Marketing Mistake #7: Poor Agency Selection Process

Choosing a marketing agency is critical, but the process most companies use has been dysfunctional for a long time. Of course It’s not easy. The agency-advertiser marketplace has been rapidly changing, with an explosion of new types of agencies and marketing disciplines. The conditions of current economy add additional pressure. More than ever, performance, trust and chemistry or “fit” are at the top of the priority list for finding an agency. And yet, so often the selection process works against getting the best results.

After much pain, discussion and reevaluation, the Association of National Advertisers and 4A's have released the September 2011 edition of "Guidelines for Agency Search." The white paper can be downloaded (, and includes ways to protect both the agencies and marketers seeking an agency, from waste, inefficiency and poor outcomes.

Here are some of the most important recommendations for marketers conducting an agency search:

Agency searches are very expensive. Be sure you are choosing the right reasons to hire an agency, and that your current agency (if you have one) is given the chance to respond to your new needs or make good on underperforming issues.

Be sure you have a clear strategy, and are ready to devote the time, energy and commit to the process needed for both the agency and your company to be successful in the work.

Decide whether a formal search is necessary or whether you can identify a select number of firms internally, or with a consultant for a streamlined process.

The ideal amount of time for a search process is three months.

The ideal number of agencies who answer a request for proposal is no more than eight, and for smaller companies, fewer is better, as it allows the marketer more time to evaluate each of the candidates.

Discuss compensation early on, not at the end of the process. This includes clearly defining the scope of the engagement to avoid a mismatch of expectations, resources and fees.

Be sure the agency brings in the team who will do the work, not just win the business. A visit to their offices will provide key insight into how they work and what their culture is like.

Capabilities are becoming increasingly specialized. However, new marketing practices and new offerings often make exact historical experience unlikely or impossible. Be sure your evaluation criteria allow for aptitude as well as historical experience.

Cultural compatibility should be weighed just as heavily as capabilities. This means giving access to all of your company’s decision-makers at the beginning of the process, before everyone loses a lot of time.

An agency should be prepared to work with, and given access to, all other agencies and service providers relating to the marketing and advertising functions.

Speculative work presented by an agency during a review frequently doesn't translate into a campaign, so decide if it's really a necessary part of the process. It’s fair to pay a stipend to offset agencies costs, and if the ideas are to be used, the usage for the ideas should be negotiated in advance at a much larger fee.

Much can be learned about an agency by the questions they ask: don’t just answer their questions; evaluate them to understand how involved they will be in your company's business.

Keep the process and response times moving. A delayed process may result in the agency assigning members of its team or other resources to new priorities.