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How to Choose the Right Agency Partner

So, you need a new agency partner. Now what?

Agency reviews are a necessary evil in our industry stemming from a client’s dissatisfaction of the results they are getting from their incumbent. The process has become painful and complex for brands and agencies alike, with many wondering how it can be enhanced. During my 25-plus years in business development for agencies, I have experienced some great examples of progress—but they are far and few between.

In one instance, a retail client gave our agency one page to convince them why they should choose us. ONE PAGE.

The simplicity of this approach was brilliant because it challenged creativity and demanded brevity in our response. Selected agencies were then asked to host an open house to showcase their work and introduce the team. The review took less than three weeks (when average reviews are six months or longer) with minimal time and investment by either party. This flipped the RFP and pitch process on its head while achieving the same results.

The simplicity of this process, however, can be scary for most brands, as you’ll note two very important things are missing: approach and pricing. Both are essential from a brand perspective. Because of this, I don’t see the industry embracing the one-pager/open-house strategy, but I do believe there are ways to enhance the process to benefit both clients and agencies.

What Makes a Successful Brand-Agency Partnership

To begin, let’s review the needs of each stakeholder.

For brands, the onboarding process for a brand agency is equally demanding as the agency review process. While they get their new agency up to speed (which can take three to six months), they still need to manage and grow their business.

For this reason, it is critical in the review process to choose agency partners that are both relevant and compatible. Relevant, most importantly, in that they have a proven track record of getting results, as well as a client roster that reflects their business and industry challenges. It can also mean relevance in size and geography. Agency partners must be compatible in that they can trust the people who will be working on their business (experience, tenure, culture, work style, etc.).

For agencies, the main need is access to information to evaluate whether the opportunity is the right fit for them and their expertise. As Steve Jobs once said, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”

I often refer to a simple formula for evaluation, which I call the “Five F’s”:


Does this opportunity and client reflect the goals of our strategic plan and how we want to be viewed as an agency?


Does the client have the right budget to meet the needs of my agency operations and profit?


Are we going to have fun working on this, and will these be good clients?


Will we get recognized for this work? Will it attract new clients and talent?


Will this lead to a new discipline or category to help grow our business?

If an agency chooses to pursue the opportunity, access to information becomes even more critical, as it allows us to deliver the most impactful, client-centric response.

Now that we understand the basic needs of brands and agencies in the review process, let’s explore what we can do to enhance it to help both sides choose the right partners.

How Agencies Can Win More Business Opportunities

To set themselves up for success, agencies should keep the following in mind as they respond to new business opportunities.

Demonstrate results.

The number one factor for an agency review is lack of results from the incumbent. Agencies need to demonstrate their value by clearly showing results directly tied to the client’s goals.

Too often, agencies focus on the art side of marketing—the beautiful creative concepts or that great turn of phrase. But agencies should be focused on the science side of the equation that delivers impact. Agencies that share results will have the upper hand in any agency review.

Get to the point.

Too often, agencies deliver War and Peace-level responses. But a long, winding response can demonstrate agency self-centeredness versus the ownable value an agency brings to solve clients’ problems. Don’t make the client work to get to the “why” of choosing you. Get to the point, and assure your relevance and compatibility are at the forefront of your response.

Also, chances are that many client decision-makers are reviewing this on their smart devices. This means small screens that don’t like small font. Agencies that lean less into copy and more into graphics and font treatments to deliver their message will likely get the most attention.

Avoid the cut-and-paste.

Agencies should take caution when leveraging copy from an old RFP or pitch. Simply replacing the name of the client is a lazy approach, void of any real methodical or strategic analysis of the client’s business or need.

Everything you say in your response should tie directly back to one of those needs. Ask yourself, “why would the client care? How does this point impact my client’s business?” If you can’t answer that, it’s the appropriate time to use the cut function on your keyboard.

Engage, engage, engage.

Be proactive and responsive. If you treat the review process like you would their business, it will make an impact.

Also, take every opportunity to get face time with the client to build a relationship. If a “chemistry meeting” is part of the process, reach out to understand the specific expectations and deliverable for the meeting. It’s not the time to guess. Follow-up emails are also a great tool allowing agencies to recap what they heard from the client and assure them that you are listening. Keep communications about them and their needs, and they will feel like they are in good hands.

How Brands Can Successfully Choose the Right Agency Partner

Brands can streamline the search for a new agency partner—and ensure future success—by doing the following.

Clearly outline the criteria for winning.

It may be shocking to hear that many brands do not provide a clear set of selection criteria for the winning agency, but it happens more often than you think. Refer to the “cut-and-paste” advice for agencies above—with a clear set of selection criteria in hand, agencies are better equipped to deliver a response that aligns with your needs and strategies that will bring success.

Give agencies enough time to do their job on your behalf.

The amount of time you give agencies to prepare a response or presentation can say a lot about how they will be treated as your partner. Although many brands feel the time crunch to onboard a new agency now, agencies need that valuable time to dig in to the ask with the strategic lens your business deserves. Build more time for agencies into the process so they can meet your expectations, adhere to the decision-making timeline and, most importantly, deliver a roadmap to success that will help meet your goals.

Provide a budget range.

Brands often do not disclose a budget due to corporate policies. Sometimes a budget is not included because the client wants the agency to tell them what the budget should be, and sometimes clients guard the budget to ensure an agency does not pitch to the budget. This is bad practice. Providing a budget allows agencies to offer strategic solutions for clients that are realistic. Although budget ranges can be broad, they are an asset to choosing the right agency partner.

Give as much effort in post-review communications as the review process itself.

Agencies understand that reviews are thoughtful business decisions—and that they can’t win them all. Take the time to give specific feedback regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the agency response or presentation. If you used a scorecard in the evaluation, walk the agency through their results. This not only allows agencies to give feedback to the team who have spent the time and energy but also allows them to learn from the areas that were identified as gaps. Although this can be an uncomfortable conversation, it is one that is greatly needed.

While I love the simple brilliance of the one-pager/open house approach brands can use to choose the right agency partner, the agency review process can be enhanced by keeping open lines of communication, being transparent, responding in a timely manner and treating each other respectfully. These simple rules can go a long way to ensure a successful long-term relationship—one that doesn’t require another review process any time soon.

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