How to Choose an Ad Agency
Selecting an advertising agency (aka a marketing agency or creative agency)—or, more to the point, the right agency—is a crucial decision for any company. Choosing wisely will lead to visible, positive results for your company. The wrong agency fit, conversely, will not only be a waste of money but also make your marketing life miserable. Too many companies take a haphazard approach to this critical decision; they may get lucky, or they may not. Based on years of experience on both the client and agency sides, here is a structured approach that should lead to the best decision.
Step 1: Develop a long list of agencies to evaluate. The best source in compiling this list is referrals from colleagues. Additional sources are the local Yellow Pages or Internet resources such as agencyfinder.com or All Advertising Agencies. Start with at least six agencies to investigate further, but no more than 12.
Step 2: Conduct your initial research. Use the internet to check out the agencies on your initial list and eliminate any obvious poor fits. Some agencies focus on specific industry niches, while others have a broader focus but are clearly more business-to-business (b2b) or business-to-consumer (b2c) oriented. Most agencies won't work with two or more clients who are direct competitors, so if you see one of your closest competitors on an agency's client/reference list, drop them from consideration. Make sure each agency includes the services you need among their core competencies. The goal in this step is reduce your initial list down to five to ten agencies for further consideration.
Step 3: Develop your request for proposal (RFP). This step in actually somewhat controversial, as there are "experts" out there who will tell you not to use an RFP, but rather to utilize a request for information (RFI), which is largely more a semantical difference than a substantive one; the goal is to collect some specific information from each of the agencies on your list, whatever you want to call this. Other sources will tell you that agencies hate RFPs, when what they really mean is that agencies hate poorly-crafted RFPs; following the outline How to Write an Ad Agency RFP will help avoid this outcome.
In developing your RFP, remember that you are seeking to establish a business relationship with a marketing agency, so 1) respect their time, and 2) don't just ask questions, but also give the agency enough information about your industry, your company, and your specific needs to determine if there is a fit from their perspective.
Have all of the individuals on your internal selection team sign off on the RFP before sending it out; there is nothing more frustrating, for you or the agencies involved, than to go through the entire RFP process only to have to do it over - because a key individual on your end wasn't consulted, you didn't ask the right questions, you didn't have the objective(s) identified properly, or due to some other avoidable circumstance.
Step 4. Call each agency on your list. Introduce yourself and your company, and tell them you'd like to include them in your RFP process. This step serves three purposes: first, it allows any agency which doesn't want to respond to your RFP, for any reason, to opt out of the process right away. Second, it enables you to speak directly to an appropriate individual at the agency and begin establishing a rapport. Third, it assures that you will be sending your RFP to the right person at the agency. You should tell this person how many agencies will be receiving the RFP. You don't have to volunteer the specific names of the other agencies you'll be contacting, but should provide this information if asked.
Step 5: Send out the RFPs to the agencies who have agreed to participate. Make yourself available to answer their (inevitable) questions, and let them know that you are available for this. If you have included any out-of-town agencies on your list, be aware that they may expect at least partial reimbursement for their travel expenses if you invite them to give a presentation; get agreement from your internal selection team (specifically those with expense approval authority) beforehand as to how you will handle this.
Step 6: Evaluate the RFP responses, eliminating those agencies which are less than an excellent fit for your needs, in order to get down to your short list of finalists (at least two, but certainly no more than five). In evaluating the responses, ask questions such as: are you comfortable with their experience, size and resources? With their approach to your challenge(s) and objective(s)? Are you confident that your account will be large enough to be important to them? Are you impressed by the quality and tone of their creative work?
And of course, call their references. Specifically, ask about their satisfaction with their agency relationship. Does the agency consistently meet specified timelines? Do they adhere to their quoted prices? Are they easy/pleasant to work with? What results have been achieved?
Step 7. Arrange for presentations from each of your finalist agencies. Ideally, unless you are able to eliminate an agency from consideration after the first presentation, you should schedule two presentations with each agency: one at your facility (to give their personnel some impression of your offices, people and work environment) and a second at their agency, including a tour.
At this step you and your evaluation team will have the opportunity to share with the agency representatives more information about your industry, your company, and your unique strengths, challenges and goals. Each agency has the opportunity to tell you more about their capabilities, approach and practices. While the facts are certainly important, the most critical criterion at this point is chemistry: are you comfortable with the agency's team, and are they people you look forward to working with and entrusting with your company's promotional activities?
Step 8. Finally, after reviewing the RFP responses and meeting with your finalist agencies, it's time to make your final selection. Regardless of the titles involved, your internal selection team should agree to discuss the merits of the competing agencies as peers in a freewheeling discussion. In a perfect world, you would all agree on which agency was the clear winner; in the real world, compromise will likely be necessary on someone's part, and the final decision may not be yours. That's why the freewheeling discussion component is critical; if one individual (e.g. your CEO or CMO) ultimately makes the final decision, at least all of the facts and opinions of the team have been aired.
As the last step, you need to inform each of the finalist agencies of your decision. Because the rejections are tougher, I recommend getting these out of the way first. Call each agency and let them know of your decision and, in a positive manner, the reasoning behind it. Follow up with an email thanking them for their participation in your process, praising their strengths, and again briefly stating your rationale for the final selection. Then, call the winning agency and give them the good news.
Best of luck with your agency selection process!