Selecting the right communication agency

Whether you are an established business or a startup, you need a partner to do your communication to the customers and other stakeholders. Selecting the right partner or agency is not an easy task as it is very similar to getting into a marriage, even if it is one of convenience. The cost of a failed relationship is enormous in terms of lost time, learning curve hassles and re-building comfort zones.

Will you decide on a partner based merely on the looks (meaning their creative presentation) or the inner beauty (meaning strategic thinking and approach than just the creative)? The issue for a small or medium business or startup is more complicated: Most big agencies are not interested in their account for the simple reason that their billing will not be much to justify the high overheads such as salaries and perks of the “talented” employees. So, how does one go about choosing the right communication partner?

One obvious starting point in the decision making process is the reviews of the agency. The reasons why agencies are fired are seldom related to the reasons they were hired in the first place. Things such as ‘outstanding creative product’ and ‘solid marketing strategy’ were generally at the top of any client’s wish list when looking for the right partner. However, when it comes to terminating an agency, it usually is not because the agency has lost its creative spark or strategic edge. It is more likely to be things such as poor administrative practices, bad chemistry, or lack of responsiveness that gets an agency fired.

I have written a few columns on creativity and business results when it comes to advertising and communication. The criteria in selecting a partner should indeed be based primarily on their ability to conceptualise a tangible benefit to the target customer. Here are a few simple rules that you can follow while deciding on a communication partner:

n Do not ask for speculative creative. I would call this “drive-by creative” because it typically has a lot of snappy headlines and quick visual puns, but the messages are poorly aimed and only skin-deep. Rarely is speculative creative used after a new agency is appointed, and in most cases, it does not really enter into the decision-making process. When I was on the other side of the fence with an agency, my boss used to tell the creative group working on a new business pitch, “Don’t do ads to sell the product, do ones that will get us the business.” That is pretty honest admission from a top agency chief. Many agencies these days do not even do the spec ads themselves. Freelance talent is hired to do the work because unless the agency just lost a big account, it probably does not have a lot of people who are benched.

n Take your time for the selection and do not rush through. You need to allow 10 to 12 weeks for the selection process in order to do it right. Most companies I know have rushed this process and in the bargain made several blunders. When I consult for a company on choosing a good agency for them, I first spend one to two weeks interviewing client’s top managers to assess their needs. Then I spend another week or so developing a preliminary list of 7 to 10 agencies that might fill the bill. I then telephone the communication agency chiefs to assess their interest and to check for possible conflicts before narrowing the field to no more than three finalists. I rarely include the incumbent agency. People feel some sort of perverse moral obligation to include the current agency, but the fact of life is that the chances of it being re-appointed are slim. If they were doing poorly enough to provoke an agency review, the kindest thing you can do is redirect their energies toward finding new business elsewhere. There are exceptions to this such as the times when you want your current agency to refocus on your business with more vigour. A review would normally scare any agency to fall in place. Another exception is for industry associations or government accounts that are required by law to conduct periodic agency reviews. Then the incumbent should be included, provided the client is satisfied with its work.

n Primary focus should be on strategic issues. Brief the prospective agencies on a short list of key strategic issues the client and agency will need to face, and ask for a final presentation based on how those issues should be addressed. This changes the selection process from a subjective, creative shoot-out to a business-based discussion of core strategies. The consultant should be present during these briefings to ensure all finalists are treated equally. There are no magic bullets. You should not search for any, and you certainly should not put yourself in the position of selecting a new agency based on its creative aura. An extended discussion of strategic business solutions will show you how an agency thinks, and that is ultimately what you are buying. A creative hot shop is chosen only for short durations and that too when you know very well about your strategy.

(The author spearheads execution and innovation for clients @CustomerLab)

M Muneer