There’s no shortage of agency rankings, highlighting the “agency of the year” for advertising agencies, PR firms, marketing technology vendors, and more. Accolades are important, but often to the agencies themselves, where recognition serves as a recruiting tool and validation.
When selecting agency partners, you should focus less on who’s the “best” and more on what a great agency partner means for your brand. Look beyond “agency of the year” and strive instead for compatibility.
Finding Your Agency Mate
Before even beginning the search, you need clear goals and must identify what you are trying to achieve by bringing in an outside resource.
Word of mouth, reputation, and recommendations can help narrow the field to a shortlist of potential partners. But what happens next?
5 Focus Areas for Agency Selection
From my experience on both the client and agency side, I recommend focusing on five areas as you assess potential partners: cultural fit, talent, success metrics, adaptability, and unique, specialized expertise.
Cultural fit is perhaps the most challenging criteria to define. Agency-client compatibility requires a set of shared beliefs and behaviors. If you aren’t able to see eye-to-eye with your agency, you won’t be able to work together successfully.
Assessing cultural fit requires spending time in-person with the agency team, ideally in their office, and getting to know individuals across levels and functions. There may be people outside of the day-to-day agency team who could shed light on the company culture, including HR and communications. Speaking to client references is another important culture check.
Strong agencies attract strong talent — at all levels. You need a consistent, tenured team that understands your business. If talent comes and goes, it is a huge strain on the relationship, because you need to invest time and energy in building new relationships at your agency partners.
During the selection process, ask about the average tenure at the agency and learn about their recruiting and training policies. These questions will help you uncover how the agency hires, invests in and retains talented employees.
Great relationships are formed when the agency and client are jointly successful. Yet success can mean different things to different people. A shared point of view when it comes to measuring success is fundamental to closely aligned agency-client relationships.
Review how the agency has measured success with other clients and research the latest measures being used in your industry and adjacent industries.
If you want the relationship to be long-term, then the agency must be adaptable. Leaders change. Mandates evolve. The industry transforms. Agencies that are flexible and adaptable can serve their clients, regardless of the circumstances.
Request specific examples of long-standing client relationships and ask about the evolution of those relationships. Discuss scenarios that illustrate how their mandate might shift over time and see how the agency would respond to those hypothetical situations.
Unique, Specialized Expertise
Most agencies have a secret sauce — something that sets them apart. If the agency has expertise specific to your industry or competitive set, you will need to decide if the institutional knowledge outweighs the potential client conflicts.
Throughout your discussions with possible partners, dig deep into their unique and specialized capabilities — technologies, data, processes, knowledge, etc. These differentiators could be the determining factor in selecting your agency partner.
Keep an Open Mind
As you search for agency resources, consider unconventional solutions. An agency isn’t always the answer. For example, ask yourself, should I build this capability in-house? Additionally, for some brands, a consultant or group of consultants can provide a nimble, strategic support model.
Don’t get caught up in the “best agency” hype. Seek a partner that is best for you.