Aligning on Agency Search

By Greg Wright

During the pandemic there were various reports of bad business practices in the agency search and pitch process. The bad practices were found on both the client and agency side of the process. Many of the bad practices cited in the trade press stemmed from inconsistencies in the agency search and selection process. These bad practices leave both client and agency yearning for opportunities to simplify the process and in turn, benefit the business – and the industry as a whole.

In this change-seeking report, ANA/4A's Agency Search Simplification Report, more than 140 clients and agencies were surveyed on their thoughts surrounding the most effective steps to search for and secure an agency partner. The findings overwhelmingly demonstrate the concurrence in opinion between agencies and their clients – the process needs to require less time, be more direct, and be mutually beneficial for both parties.

The primary objective of the study was to identify key areas for improvement in the agency search process from the working group of 141 marketing professionals and the value of each pain point to the process itself – with the end goal to hone business practices and benefit both the agencies and their potential clients.

The survey looked at various points in the agency search and pitch process to identify where the gaps are between client and agency. The key areas of analysis included:

  • Standardized information offered during the RFI stage
  • Success criteria
  • Search process timeline
  • Decision-maker participation levels
  • Communication procedures
  • Search consultant roles and responsibilities
  • "Chemistry Meeting" value, expectations, and deliverables
  • Stakeholder alignment prior to the agency search process
  • Post-review feedback
  • Leadership and agency team involvement
  • Overall review process guidelines and structure

The search process involves numerous steps and requires the participation of various stakeholders to procure the right team for the right job. Both clients and agency representatives agree that having some face time and improved communication on both sides helps to clear up expectations and be transparent with objectives and feedback.

Good business practices are an integral part of company growth and success – they should be integrated into the agency search process as well. Internal client alignment across multiple teams and leadership, and any external consultants, is crucial to creating a set of criteria for success and the business opportunity to ensure promises made are promises kept.

Of course, as with any process, there is room for improvement. The agencies and clients were not aligned on a few key areas in the agency search and pitch process. The study also shed light on some opportunities for clients and agencies to increase transparency, including sharing the list of participating agencies, budget, identification of key decision-makers, sharing of Q&A responses, and overall process ownership.

There were only five areas in the agency search process that we identified as having gaps between clients and agencies. In the full report, we explore the client and agency perspective for each, as well as recommendations for the industry.

  • Sharing the agencies participating in the review: When possible, clients should disclose the list of agencies competing in the pitch. If business policies or regulations preclude disclosing the list of agencies, that should be made clear to all participating agencies at the start of the process.
  • Sharing a budget or budget range: Clients should disclose at least a budget range for an agency pitch. If the client is looking to understand what budget may be required, they should share that insight up front in the process. In this case, agencies should consider providing several options which could help the client arrive at an appropriate budget.
  • Agency access to key decision-makers: Clients should establish a communication process and identify the key decision-makers as they see fit, with the intent to provide as transparent and direct communication process as possible, while also maintaining an even playing field for all agencies. Clients may want to establish a process for each agency to meet the client key decision-makers.
  • Sharing of Q&A: Clients should establish up front in the search process their policy on the sharing of questions and answers with all participants. Questions and answers should only be shared anonymously. Clients may also want to establish a process for agencies to ask strategic questions privately. Agencies should verify with the client how question and answer will be handled and if they can submit strategic questions privately.
  • Use and ownership of spec work: Clients should establish upfront if spec work will be required as part of the pitch process. Clients should consult with their legal department first and determine if they will pay a fee to obtain ownership of the work presented by the agency. There are a growing number of stakeholders who believe spec work should not be part of the pitch process, but rather a client should look for an agency's evidence of expertise and replicable processes to help build confidence that the agency can create strong work on an ongoing basis.

What's Next?

In 2023, the ANA and 4A's will launch the Client Agency Relationship Forum, which will be an ongoing opportunity to discuss industry issues, identify potential solutions, and remedy key discrepancies in the agency and client relationship. The ANA and the 4A's will also launch a webinar series of discussions between long-standing client and agency partners to understand and share how some clients and agencies have successfully worked together.

Want to see more? Download the full report and get on the journey to make the agency search and pitch process more streamlined and efficient for both agencies and clients – spending more time creating and implementing effective, business-boosting campaigns, and less time on search logistics.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

Greg Wright is the VP of content marketing at Association of National Advertisers. In his role at the ANA, Greg Wright manages the marketing organization area, which includes in-house agency, marketing procurement, production management, and agency relationship management. Prior to joining the ANA, Greg managed executive and member communications and marketing in-house for the AICPA. Greg has an M.B.A. in Marketing and a B.A. in Political Science and Geography.