I. Clearly Define What You Are Looking For
Are you looking for a vendor or a partner? Think about it and define it because there’s a big difference between the two. The best vendor may fulfill your demands very nicely with service and good pricing. But, don’t expect a steady stream of good ideas from someone who is comfortable in that role (remember the thin margins we have). A marketing partner probably will cost a bit more but should more than make up for it with ideas and execution. If you want total control and are going to dictate strategy and most tactics, a vendor may be all you need.
II. Do Your Homework
There is no reason to invite everyone to the pitch (unless you are required to by law). If you’re doing a thorough review, each agency will require hours of your time and, frankly, theirs too. By including everyone, you risk either overburdening yourself or not giving this process the attention it requires. Before you begin – check out websites, make some calls and ask around. If a firm doesn’t provide the services you require, don’t invite them.
If you are required to issue a formal RFP and include everyone, a way to save time is to do it in phases. In the first phase, ask for general agency information only. Remember, the more you ask for, the more you have to sift through. Do you provide this service? Do you have this experience? Who else do you work with? This will help you narrow down a list of legitimate contenders.
III. Define the Process
These phases and what they include should be defined ahead of time. Will you allow questions? If so, will there be a cut-off date? Will you have face-to-face meetings? What should happen at those meetings? Will you require oral presentations? Will you require speculative work – if so, what is the scope of work and budget? When will you make your final decision? How will you communicate the decision to participants?
IV. Share Information
Most organizations allow only written questions, and some allow no communication at all. If I were hiring someone I was going to trust with hundreds of thousands or millions of my dollars, I would at least want to meet them first.
No matter how talented the agency, they don’t know what you know about your business. So be open, if you withhold information, you force the agency to guess what you’re thinking or what your intentions are. Unfortunately, from time to time the wrong agency can make the right guess. Pay attention to their questions. You can get a good idea of a firm’s style and strategic thinking process by the questions they ask. Intelligent questions mean intelligent thinking. Ask them a lot of questions too. A good firm will have sound, strategic reasons for everything they do on any campaign.
V. Speculative Work
Speculative creative work is a double-edged sword for agencies. Yes, we love to show off our creative ability, it is by far the sexiest part of what we do. However, developing creative on spec is like ordering dinner for your blind date at a Japanese restaurant. Raw sea urchin is tasty, but if it’s not her cup of tea, then it’s going to be a long night. If you can make a decision without it, don’t ask for it. Rather, judge the work that the agency produced for other clients. Ask to see several campaigns for each client, and then ask questions about those that you really like. This will give you a good feel for their creative abilities, for their strategic thinking and whether the strategy drove the idea or the idea drove the strategy (a huge red flag). If you do ask for speculative work, remember it is just that – speculative. Many an organization has been swooned by a good idea only to find that the firm doesn’t generate them on a regular basis. Or no matter how creative their ideas are, they don’t produce results.
VI. Provide Feedback
In many cases you will end up really liking more than one agency, But, if you want a truly cohesive effort you can only choose one. Provide feedback to those that were not chosen. Think of it this way: agencies are basically interviewing for a job. With good feedback we can assess our weaknesses, improve and become better at what we do.