How to find an agency and manage the pitching process
Modern marketing is multi-faceted and increasingly specialised. It’s rare for an in-house team to be able to run the full gamut of branding, web design, SEO, digital marketing, PR, events, content and paid media without relying on some kind of outside support.
Working with agencies, freelancers and consultants will help you tap into specialist skill sets that you otherwise wouldn’t have. They can also help you stay focussed on your core business while expanding your range of marketing activity.
But finding the right partner isn’t always easy. Should you work with an individual or do you need a team? Do you want a specialist agency, or a full-service one? And once you’ve decided what kind of agency you’re after, how do you find the one that’s right for you?
In this post, we’ll explore what your options are, how to create a shortlist of partners and how to manage the pitch process.
Understand your goals
The first and most important step is to be clear about the outcomes you’re looking for. Before you start to look around, you should be able to answer these fundamental questions:
- What results or outcomes am I looking for?
- Why am I looking for outside help to achieve this?
- When am I hoping to see results by?
- Approximately how much am I willing to spend?
Timelines and budgets don’t have to be exact, but ballpark costs and deadlines will help you choose between partners and guide conversations.
It’s also worth considering whether you want to work with an individual or a team. There are pros and cons to both.
Freelancers and consultants tend to be cheaper than agencies. They’re useful for solving specific problems or achieving specific results. That said, they tend to require more management than an agency would. Working with multiple different freelancers on a project can become complex and time-consuming.
Agencies are usually more expensive, but they can provide a complete service, including account handlers or project managers, which can make life easier for you. They may also be able to roll multiple disciplines (such as web design, content creation and video) into one offering, meaning you don’t have to deal with as many people.
You may want to consider whether you want a partner who is local or whether you’re happy for them to work remotely. This is often a personal preference. Local partners will limit your options, but some people prefer regular face-to-face interactions as opposed to video calls.
It’s useful to think about the duration and eventual scope of the project. Is this a quick job with specific deliverables? Is this a more long-term, strategic partnership that will expand into other areas? Do you want a partner who can transfer skills over to your team while the work is ongoing?
Once you’re clear on your own goals and preferences, it’s time to create a shortlist and invite them to pitch. Since freelancers, consultants and small-scale projects rarely require a formal pitch, we’re going to focus the next section on how to manage a pitch process that will help you pick an agency who you can build a long-term, strategic partnership with.
Creating a shortlist
It’s great to have contacts that you’ve worked with in the past or know outside of work, but you’re unlikely to know all of the best partners that are out there. Don’t limit your options to your existing network.
Referrals are a time-honoured way to find trusted suppliers. Focus on referrals that come from people who’ve actually worked with someone and seen good results, as opposed to those who know somebody that might be able to help. LinkedIn is a good place to ask for help.
Award wins are a good indicator. Although make sure that the award wins are relevant to your goals or your sector. An award win for something totally unrelated doesn’t count for much.
Agencies with case studies that relate to your sector or the specific results you’re looking for are another good indicator. Working with someone who already understands your sector can save you a lot of time during the briefing process.
When reviewing case studies, focus on specific results and KPIs. Agencies with impressive stats will showcase them every chance they get. Agencies that are vague about their impact, citing results like ‘growth in traffic’, probably didn’t make much of an impact.
Choosing an agency is just as important as making a hire and a bad choice could be very costly in the long run. Don’t be afraid to ask for references to help you make a decision. Create a shortlist of three to five agencies and never settle for the first partner that you find.
Managing the pitching process
There are two types of ‘pitch’. The first is a detailed response to a specific brief that you have set. This work will have been created on-spec for the purposes of winning your business. This kind of pitch is appropriate for larger projects with bigger budgets. In some cases, agencies may expect to be paid for this work.
For smaller projects, agencies will often prepare a more general presentation introducing their business and then talk in a general way about your goals and how they could help. Agencies will usually do this for free as part of the new business process.
In either case, supply the agency with a clear brief well in advance of the meeting. Without this, the discussion will lack focus and you’ll probably need another meeting to make a decision. We’ll cover how to create an agency brief in the next post in this series.
Agencies will often ask additional questions as part of the pitch process. These calls can be illuminating. Are they asking sensible questions? Is the interaction easy or strained? Do they seem confident and organised or does it feel a bit chaotic?
Ask for the people who will be running the account to attend the pitch. You want to get a feel for the day-to-day team, as opposed to the hotshot Creative Director who will dazzle you in the pitch but never be seen again.
As part of your brief, you may want to set them a task to demonstrate their skills and experience. Alongside their response, ask them to explain their reasoning. How people think is just as important as what people think.
Let the agencies know how long they will have to present and provide guidance for the kinds of questions you’re likely to ask them in the room. Example questions may include:
- Why do they want to work with you?
- What makes you a good client?
- Do they view this as a transactional project or a long-term partnership? If long-term, will they be willing to make an investment upfront in the relationship (usually in the form of lower fees)
- How will they handle day-to-day communications?
- What other services do they have that may be useful in the future?
Making a decision
Try to hold your pitches on the same day, this will help you make direct comparisons. You should also aim to make a decision by the end of that day, if possible. First impressions are important and leaving the decision too long can affect your judgement.
When making comparisons, try to evaluate them based on the same criteria. And make sure that the people you’re basing your decisions on are the ones who will be doing the work. Agencies will often roll out senior staff who are great presenters for pitches. If those people aren’t going to be on the account, that’s worth taking into account.
You may also want to ask your receptionist or whoever showed them in how they seemed when they arrived. This can give you an indication of what they’re like when you’re not around.
Consider who their clients are. If an agency has a lot of high-profile brands on their roster, that can be a good thing. But you don’t want your account to be overshadowed. It can be a good thing to be a big fish in a small pond. A small agency who really prizes your work may produce better results than a large agency who sees you as ‘small fry’.
Before you make a decision, ask any agencies that are still in the running after the pitch for references from at least two of their current customers.
Investing time and effort in finding the right agency will pay back dividends when the work begins. Understanding your own goals, researching your options and running an effective pitch process will help you sort the agencies you want to work with from those that you don’t. Changing agency is a time-consuming and disruptive process for everyone involved. Putting the effort in upfront will make you more likely to find a partner that you can build a long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship with for years to come.