The Chemistry Conundrum: Learning Enough About Your Agencies to Make Meaningful Decisions

Learning Enough About Your Agencies to Make Meaningful Decisions

I’ve always found the term ‘Chemistry Session’ to be a complete misnomer. I use the term because it’s entered into pitching vernacular. And because the concept of ‘human chemistry’ exists. And because I can’t think of anything better myself that’s going to stick. But really – Chemistry? I understand the premise. But chemistry is a very precise science. What happens in a chemistry session is anything but scientific.

We do, of course, establish parameters. We use scorecards with room for commentary and run a diagnostic on the results, looking for threads of consistency in panel feedback and perception. We workshop through each agency with the client, post session. We talk to all the nuances we’ve seen both on and off the PowerPoint page. But there’s no escaping the fact that the process of chemistry, in a pitch, is largely intuitive.

In such an environment, with a limited amount of time, pitching clients are trying to make relatively big plays on a relatively small playing field. It stands to reason that the more we can extract from a chemistry meeting about each agency, the better.

There are some basics. For example: don’t brief the agencies too directly (you have 9.2 minutes to talk about your background, 4.6 minutes to talk about your case studies, everything must be in the order we prescribe) – this just leads to awkward agencies, dull meetings and flatlined differential between the competitors.

Sure, there’s an overall time limit; sure, give them some guidance about what marks they need to hit; but let them be who they are, and set up and run the session how they like. It’s the only way you’ll see any differentiation in approach.

And, of course, be personable and be engaged. Sounds obvious, but I’ve seen some shockers in this regard. Clients who arrogantly sit on their phones have been replaced by clients who switch their Zoom screens off. Silence, bad body language, non-responsiveness to pleasantries, closed or monosyllabic answers to agency questions – all of this kind of behaviour is a construct that leads to terrible meetings, and resultant negative decision making – which of these agencies was the least bad, as opposed to which was the best.

Aside from these basics, extracting the maximum from a chemistry session lies in lies in the types of questions you ask. A one-way presentation is dull, it’s not inspiring and it doesn’t tell you much beyond the gloss.

So what’s best to ask? Rather than list individual questions, I’ve considered different types of questions which I’ve grouped together, for guidance.

Group 1: The Human Face Questions

You want to get under the skin of the agency pitch rhetoric and ‘brand’ and let the people in the room pull off the mask a bit and talk to you on the level.

Asking direct, challenging questions about their human experience as agency professionals can often unlock this. You can tell a lot about the inherent common sense of the agency and its cultural markers, and the genuine nature of their intent (or otherwise).

There are many examples of Human Face questions: what’s the hardest client you’ve worked with, and why? Tell me a story about something that went wrong – how did you resolve it? What, as an agency person, keeps you up at night? What motivates you about working with us? What could de-motivate you about working with us? What do you like about this agency?

Group 2: Off-Piste Questions

Agencies prepare hard for chemistry sessions. And that’s great. But you want to try and get under the skin of the script and see how they react to ‘Off Piste’ questions.

Do you get a sense that their response just blindly agrees with the statement you’ve just made, or are they willing to engage in debate? Are they like rabbits in headlights or can they turn on a dime? Does the person standing up always hand to the CEO, or are people empowered to answer directly? Do they respond in plain English, without waffle or over-use of jargon? Have they truly prepared or are they running a cut and paste event? Are they honest about not knowing something? Are they solution focused?

Off Piste questions could be questions that pick up something not evident on, or an extenson to, information on a chart – for example: I see you’ve looked at our own campaign, but what do you think about the competitive activity in market right now? They could be questions that ask about a topical event, either in agency world (how are you dealing with significant agency churn?) or in your world (what do you think we need to consider in marketing, as a result of the recent announcement about price regulation?). Or they could be as simple as ‘can you give me an example to illustrate what you’ve just said?’

Group 3: Cultural Questions

There’s always scope in a chemistry session to ask questions which, while not specifically included in a brief, agencies should be able to answer with inherent self-knowledge and awareness. Cultural questions fall into this category.

Questions such as what DE&I policy does your agency have in place? What can staff do if they experience harassment or bullying in your agency, or from your clients? What words would you use to describe the working environment in your agency? What training programs do you have for your staff? Are there any programs in place that allow your staff to pursue passions outside of work or give something back to the community?

It’s advisable to direct these questions away from management and towards another member of the team; you’ll soon get a sense of how well embedded such policies and initiatives are by the way in which these questions are either answered or deferred.

Group 4: Reverse Questions – From the Agency

It’s often the case that agencies aren’t really given much of a chance to ask questions of their own. But chemistry sessions should always be a two-way street.

As a client, you can understand a lot about what makes an agency tick, as well as how well they’ve prepared for the session, by the questions they ask of you.

What’s the balance between narrow questions, focused on the agency’s own area of expertise, versus broader questions regarding your category, societal issues, macro-economics? How much do they ask about your own culture – how keen are they to actually get to know you as people? How clued in are their questions to events in your own business – ‘I read the interview given by your CEO to the FT – what do you think about her comments regarding your growth over the next five years?’ And how much do they want to understand the future – what a possible partnership could look like?

So. I understand that you only have an hour, or 90 minutes, with each agency. And that the whole session can’t just be questions. And that the aim here is not to needlessly trip up the agency – quite the opposite.

This is why I’ve grouped them; the suggestion is not that you ask every single question I’ve given as examples.

Rather, consider these groups, in context of what you really need to see from your agency, under the skin of the pitch rhetoric and prepare what’s right for your business; think about the types of responses you’d want to see from your ideal agency up-front. And, in doing so, make the most of those chemistry sessions both for yourself, and for the agencies.