Before the Internet, the process to select an advertising agency was very limited for clients. The only way to review a field of candidates was to issue an RFP, review proposals, narrow down to a few agencies to make presentations and then select the one that scores the highest with the committee.
There were challenges on both sides of the table with this formula. Depending on how the score sheet was weighted, most often the agency chosen was the cheapest , not necessarily the best. And for the agencies participating, the requirement to provide speculative creative was costly. Most difficult was the perception that the client already knew who they wanted and the RFP process was simply to legitimize the selection.
Inevitably, it wasn't the best agency that won the RFP and then this 'arranged marriage' was doomed to fail from the beginning, at the cost of thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once the buyer's remorse set in, the client would anxiously await the end the contract and then the process would begin again.
Times have changed
Agencies and clients have both realized that the RFP process is flawed and are moving away from it. The better agencies are being very selective about what RFPs, if any, they participate in. Clients, tired of getting stuck with hungry and inadequate agencies are skipping the RFP process entirely. With the ability to research agencies thoroughly through the Internet, blogs, Twitter and Facebook beforehand, clients can now get to know the agency and vet their qualifications and experience before they buy.
In many cases, they are hiring agencies without undergoing a lengthy and time consuming competitive review. And the client/agency relationships that result are turning out to be more productive and last much longer.
If you are looking for a new advertising agency, here’s what to look for on their website:
Category expertise - agency with experience in your industry so they understand your language and more importantly your customers.
Category diversity - but not only your industry, or you will get the same rehash of what has already been done before
Thought leadership - if they have an opinion, you should find it in their white papers, newsletters and blogs
Defined process - you’re searching for creativity, not chaos: checks and balances will keep them on strategy
Internet chops - marketing begins and ends on the Internet: your next agency better understand this
Media neutrality - it’s a bad sign if their work is organized by medium: this suggests that they are in the business of producing stuff rather than getting results
Ideas with legs - while highly subjective, this is important if you want ROI for your marketing investment: how long do their current clients stick with their plan?
If you see any of these signs, run away as fast as you can:
You have to wait for their homepage to load (a countdown or loading message is the kiss of death)
Their website is all Flash (flash is great if you want to design your own BMW online, but it’s terrible for marketing on the web)
As their mission, they say something to the effect of “to offer our clients strategy that empowers them, ads that give us all goosebumps and results that make us friends for life” - if you're smart, you're not looking for friends
They have a bad attitude - as if they are somehow superior to their clients and the target audience
After clicking a few pages on their site, you notice the URL doesn’t change or it’s in an indecipherable code (they don’t get the importance of search engine optimization)
They don’t show you any of their work
Their portfolio features just print ads and/or television spots - print and TV are so twentieth century
Their work looks like their agency and not like their clients
They say they do everything well (there’s no such thing as an expert generalist)
They brag about all the awards they’ve won
When you begin your next agency search, start by looking at the website, blog, white paper, Twitter and Facebook accounts of the prospective agencies. It will become clear that some of these things are not like the others. You will find agencies that seem to be a better fit with your companies culture. This marriage should last for a long time, so get to know them and pick the one you can work with the best.