Agency Search “To-Do” List: Start by Aligning Marketing Resources and Expectations

The 4A’s Issues an “Agency Search To-Do List” That Addresses Agency-Marketer Relationship Fundamentals

Agency business leaders and 4A’s business development committee members have reported that the level of marketing preparation and agency search/new business activity is on the rise.

To help plan for and take advantage of accelerating momentum, the 4A’s recommends that marketing executives at advertising and agency organizations should schedule formal discussions to review business goals and marketing objectives. This includes the “scope of business benefit” that clients hope to achieve by ramping up marketing activity and leading their brands out of the slump. The “scope of benefits” dialogue should include a review of the marketing resources that should be assembled in order to confidently activate and optimize the advertiser’s marketing plan. Resource planning should include strategic, technical, executional, economic and organizational requirements.

Stellar Relationships Take Work: Getting Started

Advertisers, with their agency partners, should audit their existing marketing capabilities and assess supplemental resource requirements. During these evaluations, some marketers will determine that they want to refine servicing arrangements and evolve additional capabilities in conjunction with their existing agency. Alternatively, some advertisers may determine that it is prudent to explore the marketplace in order to assess the caliber of agency resources and diversity of skill sets that are available beyond their existing roster.

For those marketers that decide to search the marketplace for agency resources, there are a host of best-practice guidance materials, available from industry experts such as the 4A’s, ANA, IPA and WFA-EACA.

Given the increasing level of marketing activity that is expected as the economy begins to accelerate, the 4A’s believes that it is timely to reiterate consensus agency-search best practices and highlight problematic search behaviors that can short-circuit the efficiency or effectiveness of an agency review process.

Superior Relationships Require Process, Collaboration and Talent: A Search To-Do List

There are half dozen procedures that marketers should follow to enhance the likelihood of an effective and comprehensive search for agency resources.

1. Define Your Needs
You would not make a major purchase, book a vacation, or prioritize your investment portfolio without first assessing your needs, expectations and budget. The same due diligence applies to the search for agency resources. Start by defining your business goals and marketing objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? Based on these objectives, what is the agency job description? What capabilities, services and skills do you need?

Examples of questions you should ask yourself:

  • Is the assignment regional, national or global?
  • Are you looking for a full-service agency or a specialist? How do you define full-service?
  • Will the agency be an exclusive service provider or will the agency share marketing communications responsibilities with other marketing-service firms? If responsibilities are to be shared, who will lead the IMC process?
  • What industry or category knowledge is required, if any?
  • What target audience and media-platform expertise is desirable?
  • Which core services do you want the agency to perform? (Strategy development? Brand positioning? Creative and production execution? Media planning and/or buying? Market research? CRM and/or Web initiatives?)
  • How important is location? Same city? Same state? Same time zone?

Think about rigorously defining your agency specifications in a manner similar to the way an executive recruiter prepares a profile at the outset of conducting an executive search.

2. Organize the Search Process and Develop Assessment Criteria
Once you have defined your needs, you will want to construct a framework and decision tree for the search process.

This framework should establish:

  1. Who will lead the marketer search team?
  2. Who will make the ultimate decision?
  3. What criteria and weighting will be used in making the decision?
  4. When should the decision be finalized?
  5. What steps should be included in the search process (information exchange, meetings, work sessions, presentations, etc)?

3. Robust Exchange of Information: Two-Way Dialogue
Consider the steps that you customarily follow when hiring a new employee, investing in research and development, launching a new product line or forming a strategic alliance. Undoubtedly, you develop an understanding of marketplace dynamics, probe the prospect’s interests and capabilities and you determine, at an early stage, if the candidate’s economic expectations are compatible with your parameters.

The best long-term marketer-agency relationships involve an open dialogue on goals, priorities, processes and economics. There are excellent tools available that illustrate the types of information that should be exchanged between agency and advertiser in the RFI stage.

For example:

  • The 4A’s Standardized Marketer Questionnaire is designed to help marketers communicate their marketing expectations, brand and corporate values, resource requirements, operating requirements and economics parameters. This tool explores factual information about the marketer and assignment as well as subjective information pertaining to plans, issues and opportunities. The questionnaire encourages an early discussion on agency remuneration parameters.
  • The 4A’s Standardized Agency Questionnaire is a recommended guideline for marketers to use when requesting information from ad agencies. This tool can, and should, be focused on information that is of greatest relevance to the marketer. For example: objective information about the agency (company background, offices, clients, services plus fiscal and staffing information) and subjective agency information (processes, relevant experience, samples of work).

4. Narrow the List (The 15-8-4 Rule)
Recently a few marketers have evolved a “more is better” approach to agency search. The 4A’s and the agency community believe that cattle calls involving more than 100 agencies and more than 20 finalists are ill advised and wasteful.

Marketers can preliminarily explore agency candidates by evaluating trade publications, industry databases such as 4A’s Agency Search or by consulting with advisors that are knowledgeable about agency search. A marketer that is committed to conduct an agency search should then consider the universally endorsed and time-proven process of “narrowing the list.” The narrowing process generally features three stages: the long list, the short list and finalists. The “long list” customarily entails the two-way exchange of information between the client and 10 to 15 agencies through some form of RFI or questionnaire exchange. The “short list” phase usually involves face-to-face credentials meetings with six to eight candidates at each agency’s office. The third “finalist” stage allows the marketer to work with three to four agencies in greater depth to explore the compatibility of chemistry, process and ideation.

Since agency-client relationships require a high degree of service customization, personal interaction and collaboration, it is important to sequentially narrow your search in an expeditious and structured manner in order to allow adequate interaction with a manageable and focused number of candidates.

5. Finalizing a Selection
In order to help facilitate an orderly, fair and mutually beneficial agency selection process, it is advisable for the marketer to prepare an “agency brief” for the three to four finalists in review.

The “brief” should form the platform upon which final stage agency-client interaction is built. A well-constructed brief provides a clear understanding of what the client is trying to do as well as the fundamental challenges, opportunities and expectations that exist. A good brief is brief—it is a summation of critical assumptions, necessary guidelines and knowledge that provide significant information and insight about the client’s marketing activities. A brief should be communicated in writing and then discussed between the parties in face-to-face meetings.

Following the briefing process, the marketer may want to ask the agency to develop and present illustrative, strategic, media or creative thinking related to the client’s assignment. If “spec” work is part of the review process, give finalists enough information, access to you and time to do the work effectively and efficiently. If the marketer is interested in obtaining an assignment or license of agency developed work product, then the agency and marketer should agree on supplemental, fair-value compensation for usage rights. Payment for usage rights should not be confused with token stipends that are paid merely to partially offset an agency’s cost of participating in a review.

In advance of finalist meetings, the client should develop the criteria and weighting that will be used to determine the winning agency. The weighting of the criteria can and do vary from assignment to assignment.

Three predominantly used criteria categories are:

  • Strategic capability
  • Execution capability
  • Team-people compatibility.

6. Getting Started and Planning for Success
Once the optimal agency has been identified, the parties should formalize agreement upon scope of services, scope of work, compensation and key contract parameters.

The marketer and agency will have just expended significant energy and funds in an agency selection process. In order to help enhance the likelihood of a successful long-term relationship, it is advisable to start all new relationships with a structured, two-way evaluation feedback process that monitors checkpoints and deliverables, considers scope revisions, fleshes out bottlenecks and seeks to identify future, mutually beneficial, effectiveness and efficiency opportunities.

Agency Relationships Are a Critical Strategic Investment: Invest Wisely

The strains of economic expectations and the acceleration of new norms that are shaping the marketing industry should not overwhelm the relevance of adhering to prudent, well crafted, business development principles and practices. In fact, the wisdom of embracing solid fundamentals is more important than ever before because now, more than ever before, it is imperative to get it right the first time.