The agency selection process – and how to keep your sanity

First the bad news: agency selection is a pain.

You’d think it would be fun.

The word leaks out that you’re reviewing your account. Within a week you’ve collected coffee mugs, gimme caps, desk toys, and a one-inch stack of phone messages. You are so popular.

By week two, you have a three-inch stack of phone messages, and a key customer mentions a nephew in the ad business. Your CEO wants you to include Sayf Lee Blandon Grey, an agency name his golf buddies would recognize. There you’d be, say, 0.04% of their worldwide billings and attention.

How can you make clear choices in this pressure cooker?

The good news? Do it right, and you won’t have to do it again for years:

1. The opening round is for disqualifying “agencies.”
This is the easy part. First, invite only members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. That  eliminates the insolvent, the unethical, and all those refrigerator-magnet peddlers. In one step, you’ll eliminate 92% of the self-declared “agencies” in the Yellow Pages…  genuine AAAA shops would remain. Buy thinking, not keychains.

Also … sweep away anybody with a glaring weakness, superior attitude or slow response time. You’re not obliged to be courteous, or reasonable, or even rational. They don’t return your call promptly? Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing. Next!

2. But … after that opening round, look to qualify, not disqualify.
A lot trickier. It’s really hard work to find what an agency brings to the party, what positive contributions they can make. It’s recklessly easy to perceive a flaw, pull the chain, and wash your hands.

3. What are you buying? Creativity? Prestige? Methodologies? Independent objectivity? Strategic branding? Marketing expertise? Golfing partners?
If your answer includes Creativity, read on. We’re on the same wavelength. Agencies offer lots of valuable services and skill sets, including all of the ones mentioned in the question, but Creativity Is Why Agencies Is. Don’t be dazzled by a delivery system, a sprig of parsley, or international offices you might not need. Imagination, Einstein famously said, is more important than intelligence.

4. Bigger ain’t better. Smaller ain’t better. Only better is better.
There is no economy of scale in the idea business.

Can an agency be too big for you? Absolutely. Some won’t return your phone call if your budget is under ten million dollars. And beware the neglect factor. Make sure you’d be on their radar screen (try to be at least 5% of their total billings) or even important to them (10% to 25% of billings). Because if you’re only 1%, your work will be shuffled down to the junior varsity the minute you turn your back. (We’ve been there. We saw it happen.)

Our three criteria are wildly different from that minimum-spend version. Instead, we evaluate potential clients’ brains, bravery, and budget. Having one qualifies you. Having two is very welcome. (We don’t see all three very often.)

Think about size another way: at any given moment, in any agency anywhere, your account is in the hands of a small team of dedicated professionals, working with a blank piece of paper and a knowledge of your business. In the same agency are a bunch of other teams, pursuing other clients’ problems. What the hell does it matter how many multitudes in the  agency are NOT working on your business?

Can an agency be too small for you? Absolutely not. If you could get Jeff Goodby all by himself on a San Francisco park bench, you’d have a strategic, creative agency. Well, ok, if you’re a multi-national conglomerate, and you think you need international capabilities, some places might seem too small. But if you want strategic creative power, go back three paragraphs to “bigger ain’t better…” and read it again.

5. Don’t trust History …
Samples are the doctor’s old prescriptions, but less meaningful. Many agencies will show work created by people washed away two downsizing bloodbaths ago. Who will really be on your team? Key people or juniors? Will you see agency principals more than once a year, gladhanding at your sales meeting?

6. … trust Chemistry.
Do business with people you like. Seriously. It’s a radical philosophy, but we’ve followed it for years, and it works. Life is too short to put up with Brilliant-but-Annoying Dweebs. We’re talking about marriage (or at least moving in together), and you don’t want to be stuck with people you can’t empathize with. Check our mission statement to see how serious we are about fun. (Suggestion: offer to buy beers and answer questions for each semi-finalist team, early on. 20 minutes in a saloon will tell you more than most 90-minute capabilities presentations.) Also, when you put together a scorecard for the finals, make sure People Chemistry is at least 50% of the points. We’re not kidding about this. A year from now, the problems may be different, the opportunities may have changed, the Cubs may have won the World Series … but the people you work with will probably still be there. Make Chemistry at least 50%.

7. Explore Brand Equity issues
It’s the single biggest profit lever for the next ten years. Do the candidates for agency selection understand how important findability has become, where prospects search for you, or are they still in last-century hunter-gatherer mode? Can they conduct a Brand Asset Review? Do they know how vital Social Media is to your visibility? Do they understand any branding disciplines other than advertising? Or are they just an ad agency?

8. Test assignments are unfair, but can be useful.
Nobody should actually use a campaign developed as a test assignment. Your challenges are not so simple that a campaign whipped together in a short time is going to be perfectly on target. On the other hand, test assignments let you evaluate something tangible. If you go that route, you should interact with the agencies in the process … because the process will be more telling than the results. Should you pay the finalists for their test work? Absolutely, if for no other reason than to own the legal rights to the contents.

9. As long as you’re going to be unfair … be very unfair.
A week or so before the agencies are scheduled to present to you, show up unannounced at their offices (Hi! I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop in) at 5:10 in the afternoon. If you can find anyone to talk to, ask to meet the people working on your presentation. You’ll learn something (maybe a lot) by how they respond. For starters, you’ll learn who’s really working on your business, as opposed to the polished brass you’re likely to see grinning at you in the formal presentation. Chat with the real foot soldiers. See what makes them tick.

10. Very, very unfair.
Give a test assignment, let the team get a good start, and then … 48 hours before the presentation, change the assignment. Apologize that, gee, some new research showed blah blah blah, and so the campaign now has to be magazine instead of newspaper, or we want to add an outdoor campaign, etc. Sneaky? Yes. Unfair? Yes. But last-minute, whipsaw changes like these (you know, like the ones that happen in the real world) test an agency’s character. Find out now whether you’ll get workers or whiners on your squad.

We can’t guarantee that the process will be painless, but if you use those ten strategies, you’ll have a much better chance of finding great working partners.

But now, gentle reader, a modest labor-saving proposal:

Since the selection process is so dreary (and dicey, and distracting, and disruptive,) you might want to look into what we think of as a brilliantly-sensible alternative: hire Killian Branding, then get on with the rest of your life.

In fact, several of our best accounts did just that: we were hired and put to work without a big, expensive, circus-of-the-stars slugfest. Naturally, we tend to think of these clients as insightful, decisive, and tasteful… and they’re kind enough to think of us as a valuable resource.You would, too.

E-mail Bob Killian, Chief Creative Officer, or call his cell at 312.399.2894.

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