Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Why Agencies are Swiping Left on the RFP Process

If you've ever had to search for a PR firm, creative or digital marketing agency, you're familiar with the RFP process. A "Request for Proposal" (RFP) is inevitably a "Recipe for Pain" for both brands and agencies. It becomes a commodity exercise at best and ultimately a waste of time at worst. Issuing a blanket RFP to a wide net of agencies is a superficial way to make such an important decision.

You may be surprised to find more marketing agencies are passing on participating in an RFP. I was recently mentioned in an article in PR Week, "Why PR Agencies are Swiping Left on the RFP Process". I know creative and digital marketing agencies agree. What brands don't realize, is that issuing a blanket RFP and wide net approach turns off talented marketing agencies.

Why? It's time consuming and takes a lot of work for an agency to properly respond to an RFP. Busy agencies with limited resources need to be selective and consider their chances of success. They wonder if the brand is just going through the motions and fishing for ideas; if it's competitive bid fodder, or if there are political motives and relationships involved behind the scenes. From their perspective, why should they consider giving a "proposal" - equivalent to a business marriage - to a potential partner they haven't met?

The RFP process can be a painful for brands, too. Conducting a marketing agency search often becomes a time-intensive process that can interfere with daily business and other pressing responsibilities. Marketers can waste valuable time and drain internal resources - spend weeks or months going through meetings, pitches, proposals, getting bombarded with emails and phone calls from agencies along the way - just to find out at the end of the process that they might just have one solid option out of it!

Yet, everyone has a network and many marketers are confident it holds the answer and the process is as easy as an RFP. The challenge with relying on your Network is that the "net" doesn't always work! An agency that worked well for you in the past, (i.e., at a large CPG) may not be ideally suited for your current situation (i.e., thriving startup) with a smaller budget. If agency relationships or politics are involved, it can be internally awkward to eliminate them.

With right due diligence, many agencies can be eliminated, or better ones identified without wasting everyone's time.

A third-party agency search consultant can objectively steer the process and ensure the right agencies are in the mix, provide a buffer and help ascertain the right fit from a capabilities and budget perspective.

You'll be more productive, get a shortlist of ideally qualified agencies, save valuable time, possibly money and find agencies you didn't even know existed. And when the RFP is finally issued at the right time, you'll get much more enthusiastic and thoughtful responses from the agencies which can help you make a better decision.

When I'm managing an agency search, part of my process is to first vet a brand's pre-identified agencies. I become "Goldilocks": "This agency is too big"; "That agency is too small"; "This one is too expensive"; "That one is too weird and won't fit with the culture; "This one doesn't have the firepower," and so on.

I spend hundreds of hours researching agencies, doing the legwork and spending the time-so clients don't waste theirs. If you need a Goldilocks to find you the "just right" marketing partner, call me. With thousands of agencies under the sun, I can help you find the right one!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Cupid's Pointers for Finding a Marketing Agency Partner

While the client-agency dating game goes on all year round, Valentine's Day is an appropriate occasion to pass along a few quick tips for finding the best marketing partner. No relationship is wine and roses all the time, but you deserve the best and can achieve it if you plan accordingly from the start.

1) Sizing Up Prospective Agencies

Pretty faces don't always mean smarts, and size isn't everything. Huge agencies within holding companies are not necessarily more creative or dedicated. Sure, if you're a global marketer, you may need resources in many countries. If you're not, you might get more love and attention from a smaller agency. Plus, it will be easier to ferret out potential client conflicts, which are not always obvious at the biggest shops.

2) Considering Credentials

If you're not using a search consultant as matchmaker, you'll have to create a shortlist of agency candidates. Consider that agencies you've worked with in the past may not be ideally suited for your current need. Look for right-sized agencies with relevant experience. If possible, stay within a comfortable geographic radius of your HQ. There's nothing like face-to-face business. Conference calls and emails can only achieve so much. If you have the right selection of a few qualified potential partners, you have a greater chance of ending up with an excellent one.

3) First Impressions

As in dating, the first meet-and-greet tells a lot. Does the agency team seem comfortable with each other? Is there a good age mix? How eager are they to learn exactly what your expectations are? Ask them to explain their long-term client relationships and what they have learned along the way. How passionate are they about what they have achieved for other marketers? You want them to be passionate about you. The chemistry and culture fit should feel good.

4) Make Your Expectations Explicit

Honesty is the best policy when it comes to romance and client-agency relationships. Many of the latter start on the best of terms but go off the rails for things having nothing to do with creativity. Many clients don't properly communicate their scope-of-work expectations, or they keep changing them along the way. Do your best to set clear, understandable performance goals and make sure everyone understands the parameters of those goals. Craft an explicit on-boarding process for your potential agency partner so that any differences in communication or interpretation are discovered and remedied quickly.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Courting Clients - Cupid's Pointers for Wooing Prospects

Valentine's Day is a fine occasion to pass along a few tips for how agencies can become more attractive to prospects. To spark a mutually beneficial business love fest, agencies need to be accessible, knowledgeable, attentive and devoted to following up. Here are four ways to win marketers' hearts, minds and yes, wallets.

1) Be Easy to Reach

Playing hard to get is considered de rigueur in some circles. But some agencies make themselves almost impossible to connect with. Ask agency search consultants what drives them nuts and they will tell you it's filling out a form on an agency website to get information. If you really want to get hired, use a real person's name and email address and respond quickly to any and all inquiries. And list your agency's phone number in a prominent spot on your website, right alongside your credentials and case studies.

2) Research

If you've handled an account in the same business category as your client prospect, be prepared to share as much of your knowledge and success as client confidentiality allows. If you're pitching in a new category, syndicated research can bring you up to speed quickly. Be sure to check out the client's website, latest press release and any materials you can get your hands on, so you'll be empowered for a productive conversation.

3) Listen

Okay, you've got lots to talk about and show off, as many suitors do. But listen to the prospective client first. Be patient. You can't explain how your agency is their best fit if you do not understand what they are seeking to accomplish in the marketplace. Ask about previous agencies they worked with (not specific names) and have the client explain why those relationships went wrong. This will give you even more ammunition to pitch to their sweet spots. And never badmouth ex-clients. Take the high road. It's not crowded up there.

4) Leave Behind, Follow Up

Always go to pitches bearing leave-behinds: Not flowers and candy but a PowerPoint presentation, a brochure, case studies, whatever. Call and send written thank-you notes the day after to supplement the follow-up email thank-you messages. In this digital age, hand-written communications carry extra psychic weight. Above all, if you say you will deliver a proposal within 36 hours, deliver it in less than 36 hours. Show your desire. This is a courtship, after all!

If your pitch process is not wowing prospects or winning the business, don't lose heart. I can give your pitch a makeover that will position your agency as a real catch and a keeper, so client prospects will be chasing you. Just ask...

Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Win more pitches by getting out of the commodity business

Most agencies position themselves as unique when pitching new clients. Yet, I'm always amazed how many agency pitches look and sound the same.

Branding. Digital Marketing. Advertising. Public relations. Social Media. While necessary functions, these are ALL commodity services.

I'm sure your agency claims to do it all better.

The reality is that prospective clients don't care about your agency or the litany of services your agency provides. They care about their problems.

If there is no pain, there is no change.

Client prospects will simply not leave their agency and jump into bed with another one unless they feel the new agency can do something their current partner cannot.

Marketers are under pressure from a million directions. Understand and solve their problems, and your agency will become indispensable.

This strategic selling philosophy is often absent at agencies, whom are primarily focused on pushing their list of services.

So, how do you get out of the commodity business and on your prospects' radar as their ideal solution?

The best way to get to that place is to first understand the real table-stakes.

If you don't know your prospect's pain points, you will not win the business. Period.

What are the client prospects' greatest pressures and challenges? How are those pain points related to the rest of the organization, from marketing, through sales and the c-suite?

What problems does your agency solve? Do you change brand perceptions? Increase sales and market share?

Sell solutions, not services.

Focus on how you can solve your prospects' problems and you'll win their hearts and their business.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Biggest Mistakes Marketers Make Hiring an Agency

Are your marketing programs producing results you love? Finding the right PR, branding, creative advertising or digital marketing partner can be a time-intensive process that can drain internal resources and impact daily business. But the stakes couldn't be higher. The right firm can inject new life into your business; the wrong one can be costly and frustrating. If you go about an agency search the wrong way, you will needlessly waste time, money and energy.

Through my experience managing hundreds of agency reviews, I've seen businesses repeat mistakes that can be easily avoided. If you are considering a search for a new marketing partner, here is some advice:

Thoughtful Timing
In today's fast-paced environment, things change quickly. Product developments, management teams and business pivots can all impact table-stakes. By the time the meeting rolls around with the agency you had in mind, requirements and budgets have shifted and what might have initially been a great fit, is no longer the case given your present situation. Needs change over time. Do not kick off an agency search until you are ready to hire and committed to the initiative and budget.

Shifting Scope and Expectations
What is the real ask? It sounds like such an easy question. You know what you want. However, your CEO may want something else. Getting internal alignment from all key stakeholders can be challenging and rife with politics, yet critical for success. Many clients don't properly communicate their scope-of-work and expectations to the agency, or they keep changing them along the way. Agreeing on what success looks like is the first step. Clearly define expected deliverables and agree on how will success will be measured.

Battling Budgets
What's in the kitty? Have an idea on the budget range that you're committed to spending. Just about any marketing initiative can be can be done at some level, ranging from minuscule budgets to extremely expensive engagements. All agencies have minimums, although in their efforts to "sell" you, they will not likely not share that information. Getting clear on budgets upfront saves time for everyone. Engaging a large agency for a small initiative will ultimately result in a frustrating relationship if your company is one of their smallest clients. Look for recent engagements with similar sized budgets.

The key to success boils down to communicating openly and asking the right questions.

Biggest Mistakes Agencies Make

As an agency search consultant, I'm always asked what are the biggest blunders that agencies make in new business pitches. Does your agency win most of the time? Here's some advice on how to avoid common pitfalls and create a better connection with prospective clients:

Thoughtful Timing
Starting late always happens. Traffic delays. Technology troubles connecting a laptop. Lengthy introductions. Somehow 20 minutes disappear and the CEO's phone goes off. She leaves the room and you don't see her again. Time is valuable. Start promptly. Assume a third of the meeting time should be allocated to capabilities and experience and a third of the time focused on getting to the heart of clients' challenges. Assume the last third may evaporate. If you have it, use it for thought-provoking conversation. Always arrive early. It's easy to fill 15 minutes. You might even snag time with the client prior to the meeting, a more optimal time for chitchat. Make the most of your face-to-face opportunity.

Daunting Decks
Credentials and connection are equally important. If you're spending most of your time presenting your deck instead of making conversation, you're doing something wrong. It's a meeting - not a read-a-long. Keep the energy focused on you and not the screen. Use the presentation as a show-and-tell to highlight relevant experience through "eye-candy" -client logos, screen shots, results-oriented statistics-stuff that has a wow effect. Keep the presentation short and limit the text. For an hour meeting, don't exceed 30 slides and make sure you get through it in 20 minutes. Anything else that feels necessary should be glossed over and used as a leave behind, or put in an appendix. Take the time to create chemistry.

Presenting Pizazz
Your agency may talented, yet selling this experience requires entirely different skills. Agency principals are not always the best presenters. The same goes for junior folks. Not everyone has charisma. If team members don't present well, it's best for them to lead the post-capabilities conversation and ask smart questions; this keeps the focus on their strengths. Clients like to meet the day-to-day team that will be working on their account. Everyone in the meeting should have a role, or they are just and taking up space and sapping energy from the room. If presenting is not your team's strong suit, get coached on how to do it better. Best practices can be trained.

Building this relationship boils down to being present and making a meaningful connection. Proper planning can make or break your next pitch.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happy New Year!

Wishing you a a healthy, peaceful and prosperous year ahead!

May 2017 be overflowing with new positive experiences, exciting opportunities, fulfilled goals, dreams and everything that makes you happy.

Michele Harris