From 10,000 feet, the agency selection process most chief communications officers use seems to be a smooth, well-oiled method: Dial-up a few agencies, collect their credentials and some proposals, maybe a couple of presentations, and hire whichever seems best.
From ten feet, though, maybe not so much.
The research shows lower levels of satisfaction with specific components of the search process, including time allocation, the comprehensiveness of agency candidates and agencies’ responses to RFPs. In fact, more than one-third of clients are not certain about their search process or that they’ve made the right agency decision.
Communications executives making big-budget and high-stakes decisions regarding agencies are cutting corners – and in many cases recognize that this is not ideal – during the agency search and selection process.
Our experience, this research, and our many discussions with CCOs across the country point to several factors that will assure a comprehensive, objective, and thorough search process, as well as the selection of the very best agency for your company and scope of work:
- Start by casting a wide net – There are thousands of agencies of all sizes, specialties, and capabilities in the U.S. alone. Taking the time to research qualified agencies provides the best path to finding the firm likely to deliver the best outcomes.
- Pre-qualify agency candidates – Prepare a short request for qualifications/ information (RFQ/RFI) and distribute it anonymously (if possible, or do so through a search firm) to the initial list of candidates to determine which agencies fit the specific needs and do not have current clients which would pose a conflict of interest. From the responses, no more than eight agencies should qualify to receive an RFP.
- Develop a comprehensive RFP – Create a request for proposal (RFP) that comprehensively outlines why an agency is being sought, what is required of the selected agency, and the detailed selection criteria and a timeline. The contents of an RFP should provide a substantive base of knowledge to allow agency candidates to craft an intelligent response.
- Use an NDA – Rarely considered but a best practice nonetheless, RFPs should include a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to enable the client to share proprietary details, assure candidate agencies the client will maintain confidentiality of their proprietary ideas and methods, and to confirm there are no conflicts.
- Prepare a scorecard – All proposals should be reviewed and judged against a pre-established set of criteria in order to compare agencies “apples to apples.” A proposal scorecard, allowing evaluation team members to “grade” and comment on a candidate agency’s work against each criterion, is recommended. Consensus from at least five internal team members (preferably from inside and outside the communications department) will provide a fair review of the candidates.
- Invite the best to present – If their proposals were good enough to merit finalist status, invite the agencies to present, but do not allow them to simply summarize their proposals. Instead, finalists should be questioned in detail on the content in their proposals. And, a good way to see how finalists “think on their feet” is to pose a challenge during the presentation, give each finalist 15 minutes to craft a response, and ask them to present their solution. Similar to the proposal stage, a presentation scorecard is recommended.
- Interview references – Only 40% of respondents told us they check agency references. Similar to the hiring of an employee, interviews with agency references should be a key element of verifying work, experience, and performance.
- Select the agency best-suited for your organization and brand – The best agency will become evident during the final round, particularly with this tie-breaker: “With which agency will my team have the best chemistry?”