You've narrowed down your RFP respondents to a few finalists. They’re flying in from around the country for their chance to give you their biggest pitch. They've all brought Fortune 100 case studies, industry legend executives, and a PowerPoint that doesn't miss a single dotted 'i' or crossed 't.' But now it's time for you to make the people sitting in the room think on their feet a little and see what they're really made of.
To help you see through the smoke and mirrors, here are a few questions that can help separate the partners from the pitchmen/pitchwomen.
Seriously, give me names. Can I speak with them? Teams aren't always completely formed at the pitch stage, and that's okay. But hopefully you can at least get a feel for the management side of things. Pitches are too often a bait and switch where subject matter experts and executive leadership detail out sophisticated strategies that they themselves will never execute. I don’t doubt the ability of the giant marketing agencies and consultancies to deliver award-winning work. I am, however, skeptical of their ability to maintain quality control across all of their employees, which leads to an uneven and unpredictable distribution of talent. Once the contract is signed, account teams are too often cobbled together from available resources with little or no consideration for the opportunity at hand.
In the end, the specific people working on your account are just as important as the agency. Pitches should be a chance for you to get comfortable with the team that you’ll be working with for years to come. Insist upon meeting those people face to face, and don’t be afraid to get personnel commitments in your contract.
Even if you can secure rock star talent from your agency, what will that team look like a year from now? The agency world has an annual turnover rate of over 30% (not to mention internal reorganizations), so for every three people working on your account, odds are that one will be gone by next year and replaced with an unknown quantity. There are articles all over the major ad publications about the wasted costs of training and onboarding new employees, but far fewer about the impact that turnover has on the clients. If it takes six months for a new employee to get up to speed as these studies suggest, that's six months of below-average productivity inflicted upon their accounts.
If an agency has a high turnover rate, keep asking for details. Why is it so high? Is there a cultural problem that may impact your account? What are they doing to address it company-wide? What assurances can they provide that your account will be shielded from the impacts of high turnover?
A heavily stratified employee structure is a hallmark of the biggest marketing agencies and consultancies. Complicated titles make it impossible for an outsider to understand who reports to whom and who works on what. Typically, Account Directors are the main points of contact. To get from them down to execution, you go through media directors, managers, specialists, and planners. To go up to strategy, you go through more layers of directors, practice leads, managers, presidents, and CXOs. Maybe your company is influential enough that you can pick up the phone and speak directly to the agency CEO. But even then, dispensing strategy unilaterally at the executive level often feels like pushing a rope. There are a dozen layers for that CEO to cut through to make sure that discussion translates into tactical execution, which means a dozen opportunities for the message to be lost.
Understand the process by which each company builds and distributes strategy. Ideally, it will involve input from all parts of the company, but at the very least, look for evidence of how new strategies are built and applied to active clients over time. Too often, new strategy is used to lure new business while existing clients fall into more comfortable patterns because their account teams don’t have a reliable source of new ideas or enough incentives to generate their own.
Just because your "holding company" can do everything under the sun doesn't mean those people are talking to one another or even know who the other is. Agencies and consultancies like to issue acquisition press releases that make it sound as though they've acquired a fully integrated partner. In reality, acquisitions are about the consolidation of profitable companies, and on the back end, they usually operate as they always have – not just as separate entities, but often times as competitive ones, even within the same holding company.
It's unrealistic to expect that companies will never need to bring on additional resources – especially as project scope grows – but don’t accept those partners at face value. Look for companies that are upfront and transparent about their relationships with both other marketing teams and outsourced partners and ask to meet with those teams directly. Understand how they have worked together in the past, how they unify strategies, and how the broader team is structured.
…why? When it comes to agencies, invest in people over platforms. The proprietary marketing technology arms race is an artificial competition created by the mega agencies to compete against one another. Don't get me wrong, there are reasons to invest in internal technology, and they generally center around the large-scale application of intelligence. For larger agencies, distribution of strategy and insights is a challenge, and technology can facilitate that in a way that more grassroots methods often cannot. But for automation and aggregation technologies, there are SaaS companies out there that are doing phenomenal jobs at democratizing their applications at affordable rates. And those third-party technologies are incentivized to integrate with other industry leading technologies instead of remaining siloed within a prescribed technology stack.
Even if you aren’t using their technologies, you are likely paying for their overhead. Ask your agencies how they break down development resources, how technology is funded, and what their incentive model is with any technology platform – internal or external. Otherwise, you risk paying for people and platforms that have no relevance to your company. If you’re concerned about conflicts of interest, seek independent review of technology recommendations until you’re comfortable with your new agency.
The common themes in these questions are people and accountability. Understanding your account team, their communication structure, their incentives, their culture, and their responsibilities will give you a better understanding of your partnership’s potential than any case study ever will. So be noisy, demand more up front, and set yourself up for long-term success with your new agency.