The importance of chemistry meetings in the advertising agency selection process

The chemistry between the marketing team and the agency is an important factor in the success of the relationship. Therefore, there needs to be an assessment and acknowledgement of this chemistry in the selection process of any new agency. This is typically known as the chemistry meeting. Here, we explain why this is so important and the elements required to assess this successfully.

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 getting the agency and the marketing team together to see if they liked each other was rather pointless.

A chemistry meeting is more than a business date.

But the point is that chemistry meetings are 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 teams’ relationship and chemistry.

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.

It’s a meeting of corporate cultures between marketing and agency teams

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 like working with the agency.

The chemistry meeting occurs after submitting the credentials documents or the RFI. It is usually 45 – 60 minutes in duration for each agency. And it is usually held at the client’s offices.

Due to a lack of time or facing a longer-than-normal consideration list, a few clients have wanted to ‘speed-date’ the agencies with 15-minute meetings. In this situation, the process is a meet and greet with the marketing team, making judgements of the agencies based on first impressions and asking a handful of questions of the agencies to confirm those impressions.

While we do not recommend this approach, as it does not allow for a deeper exploration of the agency’s values and culture, it can be effective as a fast way to shorten the consideration list to a shortlist of two or three.

Go beyond the meet and greet to get real insights into agency values.

The problem is that the agency will naturally want to give the best presentation of their team and will be putting on their best performance. Therefore, we do several things to challenge that performance and potentially let the marketing team see the real agency. This allows the client to see through the performance and obtain insights into the real agency culture and values.

To achieve this:

  1. We are not prescriptive on the agenda or the composition of the agency attendees other than to ask to meet the agency management team and the key personnel they propose for the business.
  2. We have the marketers ask the agencies pre-prepared challenging questions to see how they respond to the challenge and test the agency’s thinking, strategy, and team dynamics.
  3. The marketers assess how the agency has planned the use of the time regarding the content, allocation of time, level of engagement and team participation.

This means that within 45 minutes to an hour, the marketing team has gone beyond simply a meet and greet.

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 the 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 several 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 primary reason for wanting to work together was the lack of a client from that category on the agency roster.

I have heard about pitch 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 real 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.

For any agency going into the chemistry meeting process, it is important to realise that chemistry does not just happen. There are steps that can be taken to maximise the opportunities to achieve a successful outcome. While these are by no means guaranteed, they provide a valuable approach to preparing and participating in this process.

10 tips to ensure a winning chemistry session

1. Set your objective for the meeting.

This is the most critical thing to do right at the start of planning the presentation. And yet it is the most often forgotten part of the process for agency teams.

Ask yourself why you are there and what you want to be the result. You have to be clear about what is your main objective. And in our experience, if that objective is anything other than the very simple one of securing the next meeting, you have gone wrong straight away.

With this objective in mind, you can be clear about what you need to tell the audience, what topics you need to cover, and how you will close the meeting. You will be much more focused and impactful with your presentation content and give yourself a great chance of getting across the message you want to deliver.

2. Do your homework

Step one here is to read the brief. If you don’t have one, ask for it from the pitch consultant. Once you’ve read it, read it again and start planning your response around it. Then, do some research and background checks and look for clues and cues.

It isn’t just about the client’s marketing objectives. It’s also about the people. So, get some background on the team you are going to meet. Use LinkedIn, your contacts, and the marketing press to create a picture of what this client is like, where they’ve come from, what connections you have in common and what gets them out of bed every morning. For example, if it’s digital marketing agency credentials that the marketer is looking for, then identify the type of client roles within the client’s structure.

Quiz the pitch consultant on what they are looking for, why things aren’t working with their existing agency if they’ve got one, how the team is structured and who the decision makers are, including any who will not be in the room.

3. Who to bring to the chemistry meeting?

Deciding on the number of people to bring along and which ones will be most appropriate is always difficult.

Most clients will ask to meet the people working on the account should you win it. All agency teams puzzle over this one – it seems a bit rude not to bring along the CEO, the Creative Director and the Planning Director because they are the ones who tend to have the highest profile careers and most exhaustive experience. You might also argue that no agency ever happens to have a team standing by doing nothing right now, which can be deployed onto the new account from day one. You will almost certainly have to be hired to staff any new business. So, the answer is to use your common sense.

Never bring more people than you need. Having people in the room with no role to play in the meeting always raises unnecessary questions from a client – “Why were they there?” ”Who was that person?” and so on. If you decide to bring the top guns along, make sure they will have a role in the future and be clear about what it will likely be. Understand the skills the client is looking for from your agency and be sure your team on the day can cover those bases – in-depth knowledge is essential as you are not just there to make a presentation; you need to be able to handle questions, too.

Ultimately, this is a “chemistry” session, and what the client is looking for is an appropriate set of skills and experience, all wrapped up in a team they think they will get on with over an extended period.

4. Prepare and rehearse.

Reread the brief, and structure your meeting to answer it.

Here is a big tip that most agencies forget – you are not at the chemistry meeting to present for the whole hour. Chemistry depends on both teams having a part to play. So, only prepare enough presentation points to fill half the allotted time, and plan to use the rest for conversation – questions and answers from you to them and vice versa.

Many agency teams wonder how to keep the presentation that short. So, remember that you will almost certainly have sent through a whole lot of profiling information ahead of the meeting – that’s what got you selected to be there in the first place. Don’t feel obliged to regurgitate all the factual stuff that the client team has already read. If it makes you more comfortable, ask the question before you start as to whether they need to hear what they should already know. The answer will invariably be “no thanks”.

For your half hour of presenting, you can return to the brief, answer the questions it asks and give everyone in your team a role. Remember, at this point, your original objective in being there – is to secure the next meeting.

Now, all you need to do is prepare your presentation, think about some intelligent questions to ask after you have finished and then rehearse the hell out of it (and you do need to do this, so make sure you allow time to do it properly)

5. Be yourself. But be memorable

Yes, your agency team should be themselves. But – and this is the critical bit – be yourselves on a good day. In fact, on your best day. If being yourself involves, for example, talking too quickly or quietly or being a bit dull, that will not help you.

And you are all part of a team. Ensure you act like one – don’t contradict, argue, or forget each other’s names or job titles. I’ve seen all those things happen and worse, and they do not play well.

It’s always good to make a great start. How you enter the room, introduce yourselves and engage the client team is essential, so plan it out.

Demonstrate your interest in the client and their market category, engage them in dialogue up front and inject some personality into the meeting to make you memorable. It’s all about getting that second date.

6. You are not there just to present. Engage!

You need to prepare just as hard for the second half of the meeting, for when you stop presenting. So, think about what questions you are likely to get asked. Think about some great questions you can ask yourself.

Think also about some interactive exercises you could use if the conversation flags. Maybe you could have a choice of six case histories and invite the client to pick the two they would like to hear about – so much more involved than having to sit through work that they have no interest in.

All of this will let the client team interact with you and, along the way, learn a lot more about what you would be like to work with daily, which is why you are all there, after all.

7. Involve the whole client team.

Just as you have thought about who needs to be at the meeting from your team and what their role is, you can be sure that everyone from the client team is also there for a reason.

While you may be confident about who the head client is by title, many CMOs will have an opinion yet leave the decision up to their team, who will be working with the agency daily. They will go with the majority unless they indeed oppose the decision.

So it is vital to involve and engage all client team members equally. They are in the room for a reason – work out what this is and respond to it equally during the presentation and discussion phases.

Be prepared for difficult questions – they will be asked for a reason, maybe to see how you deal with them rather than just to hear the answer.

8. Check-in throughout the date

After all that polishing and rehearsal, there is a tendency to go onto autopilot for your chemistry session. Never forget to keep reading the room and watch for client engagement. You need to be aware of both positive and negative signals and be able to respond accordingly.

It’s not unknown for agency people with brilliant IQs to have relatively little EQ. So bring someone on the team with that excellent EQ and make them responsible for noting any points in the meeting where you are losing a client. They will know how to read people and the signs of disinterest and can quietly inform other agency team members to up the energy, move on, change tack, etc.

9. Close the deal – the second meeting

At the end of any good sales meeting, it is always important to ask for the sale. And there is an essential sales element to the chemistry session. So, at the end of the hour, return to your original objective and ensure you have covered the necessary territory to secure that next meeting. Be sure you have asked for it specifically.

If you’ve missed anything and are out of time, arrange to send something afterwards to answer outstanding questions.

And, of course, a memorable ending is the most crucial meeting requirement after the memorable entrance.

10. The de-brief

Whether you get through or not, the debrief is always essential.

TrinityP3 consultant teams will always give all participating agencies full and honest feedback on the chemistry meeting, and there is always some good learning to take away for next time. Ensure you insist on this from your pitch consultant even if you don’t want to know.

It’s also worth a wash-up with your team – some honest views on how it went, how involved everybody felt in the meeting and what could have been done better, or maybe what could have been better left out.

If you didn’t get through because the chemistry wasn’t right, then you have still done your job correctly, and you weren’t meant to work together. But if you do get through, it’s on to the real hard work – answering the pitch brief – knowing that you are building on a genuinely strong base.


Still have questions on chemistry meetings and sessions? We have the answers.

Who typically attends these chemistry meetings from both the agency and the marketing team?

This will vary by client. Some clients will bring key senior leaders, including the CEO and other key business unit leaders, depending on the pitch requirements. If digital and technology are core requirements, then the Head of Transformation or Head of Technology may also be involved. Clients will also bring the most relevant team members who will be working with the agency. So, agencies should seek to identify the core requirements and match the most relevant leaders and day-to-day team to talk about the client’s needs.

What are the key goals or objectives that should be achieved during a chemistry meeting?

As the name suggests, it’s all about chemistry. No one likes one person talking about themselves all the time. So, the core objective of the chemistry session is to achieve some level of rapport. Like any good relationship, give a little, listen a little, and go back and forth with discussion.

Even if the client is asking the agency questions, the agency’s challenge is to create a two-way dialogue. Don’t fall for this trap. We see too many agencies talking about themselves in the thought that it will impress. It rarely does.

What topics should be discussed during a chemistry meeting to ensure a successful partnership?

Clients want to be heard, and their requirements need to be truly teased out at the early stage of the pitch process.

Agencies that win pitches have ultimately built a stronger connection upfront with the marketers by asking questions to clarify their level of knowledge, the desire behind specific requirements, and the specific level of skillset required from the agency.


Use the chemistry session as the commencement of a relationship, not an endpoint.

It’s the chance to open the door slightly, share some wisdom, and get to the next stage.

For marketers and other client attendees, it’s the chance to pressure test the true meaning and skillset behind the agency’s words.

And for the agency, it’s the chance to find out what a client needs.

Don’t fall for the traps of just going through the motions, showing a reel, introducing too much about your team, and running through endless details on processes. Earn and build the relationship; don’t expect it to happen.

Be clear on what you want to find out from each other. And then, use relationship-building techniques to make sure that you’re listening, enticing attendees to lean forward, sharing knowledge, and achieving a level of relevant rapport.

To find out more about the role of chemistry meetings in successful agency selection processes, read more here. Or contact us to discuss your agency selection process here.

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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