The process of hiring a Marketing agency feels old... and somewhat broken.
What used to be an experience about finding a true, valuable partner (someone who will sit there with the brand managers in the darkest of nights trying to get the brand just right) has morphed into a vendor/supplier type of relationship. Yes, there are some exceptions, but we live in a world where a Chief Marketing Officer's lifespan is under two years long and it's not a much better track record for the average agency either.
RFQ? RFI? RFP?
As procurement continues to play a more predominant role in the choosing of an agency, and as search consultants become that much more commonplace, there has not been much attention given to the concept of agency search reform. Instead, most experiences and initial outreaches revolve around a request for standard information or a request for a proposal. Both steps are checkbox littered in an attempt to create a balanced playing field for the competing agencies. These documents and exercises may explain how an agency positions itself along with how it thinks both strategically and creatively, but that's only a fraction of what a brand should be looking for.
Fits like a glove.
A lot of the question answering in text form can be removed and discarded (saving a lot of time and energy on both brand and agency side) and replaced if the brand committed itself to three one-hour in-person meetings. Let the agency introduce you to its space, to the people and to the work (and vice-versa). The brand should send a creative brief over and sit in as the agency team reviews the document and discusses initial strategies and areas that might be interesting to explore. I know this is going to sound antiquated, but go for lunch with the agency people or go to an event together. Try to figure out if the culture, people and work is a fit for the brand.
Don't box out of your weight class.
It's not just about size (how many people the agency employs), but I've often seen brands work with agencies that are either too small or too big - in terms of capabilities. There are certain agencies that are good at servicing very big, multi-national brands with steady and ongoing work, there are agencies who are good at servicing start-ups and small-to-mid-sized businesses, and yes, there are agencies who lie somewhere in between. Brands - like professional fighters - should try to box in their weight class by ensuring that their agency partner not only has the competencies to deliver the final product, but understands the complexities of what it takes for that brand to be successful.
Look for lateral experience.
It's always interesting to see a brand that would like an agency partner that has direct experience in their industry. It's understandable. If an agency has worked with a competitor, odds are that they understand the industry and already have a perspective on what it takes to win. It's safe. The truth is that lateral experience is how to really inject a sense of innovation and newness to the marketing. I once heard an insurance company ask their agency to figure out who is the best at selling insurance online and beat them. My only thought was, "why look at who sells insurance best online, when you can study Amazon - a company that is proven to be one of the best players in selling online... overall." Having lateral experience (worked in another industry but selling to a similar audience) is - without a question one of the easiest ways to breathe new life into a brand's marketing.
Don't ask for credentials.
Asking to see an agencies' work is almost as bad as asking for their website URL. There's nothing that a Google search box can't tell you about an agency - from their work to awards to community recognition and beyond. If a generic online search can't generate enough information to tell you the kind of work the agency does and the media attention generated from it, you may be best served looking for another agency. Great marketing work gets attention and that attention is usually indexed in the major search engines.
There is a better way.
It's important to remember that a marketing agency is a service-based industry. An agency is only as successful as the work it accomplishes for its clients. That work is rarely created in silos or by one, specific, individual. It's a team effort. The trick in choosing the right marketing agency partner is to find the right team to join your team (and that's why you're hiring them in the first place). You have to be confident that the relationship is as strong as the work and that the agency is truly acting on your behalf - as a partner (and not as a supplier). Mistakes and hiccups will happen regardless (if you didn't have an agency to blame for the mistakes, odds are you would be blaming one of your employees), so be willing - up-front - to acknowledge and work with your agency partner to correct the path. At the end of the day, both the brand and agency don't succeed when both companies are not firing on all pistons.
Yes, there is a better way.
There's the old sales adage that, "all things being equal, people buy from those they know, like and trust. All things being unequal, people still buy from those they know, like and trust." Choosing an agency partner is quite similar: work with a team that you like and trust... and a team that you have a keen interest in getting to know as well.
What do you think?