Monday, June 4, 2007

8 Ways to Pick the Right Agency

In the last post, I outlined Ten Tips to Being a Good Client. Tip #1 was pick the right agency, which is important enough, and complex enough, to warrant its own discussion. So, here it is, 8 ways to figure out if you're picking the right agency. I've written this mostly toward picking an ad agency, but similar principles apply for picking a PR firm.

  1. Pick by size. Often the size of your account may align with the size of the agency you end up with. Or you may prefer a "nimble boutique" or a "name brand shop." Bigger is NOT necessarily better. You want right for you. While the industry may have formal categories for these things, in my experience shops fall into these categories:
      • 1-10 people: just starting or small.
      • 11-40 people: over the start-up hump, some critical mass
      • 41-75 people: crossing 40 seems to be a milestone that takes people to a different place
      • 75-300 people: these are getting to be some serious shops, likely with a few national brand name type clients
      • 300+ people: these are likely owned by one of about 3 giant holding companies that own everybody. If you don't know who they are, you can't afford them.
  2. Pick by your budget. Most firms that have been around a while have minimum project or monthly fees. We won't take companies without a certain budget, not because we're mean or greedy, but because we're set up to help in a certain way. We can't provide that help in a meaningful way for $5,000. Are you likely to spend $25,000 in fees, or $250,000 in fees or $2.5m in fees? The answer to that question takes you to different types of firms.
  3. Pick by your specific needs. Are you trying to get some collateral designed, or are you trying to run a small campaign, or are you trying to run a large campaign? If you need collateral, find a design shop. If you're investing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on an ad campaign, don't use a design shop. Find a strategic marketing partner. (Heck, call me... ;-)
  4. Pick by experience. Find a firm that's done it before. Either in your category (i.e., retail, healthcare, b2b, etc.), or with a lot of creative experience in the media you want to use, or by skill set. It's amazing to me the number of clients who can't tell the difference between a PR firm, an advertising agency and a marcom firm. And every agency with more than 1 person claims to be "full service." Dig deeper.
  5. Pick your team. If you've used steps 1-4 to narrow it down well, then a lot comes down to the skills of your team and the chemistry you have with them. Don't be wowed by the pitch team. Know your team. Talk to them. Do you trust them with your money and the growth of your business? This is a great filter after you've narrowed down the list.
  6. Be reasonable during proposals. Remember that work starts when you start paying for it. If you've got a big budget, if you're the biggest juiciest account in the market, you can play puppetmaster and ask for spec creative, spec media plans, etc. Otherwise, remember that the work starts when you start paying for it. If you've got a small budget (like under a million for an ad campaign), judge creative skills based on track record. The spec creative isn't going to be right anyway, because the firms don't know you well enough yet. Don't waste your time and theirs.
  7. Don't hide your budget. This is a classic one. People who won't say (or don't even know) their budget. And don't say "Tell me what it should be," because the answer is "More than you have..." You can always do more marketing and we'll think of stuff that you can do faster than you'll find money to pay for it. Some think if they share their budgets it will cost them more. Not true. It will tell bidders if they're in the right place, it will get you talent that might otherwise walk away figuring you have no money. There's a difference between agency fees/prices and budget, but hiding your budget doesn't help anyone. (Make 'em sign an NDA if you're worried about your competitors, or give a range.)
  8. Be as specific as you can. During this two-way wooing stage, say what you know. Say what you don't yet know. If you don't really know how the campaign is going to shape up, don't ask "how much will you charge for this?" That's like asking how much a painter would charge to paint a house without telling him how big the house it. In my experience, price is usually not the biggest factor (if you've done some filtering up front), but you can ask for hourly rates of key positions if you want to compare.
Hopefully these tips get you closer to finding the right kind of agency for you. Because almost nobody is teaching marketing directors how to do these things... I remember being sort of clueless the first time my boss told me to find an agency... Maybe better selection processes would lead to longer relationships--and that benefits everyone.

~Jim Tobin