Selecting Agencies – Who do you trust?

An agency will tell you anything to get your business. So how do you get under the skin of what you’re being told to discover the truth?

This is an old chestnut but one that never goes away. For whatever reason you have decided to change agency. You line the new ones up on a beauty parade and supposedly you have this magical methodology for finding your new partner.

Only you don’t.

You base your decision on feel. Gut feel. Maybe we dress it up a little and call it “chemistry”. After all, the “chemistry meeting” went really well and we’re all on the same page, aren’t we?

We’ve all been brought in to new accounts and kicked out of old ones. However I met an agency some months ago that had the majority of their client relationships lasting for over 10 years. Surely that’s a good thing for both parties? Well it didn’t look like that for the agency – they had achieved only moderate growth over 10 years. Success did not lead to success for them. For the client, the same people for 10 years – hmmm, I’m not sure.

So how do you really get under the skin of an agency? How do you separate the enthusiasm, the personalities, the free donuts and fancy offices from capability? Well it’s not easy.

When pitching, we all put on our best face. Best work, best attitude, nothing is too much trouble. Without just being so cynical that we believe nothing – how do we get the balance right and how do we really get to know their capability?

Capability is the key for me. Capability is not just creative capability or technical capability. It covers every element of a client-agency relationship. Project capability. Budget capability. There are plenty of agencies out there that do a great job with a £200k budget but ask them to do something for £20k and they flounder. Equally, there are agencies that work in a comfort zone for £10k but give them a big project and they fall apart.

Here’s my advice.

Speak to at least two of their current clients - that they suggest. Now obviously they wont give you clients that hate them. But it’s always good to get a clients perspective on the agency.

Then ask the agency about two clients they no longer work with and ask them to explain in detail what went wrong and what they would do differently. You are looking for candour here. It will be easy to spot candour. Detail is the friend of candour. If the agency skips over details or gives high-level explanations - you know (in the words of Amy Winehouse) they’re no good. If you get ‘warts and all’ of what went wrong and some acknowledgement of responsibility on the agencies part – then you know you can work with these people. No agency is perfect. 

Past performance is a key way to determine capability. But looking at a portfolio is just not enough. You need to understand in detail performance metrics and VERIFICATION of those metrics. If someone claims to have improved online sales by 25% - ask them to show the evidence of it. If they say traffic went up by 123% - ask to see the Google Analytics. If they say our app got 300,000 downloads – ask to see the stats that prove it.

The biggest issue to guard against is ‘liking’ the agency and the people pitching. You almost have to stop yourself liking them to analyse their capability.

Do all this and you’ll get more right than wrong.