The Insights Blog

How agencies and clients can make the most of agency references

How agencies and clients can make the most of agency references

References Check

An agency’s references are an important and often underappreciated aspect of an agency review. 

This would seem obvious! Unfortunately, for many agencies and some clients, it is not.

Some clients don’t check agency references when they run their own reviews, and some agencies do a poor job of selecting or prepping their references. And some agencies push back on having to provide references.

In Mercer Island Group agency reviews we take agency references very seriously. Let’s talk about some best (and worst) practices regarding agency references.

An Agency’s Approach to References can Wreck their Candidacy

To be clear, poor references can ruin an agency’s chances of being selected. These are some of the things we heard from recent agency reference calls:

“I don’t even work directly with AGENCY – my creative agency hired them so I have no visibility into what it’s like to really even work with them. I don’t understand why this agency keeps listing me as a reference.”

“I can’t say anything nice about the AGENCY’s digital media capabilities because we took that business away from them.”

These are actual comments from references we checked last week.

The learning here for agencies is clear:

– Select carefully. The best references are relevant for obvious reasons, like brands that faced similar challenges as the client, or are in similar industries, or face a similar level of competition. Be thoughtful about how to select your references.

– Prep the references. Make sure they can be available and are willing and give them insight into what points you’d like them to make.

– Go deep. If the client or consultant ask for 3, give them 5. The reference checking process usually happens when folks are “on the clock” and it can be difficult to get through to busy executives.

Clients can also learn from our experience:

– Don’t skip this step.

– Be prepared; create a discussion guide or at least capture key bullet notes regarding topics you’d like to hear about.

– Be direct. References expect you to ask tough questions, so go for it.

– Take notes. Use your notes to add depth to each successive call.

– Don’t ask for 3 references. Ask for 4 or more. Anyone should be able to provide at least 3 decent references! In our experience you’ll learn much more from a 4th or 5th reference.

– Require that each of your small group of finalists (3-4 agencies) provide their references and check them prior to their final presentation. The references may provide rich areas worth probing in the meeting. And, if an agency declines to provide the references, simply pass. The agency selection process is a considered purchase and a critical decision for a client. You shouldn’t have to make a decision without being able to talk to an agency’s current clients.

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.