Let’s put the creative agency selection process out of its (and our) misery

This post is by Debra Giampoli, Director, Global Strategic Agency Relations, at Mondelez International, where she helps Business Unit and Marketing leaders across the globe find external marketing resource partners.

Everybody in marketing (and procurement) knows what to do when a brand team needs a new agency.

blank mind map or flowchart on blackboard

The “go-to” process for a new agency

The “go-to” process hasn’t changed since before most marketers were born:

Step 1: Brainstorm a list of potential agencies

Step 2: Send an RFI to each agency (usually via email), requesting many pages of factual information to be submitted (also by email), usually within 2-3 weeks

Step 3: Use the RFI responses to narrow the list of candidates

Step 4: Meet with each of the short list agencies to review their capabilities

Step 5: Brief each candidate on an assignment that they will have 3 weeks to complete  with full-blown creative ideas, including how each would be executed through all media

Step 6: Choose the agency whose ideas are best liked by members of the selection team; award the agency the business, finalize the contract and the compensation

Step 7: Re-brief the agency on the “real work” that needs to be done for the brand, and have the agency start the work.

This approach, for all its popularity and rigor, often fails to result in the outcome both sides expect. Six months later, after the first round of work has been delivered, it’s not uncommon that the client doesn’t like the agency, the agency isn’t that crazy about the client, both sides are frustrated, the work isn’t great, and everybody’s wondering what happened.

Three big things and lots of little things are what happened

1. Your first communication was cold and impersonal

Your first communication with prospective highly valued creative partners was cold and impersonal; it sent the message that your time is very important but theirs is not; not a great first impression. And, it might very well have been unnecessary. Here’s why. Creativity is personal. RFI’s are not.

There are better ways to get done what an RFI is designed to do. A good search consultant can draw from years of experience scouting agencies and offer suggestions almost immediately – not just great agencies, but great fits for you, your brand, and your company. If you aren’t working with a search consultant, do some homework on your own. Something wonderful exists that did not exist decades ago when RFI’s were invented. It’s called the internet.

Use it to find out who the best agencies are, what they specialize in, who owns them, who runs them, how big they are, what their billings are, where their offices are, how long they’ve been in business, who their clients are, what their work looks like, and how they’re viewed by others in the industry, just for starters. And when you work with a search consultant or use the internet, you learn things you might never have thought to ask in an RFI.

2. You gave the agency an assignment and 3 weeks to respond

You assumed the only way to choose an agency was to give them an assignment and 3 weeks to respond with full blown creative work, including executions for every form of media (usually with no opportunity to immerse in the brand and the company, ask questions, challenge the strategy, or interact with decision makers).

Creative shoot-outs are not the only way to choose an agency. They are often not even the best way.  This approach made more sense before the internet. Today, in just a few minutes you can see the work that any agency is doing for other clients.  And, if they’re doing great work for other clients, it stands to reason they’re capable of doing great work for you. It doesn’t mean that they will, because great work is based on something this approach doesn’t even test for (which I’ll get to in a minute), but it means that they have the capability to do the kind of work you’re looking for.

By the way, some of the best agencies today are saying “no” to all or most invitations to pitch (and managing to win new clients and achieve success in any case). Pitches are labor-intensive for large numbers of people over a short period of time and they get launched with very little advance notice, they are almost always disruptive to the work an agency is doing for clients they already have, they are very expensive to participate in (a typical pitch costs an agency $300,000 or more), the hit rate is low, even for the best of them, and their star creative talent isn’t always available when needed for a pitch.

3. You failed to test the agency / client relationship

You failed to test for the most important thing contributing to great work – the relationship between the agency and the client.

Choosing an agency is a process that should be unlike any other process you engage in when you choose a business partner. You are choosing a creative partner, and when it comes to creativity, relationships matter. They matter a lot; so much that you won’t get great work without a great relationship no matter how talented the agency is or how “rigorous” the selection process is

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, puts it this way, “You can’t judge the idea – you have to judge the team – the laughter in the room”. What he means is that you can have the right capabilities, but if you don’t have the right chemistry, you won’t get to the best work.

A “starter” idea won’t ever become a great idea. And that’s what’s missing when you make the selection all about the rigor of the process and the creative pitch, and not about the relationship.

If you want to have a great partner, you have be a great partner

Does this mean you should never use a creative shoot-out to choose an agency? No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is don’t assume that’s the only way to get it done. Use it only when you have a tight strategy that you don’t need the agency’s help to refine, and when the “size of the prize” (the size of the brand and the magnitude of the fee) is worth the disruption to the agencies’ business and the cost they incur to participate. And even then, don’t overlook the importance of the relationship and the value of getting that right before you make a commitment.

What are some other ways to make the selection, and still have confidence that you’ve chosen a great partner? Following are a few alternatives, each of which I’ve seen result in great partnerships and great work. Most importantly, whichever approach you choose, commit to building a relationship with each of the agencies you are considering. There is no shortcut here, no transactional process that will get it done. Spend time with them, in their offices, in your offices, at dinner, over cocktails. Ask yourself, “Could I spend two days in a windowless conference room with these people, and come out with something amazing?”

One option for choosing one is to spend some quality time with each of several agencies on your short list, find one you love, and (with a little more homework) simply award the business on the basis of their track record and the chemistry on the team. If that’s too scary, consider a project assignment – a brief that has a clear start date, deliverable, and end date, after which both sides can decide whether they want to “formalize” the relationship.

If that still doesn’t feel right, consider a modified pitch approach. Brief each of several agencies you’ve already had capabilities meetings with (ideally in their offices), and ask them for their thinking. Inspire them with a well-written “story” about your brand – its history, its recent past, your current challenges, recent and current work, your vision for the brand’s future. Ask them to come back to you in a few weeks, not with creative ideas, but with responses to questions that help you learn how they think and solve problems. (You can be confident they’ll deliver on the creative, because you did your homework before you got to this point). Ask each agency questions like:

  • Where would you take the brand moving forward? What do you see as our biggest challenges and/or missed opportunities? What would you do differently?
  • How have you addressed these or similar challenges for other clients?
  • What makes you uniquely suited for this assignment (versus your competitors)?
  • How would you staff for this assignment?
  • What range of fees might you expect for the work?
  • What would you need from us in order to do your best work?

You can add or delete questions for your specific situation, but you get the idea. You’ll be astounded at the quality of work that comes back from the agencies, at how clearly a winner will emerge from among the candidates, how much the agencies appreciate the approach, and most importantly, how happy you’ll be with who you chose, even six months later. You’ll gain a reputation as a great client. You’ll do great work with your agency. They’ll go above and beyond your wildest expectations. And before you know it, you’ll be sharing a glass of wine together at Cannes.

About Debra Giampoli

Debra Giampoli is Global Director, Strategic Agency Relations at Mondelēz International. Debra has spent more than 20 years at Kraft Foods, now Mondelēz International, in roles including Marketing, Consumer Promotion and Activation, Marketing Services, and most recently Advertising, where she serves as matchmaker and marriage counselor for agencies and client teams around the world. Her experience (before Kraft) includes just enough agency experience to be dangerous. Follow Debra on Twitter here

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