Have you ever met one of those couples who just seem right for each other? Their chemistry is palpable, their values are aligned. You sense they were destined for each other from the beginning of time.
Sickening, isn’t it?
All jokes aside, the ‘perfect couple’ analogy is a useful one when considering how a brand should pick the right marketing agency. In the majority of cases, the right agency partnership isn’t a lucky story of love at first sight: it’s a careful journey that spans self-understanding, tailored research, initial alignment, then the building of trust over time.
This isn’t an article about a whirlwind romance, this is about finding a partnership that endures.
Let’s break it down.
1. Know thyself
To find your perfect partner, you need to understand your own needs. Start with first principles before you jump to assumptions about the kind of agency you’re after. What’s your company mission? Are you living up to it? What are the headline business and marketing goals you’re striving to achieve? Which are being met? Which are falling short? It may be that you have a healthy brand that needs to be reimagined in specific channels, or that your brand no-longer matches the business you’ve become. This process of honest evaluation will help you build a clearer idea of what you need from an agency.
It’s just as important to understand what you don’t know too. Are there fundamental questions about your brand that you can’t answer right now? Are there failing metrics that you’re struggling to attribute? Pour those into the mix too. The right agency will help you find the answers.
Next, understand the type of relationship you’re seeking. Do you need a proactive partner who will act semi-autonomously? Or do you need to retain close control of every agency hour? Do you need specialism that goes deep on one channel, or a breadth of services that span the whole marketing mix?
Lastly, think about the values and culture that define your brand. If you’re a lean business built on fast turnaround and quick decision-making, the chances are you’ll need an agency that can keep up. If you’re a large business with more complex decision-making protocols, you may need an agency that’s experienced in getting marketing plans signed off with rigorous research and supporting data. If you’re afraid of change but aware that’s the one thing your brand needs, you may need a disruptive agency with a history of shaking things up.
This process of introspection will pay dividends as you start to look outwards to potential agency partners. It also gives you a great opportunity to review your business, your brand and your marketing - something that can galvanise and energise your team.
2. Start a strategic search
Whether you’re hitting Google or working with an intermediary, you should have an initial set of keywords that will guide your search. At this point, you’re looking for initial signals that an agency can meet some or all of your key needs. You can probably break those down into a few buckets to make selection and deselection even easier, e.g. expertise, services, experience and culture.
Take time to review agency websites, case studies and thought-pieces. Search for articles about the agency and their work. Speak to your peers about these agencies. Look at their work as a consumer. Does it fill you with confidence?
Ideally you’ll arrive at a shortlist of agencies you’d like to meet, with a reasonable level of confidence that they could be a good match. At this stage, that’s all you need, because the next two steps are where the real decision-making happens.
3. Meet some agencies
Like any good date, you get out what you put in. Plan your first agency meeting with a really clear sense of what you want to discuss. The better your questions, the more interesting the answers might be. It’s worth remembering that most agencies meet a lot of clients, and the ones that bring energy, curiosity and intelligence are usually serviced with the most enthusiasm. This partnership will work both ways after all.
Your questions can range from the very specific to the more open-ended. Bring a mix, but be sure that you cover all of your key needs (that’s why you put the hours in to identify them). We’d advise that you share the talking points you’d like to cover in advance, from business challenges to specific media channels you’re interested in, from culture and ways of working to value and pricing.
It’s advisable to use the same agenda with each agency. Give them the same forum to answer your questions, show you their expertise and surprise you with their thinking. You should be able to assess each agency in this way on a rational level, while also noting the chemistry between your team and theirs.
Be conscious during the meeting. Are they really listening to your needs, or waiting for moments to dole out generic slides and case studies? How well do they explain their work? A good partner won’t try to sell you on a frictionless fantasy, they’ll tell you the real story of how great marketing came to be. Are they open or guarded? Ask to meet some of the people doing the work. Wander around. See the full picture. The best agencies will encourage it.
The outcome should be that after these meetings you have a good feeling for two to three potential partners. Maybe even one. Now it’s time to give them a brief.
4. Rethink pitching
The traditional agency pitch has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, and not without cause. When you ask an agency to pitch a full response without any fee, you’re essentially asking for their best and brightest to provide insights, strategy, creativity and media planning for free, with no guarantee of reward. It’s an odd way to start a partnership, and you may well not pick the right agency at the end of it anyway. The ‘best’ pitch often comes from the agency that was willing to push their people hardest on top of existing client work, or one that has a dedicated pitch team that won’t be anywhere near your brand when it comes to getting started for real.
We recommend giving your potential agencies a small paid brief. Tailor it to the problems you need to solve and the qualities you need to see. Give the agency every chance of success by writing a single-minded brief with clear objectives and KPIs.
From there you’re in a position to test out the relationship for real. How intelligent are the questions that come back from the agency? How inspirational and on-point is their creative brief? What’s the process of reviewing their thinking like? How enjoyable is the collaboration as the work is executed? How well did they take your feedback or roll with any changes to the plan? How much analysis and learning did they bring at the end of the project?
The beauty of a small paid test is that both brand and agency are operating with parity. You’ll be working with the real team and seeing what they can really do. If both parties feel good after the experiment, you can start to build the relationship with real confidence.
5. Grow together
Hopefully now you have an agency partner that has met your initial needs, proved they can do the work, and shown that collaboration can be positive and mutually rewarding. Your investment can now increase as trust builds and working rhythms are formed between brand and agency. The more you invest in them, the more they’ll be able to invest in your account. Again, it’s a two-way partnership.
Of course you’ll always be the customer, and should never stop asking the very best of your agency. But if you’ve chosen well, that’s all they’ll ever give you.