The importance of chemistry meetings in the advertising agency selection process

I was talking with a colleague in the UK about the “pitch” process and he mentioned that they do not run chemistry sessions because “they are a waste of time”. I was surprised and curious. I asked him why and he explained that just getting the agency and the marketing team together to see if they liked each other was rather pointless.

But the point is that chemistry meetings are so much more than simply the business equivalent of a date.

Of course there are procurement professionals who when running an RFP or RFT to select an advertising agency do not bother with any meetings, preferring to choose an agency based on the tender response. But this fundamentally ignores the fact that in most cases you are buying a professional relationship. Therefore it is important to test the relationship and the chemistry of the teams.

Therefore the chemistry meeting is an opportunity for the agency and the marketing team to meet and assess the alignment of values, culture and personality. Interestingly, in these situations you find that most people have made judgements on the chemistry fit within a blink and then spend the rest of the meeting looking for evidence to justify or challenge that instinct.

But these meetings are more than just bringing the two parties together. When we run a chemistry meeting we see this as an opportunity for the marketing team to get insights into what it would be really like working with the agency.

The chemistry meeting takes place following the submission of the credentials documents or the RFI. It is usually 45 – 60 minutes in duration for each agency. Although we had a client who wanted to speed date the agencies with 15 minute meetings. And it is usually held at the clients’ offices.

The problem is that obviously the agency will want to give the best presentation of their team and will be putting on their best performance. Therefore we do a number of things to challenge that performance and potentially let the marketing team see the real agency.

This includes:

  1. We are not prescriptive on the agenda or the composition of the agency attendees other than to ask to meet the team they propose for the business.
  2. We challenge the agencies, to see how they respond to the challenge, but also to test their thinking, strategy and team dynamics.
  3. We look at how they have planned the use of the time in regards to the content, their use of time, the level of engagement and the team and their participation.

This means that within 45 mins to an hour you have gone beyond simply a meet and greet, which I agree is a waste of time. Instead we have tested:

  • How well they have considered and planned for the meeting – it is interesting how many agencies will come to the meeting with no formalised agenda
  • How they use time to best effect – so many agencies spend all of the time presenting to the marketing team and no time engaging them
  • How well the team perform – agencies will often bring a number of members and then only the CEO talks while the rest stand around like props.
  • How they react under pressure – like the time the CMO challenged the premise of a strategy case study that was being presented and the agency CEO turned on them angrily saying “What would  you know!”
  • How well they know their materials – by asking questions straight from the credentials case studies and no one knows the answer, or even worse do not know the case study.
  • How well the agency is prepared – like the agency whose main reason for wanting to work together was the lack of a client from that category on the agency roster.

I have heard about consultants and procurement professionals who place strict formats and guidelines around these meetings. But we have found when asked to do this it becomes a barrier to developing any really understanding of each party. While the whole process is contrived, it is imperative to make the process achieve the most effective outcome possible and the chemistry meeting is an important part of that process.

Do you hold chemistry meetings? And what formats have worked best for you? And what has not?

4 thoughts on “The importance of chemistry meetings in the advertising agency selection process

  1. Totally agree. I find that the more you like and know someone, the easier it is to respect and work hard for them.

    I wish more Pitch Doctors & procurement people would read this post1

    1. Thanks Steve. I agree. There is one of my old school competitors who undervalues chemistry and focuses on the capabilities and expertise of the agency. I think it is because people, especially procurement, can be uncomfortably dealing with issues such as chemistry and human relationships. Yet we all say it is a people business so why don't we acknowledge that in the way we establish and manage these relationships?

  2. Great article.

    #2 above states that you "challenge the agencies". In what ways do you challenge the agencies in a chemistry meeting? Is this simply pushing back on what they choose to talk about, or do you have some kind of brainstorming session or other function in which you challenge them?

    1. Hi Jamen, we review the agencies credentials with the client prior and encourage them to look for any areas which are unclear or do not make sense. Then during the chemistry session we challenge the agency on these areas within their documents to see how they think on their feet, react to criticism and how well the team presenting knows their business. Is that clear?

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