First, the bad news.
Agency selection is a pain in the ass. You’d think it would be fun, but it’s not. It’s akin to getting pummelled by Evander Holyfield for ten full rounds.
Next, the good news.
If you are able to endure, you’ll end up coming out on top without having to throw any haymakers or losing an ear.
ROUND 1: Disqualify “agencies.”
This is the easy round. First, invite only members of the Canadian Marketing Association and the AdClub of Edmonton. These organizations only accept reputable marketing-based companies and people into their membership. If you’re really keen, post your job profile on the AdClub’s website and see who bites. This act alone will eliminate most of the insolvent, unethical, coffee mug peddlers. In one step, you’ll eliminate 90% of the self-declared “marketing agencies” in Edmonton. At this point only genuine marketing firms, graphic design studios, and advertising agencies will remain.
Side note: Throughout this entire process make sure you kick to the curb anyone with a glaring weakness, high-and-mighty attitude, or slow response time. You are not obliged to be courteous, or reasonable, or even rational. If they don’t return your call promptly, tell them to beat it. NEXT.
ROUND 2: Understand implicitly what are you buying.
What do you really want? Is it creativity? Prestige? Methodologies? Independent objectivity? Strategic branding? Marketing expertise? Golfing buddies?
This is likely the most important round you’re going to fight because you need to know what you want and need. If you don’t know what you want you’re likely to be disappointed with the end result.
ROUND 3: Look to qualify, not disqualify.
This round can be tricky. In many cases it’s difficult to determine what an agency brings to the table. However, if you want to confirm the positive contributions an agency can potentially make to your organization you should base your qualifications on how well the agency sells itself. What do they believe in? Do they have a regularly updated and insightful blog? Is their portfolio top notch? Do they have testimonials from previous clients? Do they practice what they preach?
ROUND 4: Choose the best.
Bigger ain’t better. Smaller ain’t better. Only better is better.
There is no economy of scale in the marketing business.
Can a marketing firm or ad agency be too big for you? Absolutely. Some won’t return your phone call if your budget is under one million dollars or your project is less than 10% of their total billings. If you are less than 10%, there’s an extremely high probability that your work will be shuffled down to the junior varsity the minute you turn your back.
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 from a blank piece of paper. What the heck does it matter how many people in the agency are NOT working on your business?
Can an agency be too small for you? Absolutely not. If you could get Jack Trout, Seth Godin, or Stefan Sagmiester all by themselves on a city park bench, you’d have all the strategy and creativity you could ever hope for. Well, okay, if you’re a multi-national conglomerate and you need international capabilities, some places might be too small. But if you’re a Canadian-focused organization and you want Canadian-focused strategic and creative power, go back three paragraphs to “bigger ain’t better…” and read it again.
ROUND 5: Don’t trust history.
A portfolio is essentially the doctor’s old prescription, but even less meaningful. Many design studios, marketing firms and agencies will show you work created by people washed away two downsizing bloodbaths ago. The questions to ask are 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?
ROUND 6: Trust chemistry.
Do business with people you like. Seriously. It’s a radical philosophy, but Urban Jungle has followed it for years, and it works. Life is too short to put up with brilliant-but-annoying asses. Choosing an agency is like marriage (or at least moving in together), and you don’t want to be stuck with people you can’t empathize with.
(Suggestion: offer to buy beers and answer questions for each semi-finalist team, early on. You will learn more after 20 minutes in the pub than in 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. I’m not kidding about this. A year from now, the problems may be different, the opportunities may have changed, the Oilers may finally have their crap together and win a Stanley Cup, but the people you work with will probably still be there. As such chemistry should tip your scale one way or another.
ROUND 7. Explore brand equity issues.
It’s the single biggest profit lever for the next ten years. Does the agency 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 your people are to achieving your brand vision? Do they understand any branding disciplines other than advertising? Or are they just an ad agency?
ROUND 8. Test assignments are unfair, but can be useful.
Nobody should actually use creative or strategy 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 brand or 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 content.
ROUND 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 (probably a lot) by how they respond. For starters, you’ll learn who’s really working on your business, as opposed to the polished suits you’re likely to see grinning at you in the formal presentation. Chat with the real foot soldiers. See what makes them tick.
ROUND 10. Be very, very unfair.
Give a test assignment, let the team get a good start, and then 48 hours before the presentation, change the assignment. (Gee whiz gang, I’m sorry but some new research showed blah, blah, blah, and so the campaign now has to be in a magazine instead of a banner ad.) Sneaky? Yes. Unfair? You bet. But last-minute, 180degree 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 team.
I can guarantee you this process will be painful, but if you slug it out, you’ll have a much better chance of finding great working partners.