Getting the Most Out of Your Agency

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by Nick Annetts

It’s a hotly debated question – do you need an agency? Here Nick Annetts gives his tips for choosing an agency, and how to get the most out of the relationship.

Having seen both sides of the relationship, both as a client and running an agency, I am going to take the liberty of offering some advice on how to select and get the best out of an agency partner. The logical place to start is of course, does your company actually need a digital agency? Why not do it all in house? Some of the benefits an agency can bring to the table:

• They can bring experience (yes, that is failure as well as success) to the game: A good agency will be handling anywhere from 10 – 30 clients or more. Every job they do adds to their learning and experience, and so in turn should benefit all their clients.

• They can share specialist staff costs: This is particularly useful for specialist skilled positions, so if you need only 20 percent of a programmer or a digital creative, that’s what you’ll be charged. Other clients will share the member of staff, and hence the cost. You can also ask to have your own, and pay for, dedicated staff.

• An agency, if networked, can share training, skillsets and experience globally, making their knowledge base larger than the sum of the physical local agency. So they should be at the cutting edge of marketing technology or have, access to other regional experts and experiences. At the pitch, ask about sharing practices.

I could go on, but in short a digital agency hires and manages a range of creative, strategy and technology specialists, that can give clients great flexibility.

So how should you go about selecting the right agency? There are many complexities and variations on how this is done, but I’ve stuck to a pretty tried and tested methodology here:

Initially, ask around, and use your industry knowledge to select an initial four or five agencies to present their credentials. Remember the more you select, the more time and effort it means for you, so avoid the temptation of going for double figures.

Also, if the invite list is long, agencies talk, and may turn you down on the grounds that their chances of success are slimmer, versus the time and effort needed to pitch. At the credentials meeting, the agency should tell you a bit about the office, their agency capability, and showcase some of their work. Look out for matching skillsets and sector experience. But be wary of “awards” as these are often not as transparent or meaningful as you might expect.

The next stage is to select two to four agencies, and give them a campaign brief to test their capabilities on (preferably a potential real one). Brief everyone at the same time, both written and verbally. This gives everyone a chance for questions. Make sure you give them a transparent budget to stick to. Try and see everyone’s presentation within a two- or three-day period, and make sure all your key selection people are in the room (supplied with lots of coffee).

It’s a good idea to ask agencies to have key people who would work on the business to be involved in the presentation.

Once you’ve seen the ideas, and weighed up the teams, it’s selection time. Don’t be afraid to go back with more questions that may arise, or ask for follow on catch up, to look at team chemistry, before you make a final decision. When you make the final decision, make it professional. Tell everyone at the same time, and give some constructive honest feedback. This will be much appreciated, because incase you hadn’t guessed, pitching is a hard and stressful work for any agency.

Now a note of caution: A big issue for agencies, are “ghost” pitches, where nobody gets appointed, or even worse ideas are “borrowed” without compensation. This is unprofessional and a robbery of people’s time and creativity. To be avoided at all costs.

When it’s time to seal the financial relationship, there are two main ways to go: Project based: Briefs, are given based on projects, and while an agency will try and keep the same people on the business, you may find your preferred personnel moved to other accounts who pay to retain them. An agency has to maximize the usage of each employee.

Retainer: You pay monthly for a regular team. This has the benefit of continuity of experience, and guarantees the people who work on your business. As a whole, this works better, but requires planning and commitment to get right on both sides.

You’ll both be feeling your way in the beginning of the relationship, but these tips that will help:

Do’s 

• Spend time training agency staff on your products and services

• Brief all your agencies (digital, ABTL, media) together

• Give clear briefs and KPIs and most importantly, budgets

• Review your agencies regularly and fairly, and ask for feedback from them

• Creative is subjective, so make sure ALL decision makers approve creative ideas, before work begins

Please Don’t

• Treat agency staff as servants, they will go the “extra mile” if you manage them well

• Keep asking for “freebies”, the relationship needs to be a financial win-win for all

• Keep changing the brief after the job is in progress or done

• Pay bills late, agencies are not banks

• Poach agency staff

• Give up on an agency if they make a mistake – believe me, they have learnt a lesson