9 Ways Marketers Can Lure The Best Creative Agencies— Joanne Davis

You want them to say “yes” to an attractive opportunity — not “no” to an ugly process.

As originally published in AdAge on August 24, 2022.

Top agencies have always been selective about the work they accept — making sure a client is a good fit, their timeline respects holidays and weekends, their fee matches the work and they are transparent about budgets, decision-makers and goals.

Today, agencies have become choosy as well. Why?

With talent shortages at agencies and the premium pricing required to attract agency talent, review dynamics have changed. Agencies are living the reality that they must do more work with fewer people and are trying to not burn them out along the way. The review process creates a significant amount of work in an agency in the base case, and amidst talent shortages, this makes it harder and more stressful. Compounding matters, the empowered talent market is selective about the specific accounts they want to work on. As a result, more agencies who previously said “yes,” are scrutinizing every opportunity, and thus more agencies are now saying “no.”

What’s Always Been True

We have always told clients that agencies are interviewing the clients — just as much as you are interviewing them. The agencies want to make sure that:

  • the client is a good fit for the agency,
  • the client is transparent about their challenges, budgets, decision-makers, and goals,
  • the process and assignments are right sized to the fee,
  • the timeline respects holidays and weekends

All of which results in a client for whom agency staffers raise their hands and say “I want to work with them!”

What We’ve Seen in the Past Year

We’ve been called in by several clients who started reviews on their own and were dismayed by low response rates from agencies. The clients (marketers and procurement) asked us why so few agencies agreed to participate. They felt like they were having a party, and no one was coming.

We discovered that there were flaws in the initial invitation, questions, and process.

  • Example: Client sent an RFI with dozens of questions the day before a holiday weekend with a one-week turnaround
  • Example: The client’s timeline would have required agencies to work on July Fourth weekend for a meeting the following Monday
  • Example: Client’s RFI said the client would own everything the agency submitted (how can the client own the bios and client lists that the agency submitted?!)
  • Example: The client’s RFI had 100 questions — 95 of them standard procurement questions and only five pertinent to the agency opportunity
  • Example: The RFI started with eight pages of procurement terms and conditions, one paragraph on the opportunity for the agency, and two pages of questions — nothing about the client’s high-level agency needs, client team structure, and review timeline after the initial RFI submission.

We could go on and on, but you get the point.

What We Did and You Can Too

We have successfully helped clients create a “new party” — the party that agencies did want to attend — 110%!

Here are our tips to generate enthusiastic responses from agencies at the outset. While we’ve shared this advice over the years with hundreds of clients helping them lead their reviews, it’s never been more important than today.

Clients ask for transparency and respect all the time — but it is a two-way street when attracting top agencies — so you will see the common themes of transparency and respect for agencies embedded throughout. We encourage you to read the tips from the perspective of time-starved, short-staffed agencies struggling to attract and retain their workforce and hope you will agree to think twice before you issue your agency review or search invitations.

  1. Mutual NDA. Agency information such as client lists, cases, employee count, etc. is just as confidential to agencies as client information is to clients. Agency pricing is even more confidential. Why waste time and send a one-way NDA, when agencies will redline it to ask for mutuality?
  2. Ask relevant questions. Marketers are busy, agencies are busy. Only ask a question if the answer to the question will help you decide whether you want to spend more time with that agency. It never ceases to amaze me that some clients ask dozens of irrelevant questions just because “we ask these questions of all of our vendors.”
  3. Provide the opportunity, not the boilerplate from your press releases. Agencies can read your website home page. To make an informed decision regarding participating in your review, the agency needs to know more than that your company is a leader in XYZ. Describe what your need for the agency is.
  4. Sense of scope of work, if not fee. You wouldn’t want to apply for a job if you had no sense of what it paid, would you? Just as more and more states post salary ranges for jobs, share something. A good surrogate is the range of FTEs previously on your account.
  5. Fair timing, with the entire timeline communicated at the start. You like to have time off for holiday long weekends. Guess what, so do the agencies. And keep in mind that starting a review or a search in September is a challenge. Agencies, particularly smaller ones, are already busy with year-end for current clients and new business opportunities that started in August.
  6. Partners, not vendors. An agency “partner” that will be entrusted with your brand is not your everyday “vendor” of paperclips. “Vendor” always sounds like a hot dog vendor, not a world-class, higher-level strategic advisor. If you won’t call them an advisor, at least call them a supplier, not a vendor. Optics matter here.
  7. Respect proprietary questions. Although some in procurement may think it’s fair to send the answers to each agency’s questions to all agencies, it is exactly the opposite. The lazy agencies who asked perfunctory questions receive the benefit of the motivated agencies who took time to pose thoughtful questions. Yes, it’s faster to have an agency type their questions on an Excel worksheet, compile them, and “reply all,” but faster isn’t better, and faster isn’t fair.
  8. The finalist assignment should fit the fee. If your agency fee will be in the low single digits, it is not fair or professional to ask for an entire campaign including spec creative for three brands. When you apply for a job, are you asked to write your entire business plan on spec? It’s fine to ask for initial strategic ideas — an amuse-bouche, or even an appetizer, but not surf and turf and tiramisu.
  9. Allow for calls. Would you hire someone for $1mm or more based on a 90-minute semi-final meeting and a two-hour final meeting? Of course not. Client companies have teams of interviewers and rounds of interviews to hire staffers. Do yourself a service and spend time with agency finalists. Many of our clients have found the most valuable meetings are small group coffees and drinks — without all the formality of a presentation. Get to know the team — without multiple procurement or consultant “chaperones.”

There are many more tips beyond what’s provided here, but by reminding ourselves of the above advice, we’ll go a long way to getting the best agency candidates. You want them to say “yes” to an attractive opportunity and not “no” to an ugly process.

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A highly connected Industry leader, Joanne Davis is a global keynote speaker and an expert in client-agency relationships. Her strengths include implementing agency models and processes for agency search and selection, compensation, client-agency training, and optimization, to enhance organizational communication and collaboration. Joanne helps clients find, evaluate, start new, and maintain existing relationships with agencies. As a super connector, Joanne utilizes her vast network of clients to connect people to start and share meaningful conversations that build the foundation for strong relationships.

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