Ever had a professional moment that astounds you to the point of rendering you utterly speechless? It is said that something happening once is a fluke, twice it’s a coincidence, and three times it becomes a pattern — well, I believe there is a disturbing pattern in the agency business contributing to the fact that far too many client/agency relationships last a mere 18 months. Whether a search firm or corporate marketing executive, anyone charged with finding and selecting an agency needs to understand three simple, yet key items in order to make better, more informed decisions when selecting an agency. And for agency executives, these three simple rules should also apply to agreeing to work with a given client — all clients are not right for all agencies.
Three rules of thumb: Size matters. Personnel matter. Alma mater.
Let’s face it, agencies jumping through RFP hoops can be a nightmare — often asked to provide speculative work with little to no knowledge of exactly what the real goals are or if you’re just going through the motions. Sadly, we have all likely experienced times when organizations send out blind RFPs in an effort simply to procure free ideas. It is challenging enough as it is to secure new clientele and the work involved to secure them is, at times, overwhelming, particularly for a small to midsized agency. Be sure the work involved in securing that client is well worth the effort. You have to know when to hold ’em and, well, you know the rest.
There is a sad adage that goes something like: the day you sign on your new client you are one day closer to losing them. Put another way, it takes nine months to secure a client, and nine minutes to lose one. Why? Though it may seem trivial, there appears to be a recurring theme in that we are increasingly finding ourselves with more frequently than ever — to the point that I’m going to call it a plague on agencies and those charges with hiring them. We must both be smarter about the choices we make and with whom we choose to work.
Rule of Thumb 1: Size Matters
To both the agency and the client. If the account value to an agency represents less than 30 percent of their current total billing they are probably too large of any agency for you. Applegate Media Group, for example, specializes in client media billing between $5 million and $10 million annually — that is where we are best able to make a real difference for our clientele. Likewise, a client that has that level of budget should clearly understand the playground a given agency plays in based on budgets.
If you’re annual media budget is $100,000, we may not be best choice, ditto if it’s a $100 million, and a good agency will recommend alternatives to clients that don’t fit a budgetary sweet spot of agency. An agency playing out of their league is an easy way to lose a client, and likewise clients with relatively smaller budgets should work with an agency that specializes in that arena to ensure outstanding service — you don’t want to be a small fish in a large pond. Be honest about budgets and work together to determine, right up front, if you are compatible.
Warning signs your agency might be too big for your budget: The agency says, “I’m really busy right now,” or, “as soon as I finish up with (insert client du jour here),” meetings are regularly cancelled and rescheduled, or there is just a general feeling that you are not receiving the attention you want. You, as the client, should feel like a king (or queen) and be appreciated and counseled properly. All clients, regardless of budget, deserve to be and are valued and important — you just must find the right agency for that budget.
Rule of Thumb 2: Personnel Matter
Now that you know your budgets are in line with the budgets of your agency, the next important task is making sure you mesh with the personnel and their expertise at a given agency. Be sure to ask if the individuals in the review will be involved in the day-to-day operations of your account, and if not, who will be? Be sure to meet those directly involved with handling your account, because again, no matter how large an agency is, your budget will dictate the account team — that’s who you want to meet because that is really who you’re hiring.
For example, we are a relatively small agency, and while I’m the president of AMG, I handle many of the daily tasks assigned to a client, giving our clients the benefit of my, ahem, many years in the business and expertise. I enjoy media strategy and planning, which is why I got into this business in the first place — not to have ad nauseum staff meetings or push paper. Smaller agencies tend to have the ability to be a bit more nimble, opportunistic and certainly hands on with typically a more seasoned executive. If that is important to you, be sure the chosen agency fits within those guidelines. It is impractical for executive leadership to be involved in the day to day activities of every account, and in some instances, you wouldn’t want them to be, so again, ask about personnel and ask about practical expertise of those assigned to your account.
Warning signs you have the wrong agency personnel: You’ve never seen or met the owners or leadership of the agency, or worse, the only time you met them was during the review and sales process; you are constantly having a new account executive assigned to your account; and finally, those assigned simply don’t understand your organizational goals or your industry.
Rule of Thumb 3: Alma Mater
It may sound obvious, but don’t select an agency because the account executive is your old drinking buddy from college. Remember that time you bought a car from your weird uncle? Same thing. While personal relationships are indeed important, this is an important decision for an organization and should be based on sound principles of return on investment and achieving measurable objectives. Be sure your old drinking buddy from college has the expertise and the right personnel to make a good impression on both your target audience and your boss. Do they have the necessary tools? Do they have the staff and the expertise to achieve your core objectives and is there a measurable way to go about it?
In the media strategy, planning and buying business, advertising and business marketing executives understand that no matter how great the creative of an advertisement is, if the right audience doesn’t experience the ad, the tree has simply fallen silently in the woods. With ever increasing and complex media options competing for the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers, the need for media management expertise that efficiently and strategically connects businesses to their audience throughout the myriad of choices has never been higher. Your friend can still be your friend, just make sure they can do the job. This is true regardless of the marketing discipline, be it creative, web development, brand and public relations.
Warning signs your pal isn’t quite cutting the mustard: They still ask you to go on Spring Break with them; when you get together for cocktails you don’t talk work; you’re afraid to hold this individual to the same standards you’re being held to; and lastly, you are constantly the one being proactive and presenting fresh, new ideas.
Clients must be willing to do their upfront due diligence when selecting an agency, finding the right size, right expertise, and right personnel for your program or project. I personally believe that RFPs are foolish and show a general lack of understanding of your own business. Find several agencies that fit these three simple rules and ask them, four or five of them, to come in for a formal presentation and make your selections from there. Trusted referrals are also a very good thing. If you don’t, you’ll simply find yourself unhappy and searching all over again. Be sure that your expectations are in line with reality, and again, a good agency will take the time to go through reasonable expectations based on budgets and your specific goals and objectives — share those.
In the end, we all want to impress. A good marketing executive needs their product, their service and their brand to make solid, lasting impressions — and changing agencies every 18 months is a surefire way to erode a brand. In sports analogies, think of it as changing your head coach or your quarterback every other season. It hurts continuity. Spend the upfront time asking the right questions. Being a good client and being a good agency is just like being in a good marriage — upfront communication and the desire to achieve a common goal together.