucial decision? That's the dilemma BMW is currently facing. In October, it announced it was starting a U.S. agency review. Whether it decides to stay with its incumbent agency or find a fresh partner remains to be seen, but it brings to light the importance of evaluating all the options.

Most marketing professionals rush the process, looking only to cost and reputation to evaluate an agency. And though these are definitely important things to consider, they hardly tell the whole story.

Be clear on what you need

Before getting down to business, spend some time on the front end asking yourself what type of agency you’re looking for: a supplier or a partner. This will influence your strategy moving forward.

If you have a new project on your plate and lack the resources to manage it, you’re looking for a supplier to provide a simple, tactical service. This is a low-risk decision that can be made quickly. As long as the quality is good, the speed appropriate, and the price competitive, you’re in the green.

Choosing a partner is a different story. Partners typically work on mission-critical projects and act as a direct extension of your team, which is why decisions about them can be particularly costly. Poor management, untimely responses, low quality of work — these are all toxic outcomes of an ill-fated partnership that can quickly tank your business.

Beyond cost and reputation

Most businesses want an agency that understands them inside and out and goes to bat as if investments were its own. To find an agency of that caliber, you have to look past cost or reputation and look to value instead. And value is found in people.

What makes an agency successful is not its awards or pedigree or even its pricing structure — it’s the people who power it. Exceptional people deliver exceptional results. These three criteria will help you choose an agency with the best people for the job.

  • Diverse industry backgrounds: It’s tempting to narrow down your agency choices to only those with direct industry experience, and though an understanding of the industry is important, be cautious about limiting yourself. Looking solely for an industry-specific agency can squash the innovation and fresh ideas that new, nonindustry people bring. Working with those outside your bubble will provide the rare chance to break through — and, ultimately, rise above — the competition. To mitigate risk, look for agencies with experience in adjacent industries or an agency that employs talent with a wide array of experience.
  • Agile leadership: Highly functional agency leadership is critical to your success. Look for managers who are just as focused on the brand or client as they are on making money. They should be actively involved in serving your needs and maintaining a direct relationship with you. Beware of agencies where leaders act like vacuum cleaner salespeople, always looking for ways to upsell services that aren’t relevant to your brand or business. Leaders who are truly vested in your success will only be interested in adding authentic value.
  • Team accessibility: The team that pitches the business should be the team that works on the business. Furthermore, agencies should always be on top of and even initiating, most of the communication. Accessibility to the entire team is also a plus. There should be relationships with the strategy, creative, and production leads on the team. These folks hold the role of trusted advisor and should be counted on for advice and full transparency.

A step-by-step guide to agency selection

So you know what criteria to look for in an agency, but how do you start the evaluation process? This step-by-step guide will take you from start to finish.

1. Review the work.

Though you might be willing to step outside your industry to select an agency, that doesn’t mean you should skip out on reviewing candidates' previous work. Pore over their past case studies and most recent projects, and ask yourself the same questions you would ask at the end of your own contract.

  • Did the creative execution align with the brand’s strategy?
  • Did the work resonate with the target audience?
  • Most importantly, did the agency achieve the desired result?

Hammer down how the process worked from beginning to end, and ask yourself whether you would be satisfied with a similar result.

2. Examine the relationships.

The past is one of the greatest predictors of the future. Spend some time researching the agency’s relationships with past clients as well. What was the average tenure of client relationships, and what happened to relationships that ended? Look at the agency's longest-standing clients, too, and consider why they have stuck around and what type of work they do together. This can give you insight into which clients are typically satisfied with the agency’s work and whether you align with its industries and objectives.

3. Understand the operational process.

Spend some time understanding the agency’s operational and financial processes; in other words, learn how the sausage is made before you eat it. Find out what candidates' main money-making initiatives are. Are they going to constantly try to upsell you? Ask candidates what their main mode of communication is as well. Are they available for Skype calls in addition to email, or are you stuck with a biweekly conference call?

How often will you be updated about progress? What’s the protocol for missed deadlines? You could like the end result, but if the way you got there was rife with miscommunication, poor budgeting, or bad time management, it may not be worth the investment.

Choosing the right agency is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a marketing professional. By widening your selection criteria and evaluating an agency past mere cost and reputation, you have the potential to land a unique and special partnership that will help your business soar.

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