From agency search consultants, marketing match-makers, agency directories and aggregators, finding the best resource for selecting an ad agency or marketing firm isn’t always what you would expect.
Once upon a time clients used to find a new agency by asking colleagues for recommendations, asking media reps, or going to their files for a folder labeled “Ad Agencies.” Back then many agencies practiced the fine art of mailings and calling on potential clients. Advertisers relied on national and regional publications such as Adweek and AdAge to identify the hottest agencies.
Agencies used clever direct mail tactics and even took out ads to reach clients and identify their agency as a potential resource for future connections. Then as now, clients with truly large budgets reached out to or were found by the traditional “Agency Selector Consultant” – early-adopters like Dick Roth and MorganAnderson, eventually the likes of SRI, Pile and so on.
Its 2019 and there’s a dizzying array of many different types of vendors who purport to offer easy or more effective ways to guide an advertiser to find a potential new agency or marketing partner.
Before examining those options, let’s see if we can agree on a few fundamental factors when finding and hiring a new agency. Years ago, a client was often heard to suggest “you won’t find a diamond if you’re looking among lumps of coal.”Translation? You may not find a perfect agency partner if you’re looking among a collection of unqualified candidates. So the focus must be on identifying qualified candidates at the outset. The challenge: A client may or may not know the right questions to ask or how to match a potential agency’s capabilities with their most urgent marketing needs.
There’s more. Time and again industry experts write articles and blogs to suggest how to initiate an agency search and conduct a review starting with a mere handful, say 5-8. In a massive sea of agency candidates numbering anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000, without a very precise process, how could a marketer possibly narrow that down to the best 5-8 agencies? Seldom do those articles spend any time to address this salient issue most relevant to the client. I will share some options, but for the moment, let’s examine agency attributes and what ranks on the client’s wish list.
Drawing on our 20+ years providing match-making to advertisers, when given choices, their first is desire is for relevant experience in their own business category. Why? Because then a marketer doesn’t have to spend time bringing an agency up to speed on their nickel. However, some clients actually stipulate against prior experience or the anthesis thereof. Contending they don’t want to inherent ideas used and abused before. Regardless, category experience is a weighted attribute one way or other.
Finally what about services, location, size, case histories, work samples, a dog friendly environment (yes, they have asked for that), client testimonials and then some? Certainly they are important factors but for each client they are weighted individually.
The two qualities that can’t be relegated to statistics are creativity and chemistry. There is no consultant or service that can deny the client the opportunity to make those judgments.
Now let’s consider the various agency search resources with a few examples:
1. Traditional “Agency Search Consultant” – Roth Ryan Hayes, MorganAnderson, SRI, Avi Dan, Pile & Co. We have yet to discover who was first to convince an advertiser to compensate a consultant for finding and assisting in the hiring of marketing firms that would otherwise be spending their time and money to introduce themselves to that advertiser, as had been the age-old B2B custom. So be it, it was done. These consultancies range from a few employees to an unbelievable collection of top-notch talent, most of whom have agency credentials. If you want and need it, they will sit side-by-side in meetings, manage much of the process and agency interaction and take an active role in the entire process. There’s a large list to choose from, but you will pay and generally, you need a multi-million dollar budget to justify their fees.
2. Traditional “Agency Directory” – These directories have content developed over time by the agencies themselves. Redbooks.com is the best example. In their words: “For almost 100 years, Advertising Redbooks has been providing competitive intelligence and prospecting data to media companies, advertising agencies, manufacturers, advertising services and suppliers, libraries and more. Looking for relevant content on companies and the advertising agencies that work with them? Advertising Redbooks is the source for uncovering key advertiser and agency relationships.” Historically this directory of both advertisers and agencies has been a great resource for vendors looking to sell goods and services to listed agencies and advertisers. It’s a comprehensive but pricey subscription service. They’re now part of The List.
3. Traditional “Phone Book” Directories – You would know them as the Yellow Pages. Because they serve specific regions, the initial attribute is location. In earlier print versions, agencies were listed alphabetically. Now, like Google and Bing, he who pays gets best position! It’s a hodgepodge grip and grab process that at best, wastes time and at worst, wastes money. But for a small-to-medium firm wanting a near-by agency, it can be a limited but handy resource. Free but not that efficient.
4. On-Line Search Engines – Google, Bing & others – Self-explanatory. Provide incredible reach and coverage but tend to lack depth of available data. You can spend hours and keywords filling your bucket and you can fall asleep as you negotiate a wide variety of agency websites. You’ll need to create your own matrix to evaluate the relative merits of candidates they present. Free, but data is disparate and the process is significantly time consuming.
5. Digital Search Engine Matchmaker – In 1997 and as a “vertical finder” pioneer, Business Partnering International, Ltd. launched AgencyFinder.com as a reverse-engineered adaptation of MarketPlace’s CD-ROM list creation tool. AgencyFinder blends the digital matching technology of a business dating service with its own, unique blend of one-on-one staff consulting to help hundreds of clients find the right agencies. The first algorithm criteria is always vertical market experience. In its first pass, it limits itself and identifies 35 or fewer “perfect candidates.” Each agency, when selected, is based on the content they contribute and post using some of the 500 offered data fields. Finally staff consultants send invitations (Requests for Dialogue – RFD) to 15 or so. Any and all agency content is contributed by the agency alone and reviewed before approval and activation. This service includes multiple client consultancies, agency invitations and due-diligence interviews. For marketers the service is free.
6. Association Membership Directories – Best example is the 4A’s. Founded in 1917, this trade association represents the lion’s share of the major agencies in America and is the leading authority representing the marketing communications agency business. Utilizing an updated on-site search engine, navigating within their members is straight forward. There’s also a wealth of valuable editorial information here about many aspects of the client/agency relationship and the proper elements of an agency review. Search registration is free.
7. Super Directories, Data Aggregators – AdForum, AgencySpotter, Clutch.co, ranked.com. If you’re into aggressive research and think you need tons, this is your cup of tea. With directories, it is incumbent on you to do it all – find, evaluate and ultimately invite and connect with the agencies you see as candidates. Search management is your responsibility. Note that listing positions (or arrangements) are often a function of agency payments or sponsorships. When these directories first come to market, it’s not unusual to claim content for thousands of agencies, yet in-fact it takes months and even years for agencies to contribute of their own volition. This quick-fix is sometimes accomplished with data scraping, also known as curation, and is the process of importing public information from someone else’s website into your spreadsheet or local file. It’s one of the quickest and unencumbered ways to get data from others on the web without asking for or getting permission, and then channel that data to their website. A rigorous clicking exercise will often revel “empty profiles” with notes to the affect the placeholder hasn’t yet had time to contribute. Generally these are free services.
Testimonials, case histories, third-party assessments – When agencies are allowed to speak with clients, that gives the agency an opportunity to decide and show what content best represents their candidacy. In these areas anything collected and inventoried at a third-party site is generally minimalistic and can quickly grow old and obsolete. Don’t weigh down the front of your process with too much research. Decide what your criteria for selecting an agency is before you start any process. Then evaluate what the agencies show or send for your consideration.
Monetization. Each service has their own business model for how they make money. However, revenue should flow from either agency or client but never both. A “Chinese wall” is not enough to prevent the potential for ethical conflicts, so know who pays what and when before your proceed.
I wish you happy hunting!