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July 29, 2010
Ten Tips for Choosing an Agency
CMOs and marketing directors are faced with a decision that gets harder every year -- how to choose an agency. It’s a challenge that surpasses swings in the economy or geographic orientation. The standard for years has been to issue an RFP and see who shows up at the door asking for a date. There are as many examples of RFP disasters as there successful relationships that last for decades. This can be a decision that makes or breaks a career and in some cases even an entire company. A great partnership can produce untold ROI and growth. A mismatch can result in lost time and money, decrease in sales, and ultimately serious damage to your brand.

The best steps to choosing an agency are as follows:

1. Are you ready? Before you send out an RFP and start meeting with different agencies, know if you are ready to hire a company. Set goals for the relationship. Clearly define what your expectations will be. Know your budget. Look long and hard to define any sacred cows that might exist in the company and can not be changed -- so no one wastes time discussing it.

2. What is your process?  Do you already know a handful of agencies that you feel comfortable with and want to take that relationship to the next level? Is procurement demanding a review of 20 agencies to get the cheapest price? Are you going to oversee the review yourself or hire a search consultant? If you have handled the first step properly, you know exactly what your expectations and budget are and will know if you need to start with RFPs or if in-person meetings would be best.

3. Can you marry them? If the chemistry isn’t right in the meeting, the partnership won’t be right in the long haul. I realize everyone always compares it to a marriage, so that sounds a little trite. However, the reason that everyone says this is because it is true. In the beginning you will spend more time with your agency than your spouse. If the corporate cultures aren’t a good match, it doesn’t matter how genius their concepts are or how much industry experience they have. The relationship is not going to work. You have to like your agency and believe in them, or you are going to have a hard time convincing your board that they are right when they want to take the company in a new direction. It’s better for both parties to be honest than to fake their way through a relationship that isn’t built on trust, communication, and good chemistry.

4. Are they the right size? Size does matter. It probably matters more with agencies than anything else -- except maybe car seats. If the agency is too big for your budget, you will get lost in the shuffle. The last thing you want is to have the interns handling your work. You hire an agency for their talent. If the agency is too small, you won’t be getting the capacity that you need. There really isn’t a magic formula.  Trust your gut, and if you are going to hire them, trust your new agency.

5. Do they have the right industry experience? This is a tricky one. If the agency is category exclusive, they know how it’s done. They know the language of your business and probably could fit right in at any company in the category. However, if they know how it’s always been done, you run the risk that they will continue to formulate the same tired message and tactics without any innovation or influence from outside. If, on the other hand, you select an agency that doesn’t have any industry experience, you could spend more time teaching than learning.

6. Are they creative: strategic or tactical? See the first question. Are you ready? What are you really looking for? Depending on your true needs, finding the style of agency to hire will be an easy fit. Ask questions. Give them a sample project. Pay close attention to their process. Are they approaching the problem with an interesting solution?  Are they creative just to be creative? Does it seem that they are more focused on the award they might win or the new business you might gain? Are they trying to be all things to all people, or do they specialize?

7. Where is the agency in their life cycle? You don’t want an agency that is on the way out and still showing work from 10 years ago. At the same time, you don’t want to be someone’s stepping stone on the way to bigger and better things. Ask questions about the portfolio of work that they are showing and when it was created. Most importantly, ask if the people who created the work are still at the agency.

8. Is the agency led by dead people? If the original founders of the agency are no longer there (usually because they died years ago), look long and hard about who is in charge now. Is it a hired gun that is keeping the board happy until he or she can leave to start his or her own agency? Are the principals of the agency going to be directly involved in the account? Be sure that the people who made the agency successful are the same ones who are going to be in charge of your success.

9. Are they progressive? At some point, the agency will have to get tactical. Are the tactics they propose the best fit for your target audience, or were those tactics chosen because that’s what they know? Whether you believe that digital and social media are viable tactics, the last thing you want to do is hire an agency that specializes in print ads. Don’t let their specialty dictate your strategy.

10. Can you let them be successful? If you have defined your goals and expectations and feel that the  chemistry is right, the last step is to let them do their job. Don’t micromanage. You hired experts for their expertise. Let them be successful -- you will both be glad.

A partnership between an agency and a client can withstand the test of time, through employee changes on both sides, as long as the lines of communication remain open. All too often, clients want immediate results but actually would benefit from allowing the relationship to grow over time.

The search doesn’t have to be painful. Manage your expectations and your time. Don’t feel like you have to meet with 50 agencies to find the best match.

Good luck!

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Jaci Russo is a co-founder and senior partner of The Russo Group, a national branding agency located in Lafayette, LA. She is a brand strategist with experience including strategic planning, consumer insight, brand management, national product launches, and media management for clients in a cross section of industries. She speaks to organizations across the country on the power of branding, changing the conversation, message training, and how to brand through social media.

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