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Enhancing your next agency review process: 21 pitfalls marketers can readily dodge

Enhancing your next agency review process: 21 pitfalls marketers can readily dodge


Your brand is in search of a new agency. You’ve initiated a review that you are overseeing personally and it’s proving to be considerably more challenging and time intensive than you initially anticipated. Heck, you already had a full-time job before adding this important added effort.

And, while progressing your way through the project (researching potential agencies, engaging with agencies, requesting information and meetings etc.) you are discovering that the journey isn’t unfolding as seamlessly as envisioned. Agencies might be expressing dissatisfaction with certain elements of your process or specifications. They are posing unexpected questions, catching you off-guard. A few agencies may even be withdrawing from the process entirely due to its complexities. You may be wishing you had hired a search consultant (like Mercer Island Group!) to help out.

But have no fear, this blog will help!

Let’s talk about 21 of the most common agency review mistakes that marketers and strategic sourcing can readily avoid.

Better run agency reviews help the client get a better agency.

Please take our word for that. We talk to agencies every day and hear about situations where good agencies are passing on bad search processes.

To help your review succeed, we’ve collected 21 of the biggest mistakes a marketer can avoid when running their review.

Mistake #1: No clear objectives.

Clients that run successful reviews typically start with a disciplined “needs assessment” process that helps define the client’s needs in an agency. The Needs Assessment becomes the brief that defines success.

Mistake #2: No clear process.

Agencies are often asked to participate in reviews in which there is no clear process or timeline. Participating in a review is an important business investment for an agency, and clients that are clear about the process get better participation.

Mistake #3: Frequent changes in direction.

Yes, your business and priorities are often changing and evolving. That doesn’t mean that your review process needs to constantly change along with the daily fluctuations in your business. Constantly changing the direction of your review or of the directions you’re providing to agencies will waste everyone’s time.

Mistake #4: The wrong field.

There are thousands of agencies in the US and hundreds of thousands around the world. This abundance, and marketers’ general low awareness of the agency marketplace, makes it hard to arrive at a sound field without putting in the work necessary. You can’t hire the right agency if you start with the wrong list. Start by developing a clear statement of your needs. Then review the world of agencies vis-à-vis that “Needs Assessment”. Getting the initial list right is a critical step on your journey to hiring the right agency.

Mistake #5: Too large, or too small a field.

Starting with too large a field may cost you the participation of some of the best agencies for your brand. Agencies will want to know how big the competitive field is as they need to make a business decision about whether they will participate. Don’t start with more than 10 agencies on your RFI list and don’t have more than 4 finalists. These are magic numbers that agencies understand and respect. They know what their odds are. Bigger fields of course reduce the odds they will win, and many may pass.

Too small a field is also a problem. The competition helps showcase just how enthusiastic agencies are about your business.

Mistake #6: Incomplete briefing.

Good agencies will want to know why a review is underway, what the key business issues are and how marketing and the agency’s work are expected to contribute. Without this information it is difficult for an agency to contribute to their fullest and hard for the client to get a good return on agency investment.

Mistake #7: No NDA.

Beyond the obvious purposes of an NDA, the NDA can serve a very important practical role: it is a declaration that the two parties can speak openly. You want this as you investigate if a relationship is in your mutual best interests.

Mistake #8: No budget.

Good agencies won’t pitch without an understanding of the client’s budget.

Mistake #9: No SOW.

Good agencies will also want to understand the expectations regarding what is to be delivered for the budget. This is an important step to ensure that the client and agencies have shared expectations regarding what needs to be done for the budget available.

Mistake #10: No MSA.

Clients should start with a client MSA that is tailored to the type of relationship needed. Typical corporate MSAs leave out many important nuances that should be covered in an MSA intended for the client’s agency partnerships. And an agency MSA has been specially crafted to protect the agency more than the client. Luckily, it’s not very expensive to have a specialist attorney with deep marketing service MSA experience help craft an MSA for your firm and it’s a terrific investment. We can readily recommend some outstanding counsel that can help.

Mistake #11: Poor Q&A and limited information sharing.

Even with the best RFP and briefing, good agencies will have numerous questions about your business, competition, brand and expectations. The agencies will best showcase their ability to contribute to your business if you showcase what a great, open book and responsive client you will be.

Mistake #12: No work session.

The work session allows the agency to try out their early analysis, thinking and ideas for your business. This is a critical step for both the agencies and the client as the agencies learn from the process, and the client gets to see how the agency progresses.

Mistake #13: Poor feedback.

You want to be able to pick from a small group of agencies that each excel in the process. As a client, you bear a huge responsibility for the agencies being able to excel: the quality of the feedback you provide along the journey. The agency can’t know how you are reacting to their efforts if you don’t share clear and consolidated feedback.

Mistake #14: A process that is too long or too short.

Every year there are stories in AdAge and Adweek about review processes that went on for 10 months or longer. That is crazy. We also come across agencies telling us about reviews that last an intense 2 or 3 weeks. That is also crazy – it places an insane burden on the agency and its people.

A good, disciplined review can be managed in 10-12 weeks without disrupting the client’s business or being overly demanding on the agencies participating.

Mistake #15: Requiring finished work.

If you’re a client, don’t do this. If you’re an agency, say no. Finished work is never needed to evaluate how an agency thinks about your business and how they might approach solving your problems.

Mistake #16: Buying the shiny object.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that you are selecting a partner that can help you succeed day in and day out. You won’t be best served by selecting an agency based on a specific creative execution or media plan or PR idea. Don’t buy the shiny object. Hire the team that best understands your business, brand and competition and that you have confidence can help your business succeed.

Mistake #17: Forgetting about chemistry & culture.

This is a people business, and until you select an agency you’re still dating. Be your best self, so the agency can decide if they want both the income AND the relationship.

Mistake #18: Not checking references.

Checking references is a pain in the butt, time consuming, and an easy game to rig if not handled well. And they are critical, and the approach you use is important!

Don’t ask for a couple for references. Any agency can produce a couple of good references. In our reviews we typically check 5 to 7 per agency and prepare a detailed 50-to-100-page report. The report is packed with real learning from existing clients and helps our clients better understand the agency and whether they are a good fit for their business. Skip this step at your own peril.

Mistake #19: No thorough onboarding of the new agency.

Clients invariably are in a hurry to get work started the moment they hire a new agency. The best way to get to great work quickly is to take the time for a thorough onboarding of the agency.

Mistake #20: No disciplined transition process.

In cases where an agency is being replaced, the business can be at risk unless you have a thorough and disciplined approach to transitioning knowledge, assets, licenses and data from the outgoing agency to the new agency.

Mistake #21: No plans for an annual 360.

The best, most productive client-agency relationships are the result of great care and attention to the relationship by both teams. The annual third party 360 is an important part of any relationship management program and should be planned from the start of the new relationship.

Better run agency reviews help the client get a better agency.
The hiring of a new agency can be a time of both great excitement and stress. Make your next review better by avoiding these mistakes.
Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Ulta Beauty, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Kaiser Permanente, Holland America Line, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.