As Head of New Business here at Wild Dog I speak to lots of people who are taking the first steps towards working with a new agency. But how do you make sure you find the right agency for you?
The first thing to say here is there is no 'perfect agency' that suits everybody all of the time, but rather the perfect agency for your brand (or even for the specific project you have in mind). I've worked both sides, leading the pitch process for a large healthcare client, and pitching for new business across a number of sectors and in a number of agencies. I thought it might be of interest if I share with you what I've learned on the way; if nothing else you'll realise you're not alone in wondering what is the best approach or hopefully, you'll learn what feels right for you and your project.
Identify the why
It sounds so obvious, but the first step is making sure you need an agency at all. Do you have the skills in-house to fulfil your project? If the answer is no, consider carefully what it is you need the agency to do now and in the immediate future. Is it a web design and build? Or ongoing Marketing support? Or perhaps a one-off job for producing brochures? Understanding the work you need support with will help you speak to the right agencies.
The next step is to consider who the key stakeholders are, and make sure you involve them in the process from the beginning. Do they also need support from the agency that may be different from your own requirements? (e.g. you may need a new website, but they perhaps need someone who can write and send CRM emails). Not only will you develop a far superior outcome by collaboratively involving those that deserve a say from the outset; but also it will force you to interrogate what it is you have now. In time-short, over-stretched organisations, the most human instinct is to repeat what you already have, because that is what you have always done, and arguably it works. However, healthy discussion, where you have to explain and interrogate your needs, frequently spawns even better solutions. And if it transpires that your thoughts were indeed spot on, well that vindication is worth a great deal.
Also ensure that you speak to the people who will be managing and using the agency (they may not be the same people as the decision-makers). This will give you a much better idea of what to look for and the managers will no doubt appreciate being consulted and involved.
Clearly, the flip side of this approach is that you can't involve everyone in the decision process of what you need designing or building. Key people will need to take that responsibility, but in the case of a website for example, your site most likely touches and impacts on every department in the organisation to an extent at some stage. A brief brainstorm as to what they want from the site, will not only raise morale and respect for your task; there could so easily be a diamond idea out there that is just waiting to be discovered. Dialogue is cheap; yes it takes time and commitment, but internal discussions are free so enjoy that brainstorm at the beginning. It is much more fun than a barnstorming session at the end justifying why something was not considered!
The next step is to start researching agencies with the skill set which matches your project or brand requirements. Remember, you don't necessarily need one agency to do everything. Often clients work with a number of agencies to meet different needs, and it's a great way to get a real specialist for the part of the project they're involved in. Beware those claiming to be experts in everything, and ask for examples of the work they've done in this field. It's very easy for agencies to pop a few extra services on their website, but have they truly got the experience you need? Looking at their case studies and past projects is a useful guide here. Does it appear that they listen to the client and their needs; or are they simply repeating the same recipe in a new colours? If you only need a solution that comes straight out of the box, then that is of course absolutely perfect - look for that type of product and supplier, and decide on them. If however, you want and need to create something for you, then that will require an agency that adopts a listening and analytical approach.
The next step is getting out there and actually speaking to people. Always speak to a few agencies, but be cautious not to speak to too many. We would suggest trying to narrow down your possible agencies to a maximum of 3-4 in order to make the process manageable and get the most from it. Not only will this take forever to include more agencies than this, but it will become almost impossible to keep track of everything, and managing the selection process will become a full time job in itself!
In our experience almost all good client/agency relationships start with a conversation. It's in everybody's interest to quickly understand whether an agency is going to be right for you, and often a simple chat will be enough to establish whether it's going to work. Get them down to your offices for a chat, go and visit their agency, or at the very least make a phone call to understand more about them and what they could do for your business. Experienced agencies will be just as keen to establish whether they are the right fit for you, as you are for them. It may sound paradoxical, but a really great agency wants to learn if they are right for you and you for them as soon as possible; and if its a no, then better for all concerned to establish this early on. This can only truly be achieved with a conversation, ideally face to face, but at the very least make time for a proper call and let the agency say how they believe the project should be approached.
The next step is writing the brief and getting your head round what it is you need an agency to help with. Whilst it can often be tempting to hide yourself away with a large mug of tea and a ready supply of biscuits in order to do this, always consider involving others in the process. Getting the brief right really is the first and most important step to ensuring success of the project. Writing it can be a daunting process, it asks a lot of questions which often at this stage are yet to have answers. Which underlies why it is well worth actually speaking to the agencies you are considering and involving them in the process. They won't expect you to have all the answers, asking the right questions is far more important at this stage. This is a great way to begin establishing who it is you would like to work with. Look at how they think, how they approach problems and how you work together. Also the good agency will ask you what they need to know in order to deliver the project. If nothing else, if they ask the right questions then you can take comfort that they do genuinely have experience and expertise. Always remember that the brief should be a springboard to a creative and technical solution; it is not an instruction manual.
Pitch or Present?
The debate about whether or not a pitch is really the best way to select an agency rages on, and probably will do for years to come. We're not going to attempt to address it here or try and influence you either way, but I am going to share these honest thoughts with you and ask you to consider them openly yourself:
"Have you already made your mind up about who you'd like to work?" Working with agencies on the brief may give you enough information to allow you to make your decision. In which case, don't be afraid to make it.
Going through a pitch process may simply prove to be a waste of time, when you could have been cracking on with the project itself. Remember the pitch process is simply a tool to help you find an agency. It is a means to an end (one viewed as out-dated by many), and if you can be confident in making a decision before a pitch then go for it. Hence the question to Pitch or Present? A pitch infers provisional designs and asking potentially up to 4 agencies "what will my website/brochure/brand look like?". Is that the question you really need to ask, and upon which you will make your decision? Or is it that actually learning about the agency and their approach to your requirements in the form of a presentation will tell you far more about what you will achieve? Using their expertise to help with the diagnosis of the solution may be a better route than sending out your diagnosis and asking them how it will look. "It doesn't matter what something looks like" may seem like a contradictory thing for a design agency to say, but at this stage we believe you may get far more from a presentation which asks them to talk you through how they work, their relevant experience and how they may approach your project than you would looking at flashy designs applied to a complete solution yet to be diagnosed.
Whilst we understand completely that it is the visual designs that is the fun part of any project (trust us, as visual creatives it's the part we love too); it is unlikely to be what will add the most value at this stage. Hopefully you have already established that their design capabilities are up to scratch, but can they really get to the the root of a problem? Can they provide solutions which will solve it? And can they deliver? Previous projects is really the best way to judge this last question. Chat on the phone or meet up first; if it starts to feel right for both parties, then a presentation from the agency to the key stakeholders will set the tone perfectly.
For the actual presentation there are some useful housekeeping factors, such as making sure you allow enough time for both the presentations themselves and for questions, providing a light and airy room (you're likely to be there for a while), and invite all the core stakeholders to present if practical. We find a large supply of caffeine and sugar generally helps make the day more enjoyable too!! Once the pitches are over, review the agencies' responses as a group. It's often enlightening to see what different team members took from each presentation. Sometimes there will be a consensus, but often not. One way to do manage this is to develop scorecards based on the criteria that are important to you e.g. strategic understanding, relevant experience, team chemistry; and of course you can adapt to measure the things that are important to you.
Reaching a decision
Scoring presentations/pitches individually and then comparing as a group is a useful springboard for the decision process. You may also choose to weight certain criteria more heavily than others. Also remember that any scorecard is just a useful guideline and no more than an aide memoire. You may be simply blown away by a particular approach, and everything else becomes unimportant! That said, don't get completely blinded by the pitch team. Make sure you know exactly who will be managing your account on a daily level. Yes, their MD might be inspirational and incredible, but if the agency seems right, have a follow up meeting and meet those who will actually be working on your account.
Make sure you respond to all the agencies who participated, and if you are still unsure, invite any you are still considering back in. And for those unsuccessful, take the time to give feedback. It makes for a better & fairer world; and everyone respects and learns from constructive comments. For the successful agency, if you have any unanswered questions after the presentation about the work itself or perhaps the agency, just ask them. Also remember you don't have to use one agency for absolutely everything. Perhaps you adored the creative work of one agency, but thought another offered stronger SEO capabilities. Ask if they would consider working together.
At the end of the day, there is going to be a lot of trust and goodwill for a successful project inception; and from all parties. So our advice is from the off be yourself, tell the story as you see it and let the agency meet you halfway, let them ask what they need to know and let them tell their story. One of the most telling remarks I have read was about the role of experts. If you have a medical problem, you go to see a specialist; you tell the doctor your symptoms, background history and what you feel may be the problem. However you would be unlikely to simply assume your diagnosis is perfect, and that all the doctor needs to do is get out the blades and do the operation as you commanded. Your diagnosis may indeed be correct, but having gone to see a specialist it might be worth learning their thoughts, hear their questions and consider their diagnosis too? It is after all why we go to see specialists.
Hopefully this article contains some useful tips to helping find the best agency for you.