Purchasing departments for school systems, city government, state government, federal government are used to buying tangible items or services that are easy to define. We need toilet paper is easy- how many rolls, how many sheets to a roll- price and done. Services are a little tougher- cleaning floors in a hospital has more variables, but still can be calculated in square feet, supplies and man hours.

Part of the problem in government purchasing, is that you are open to all bidders, whereas in the private sector, your agency search consultant can filter down your short list pretty quick. They do this based on their knowledge of the industry, the problems the client is facing and insight into client/agency cultures. They act more like a dating service than a purchasing department.

When it’s time to come up with a brilliant re-positioning of your school system, city, state or federal agency it isn’t something that can be accomplished better by more people, hours, or, even money. All the metrics that are usually used to evaluate the standard purchasing value proposition are out the window.

Hiring a creative firm is more like getting married and having kids than it is like buying a car. Even after divorcing your agency, there are still and always will be ties and connections to deal with. You can just sell the car and get a new one on the flip side.

When you hire an ad agency, you are buying the promise of hope, entering into a relationship that will either grow and blossom and be mutually beneficial, or it could end in a sloppy divorce or even devolve into something resembling a murder/suicide. What you are buying and what you’ll get largely depends on how well you know your institution, and how well the agency understands your problems and your markets. You are buying intuition and insight more than anything else. Marriages succeed when two people know each other’s faults and accept them, they grow, where they complement each other, they blossom when the synergy allows growth and builds value.

All that said, it’s about mutual understanding, respect and realistic expectations.

If your organization has a bad reputation, delivers shoddy service, creates havoc for your users, is difficult to work with- the best advertising in the world won’t help. In fact, it may hurt.

If your organization is driven to do great things, and is focused on excellence, a bad agency can probably do the job and you’ll still be ok.

Sometimes an agency has to be an outside conscience for their client to tell your organization how to do it right. When Crispin Porter + Bogusky told Domino’s it’s time to admit your pizza blows, it wasn’t what Domino’s wanted to hear, but when the consumers were told that the company finally heard them- sales went up and so did Domino’s fortune. Do you think Domino’s liked hearing it? No. Are they glad they listened? Yep.

How did Domino’s know CP+B was the right agency for them to hire? Even after they told them their pizza sucked? They understood who they were marrying. CP+B was an industry darling that had taken other brands into uncomfortable territory and created value. In this case, past performance is an indication of future success. Yet even CP+B loses clients to other agencies. One clients great savior isn’t necessarily the answer for another.

Government agencies aren’t typically well stocked with marketers in their organization, or in their procurement offices. While there are metrics of increased sales or even customer satisfaction ratings that business can look at, your local schools aren’t going out of business if the logo sucks or the campaign for your levy fails. So, how do you construct a useful RFP instrument and process to select that isn’t based on dollars, hours, deliverables and other tangible measurements? How do you cut through the slick presentations and marketing jargon, so you are able to really compare responses to your RFP?

Start out with a real budget for your potential agency to work with.

While this sounds easy, many government accounting systems don’t fully count what they spend on marketing. Every mailing you do to home- even if it’s to mail a water bill, or a report card is a potential marketing delivery tool. Every printed handout that students take home, even if it’s about school uniforms, has a chance to help build your brand. Are you accounting for all expenses and all potential opportunities? While you may think you know how much should be spent on billboards and TV spots and think you want numbers for reach and frequency, how do you account for likes and shares? Organic and paid? Have you determined the budget based on what you’ve always done? That should be a clear red flag.

Come out with a real budget number for the RFP- and ask the agency how they’d allocate the funds to maximize effectiveness. It should give you a clue of what media they are most comfortable with.

That’s a first test.

It doesn’t even have to be for your entire budget, sometimes just a smaller project is a good way to test the waters. Kind of like a first date.

Have goals and objectives- a creative brief.

What metric are you really interested in? Since it’s not “sales” or “profits” is there some action that you can index? What do you want to change? What is the desired result? Is it to enroll more people in your program, to better understand what resources you provide, to mobilize people to do something? Define the objective you want your new agency to solve. Keep it simple and short. Maybe it’s not comprehensive- maybe it’s just how to solve one part of your puzzle. This is about deciding who to hire- not to actually solve the problem. A creative brief is a document of constraints, aimed at focusing efforts to maximize results- your RFP is about evaluating resources for maximum result. Don’t ask for spec work, ask for examples of how they’ve done this before, or what they would do to solve your problem. Ask about processes, ask about how you’ll communicate, ask about implementation, just don’t ask for the campaign itself.

Provide a summary of what you’ve done in the past.

One of our favorite new client interviews began with the client walking in with a stack of his brands history, with packaging, logos, ads, and the story of the brand. While you may think everything someone needs to learn about your company is online, it’s probably not unless you are a fortune 100.

Instead of hoping the prospective agencies know your advertising, branding, history- have it in a neat package. It never hurts an organization to have its brand DNA distilled into a nice package (we like to call them brand books) to tell your potential customers your story either.

Ask for timelines and budgets

Knowing how much something costs is great, knowing when to have the money available is another. Ideas that can’t be funded aren’t really ideas- they’re pipe dreams. Both organizations need to be aware of when money is needed- including payment terms. Much like newlyweds, costs of a house, car, honeymoon, baby all have to be put into the picture. Put both payment terms, and approval times into the document so there are clear and binding expectations.

Who are the players?

Both sides need to know the real lineup. Agency principals can be there at the pitch- but will never see the client again, and the client who is purchasing the work, may never have to work with the agency. Ask for the agencies lineup- and share yours. These are the people that will be working together. Have them involved in the process. The people who will work together, should be the ones involved in the review and the interview.

Constraints are your friend

It shouldn’t take 150 pages to explain a marketing plan. Most great marketing ideas fit on a cocktail napkin. Limit the rfp responses to the bare minimum. If you have specific questions, ask them in the RFP, not later in the interview. “How do you foresee the rebrand being implemented” and “Cite an example of a rebrand you’ve done” are better than “we want comprehensive marketing services.”

Interview, scenario, visit.

Once you’ve narrowed down the responses, interview the agencies that seem to best understand your issues. This is where your people who will work directly with their people ask each other questions. It should go both ways. The client should be asking about the proposal, the agency should be asking about the clients comfort level with the proposal. This is a date still- not the marriage.

Having a scenario prepared to ask the agency on how they’d handle it is a good way to see how they think on their feet. “What would you do if a student was stabbed on the playground during the school day by an outside attacker?”  Or, “our last conference wasn’t as well organized or attended as we’d like, what could you do to change that?”

Have a timeline to work with, but be flexible. 20 minutes to present, 40 minutes to answer questions might sound efficient, but, for a long-term relationship, speeddating might not be the best solution.

Lastly, visit each others work spaces. Learn about your future partners in their natural habitat. Sometimes, it’s even smart to hold the first interviews on neutral ground- just to make everyone feel at ease.

Keep lines of communication open throughout the process

If a bidder is out of the running, let them know. If the process is going to take longer than expected, let the bidders know- however, at this point the terms of the contract will change. Make sure you clearly communicate to all bidders what is happening.

Scoring the bids

Since this isn’t private enterprise, scoring is critical, and open to scrutiny.

If your objectives were clear, the budget set, and the examples asked for are absolute, scoring becomes easier. Weighting the scores is usually where things get complex. Assigning points for things like “sustainability” turns you into a bond-rating agency. The financial meltdown should have proven that these sorts of evaluations are rarely accurate.

You are really grading two things: the proposal, and the likelihood that there will be synergy. How you determine these things can’t be split up into 15 categories and scored. Fractions of points are a joke. Come up with a list of big picture questions and try to rank the agencies by each in order. Assign points by ranking. Rank no more than 5 agencies, and put them in order for each question- 5 best, 1 least.

  • Seemed to understand our objective and have realistic solutions
  • Has relevant experience with our target audience
  • Demonstrates the skills we need
  • Efficiency in delivering message
  • Competency of team- likeability
  • Past performance with other clients
  • Demonstrated strategic thinking
  • Potential value add
  • How do they manage client communications, track projects

Feel free to add your own. But, weighing the value of one area over another starts making it more complex. If anyone can’t put the five agencies into a ranking based on the criteria- the criteria may be the problem. If your team thinks there is a tie- then cull the field and start again.

The Pre-nup

Ownership of ideas isn’t as easy to define as ownership of the pet dog or a couch. There are questions about ownership of the work, of payment for media plans, and work outside of the original scope of work. Both sides may want an annulment, or it may come down to a nasty divorce when lawyers get involved.

Does the client have rights to the working files, the b-roll, the code- or just the finished project? Who licenses the fonts? The stock footage? Do those rights transfer? Does the agency get a guaranteed minimum engagement? Are there penalties for early withdrawl? Agencies often make considerable investment ramping up for a new client – what guarantees are there?

Also, don’t forget with the management of social accounts, who has access? Who owns them?

We’ve often seen questions about our ability to pay for media on behalf of clients, yet they have a reputation for not paying on time. What safeguards are in place to make sure the financials are in order? And, the same goes for approvals? Is the job charged a rush fee because of slow client approvals?

Spending time working the pre-nup details out before the award makes for a much better relationship.

The thing to remember

You aren’t buying a car. It’s a relationship. Often the best work doesn’t come right away. Sometimes what sounded great in the pitch- turns into a nightmare to sustain. When the US Army fell hook-line-and-sinker for “ARMY STRONG” on the strength of one spec spot, they had a hard time figuring out how to keep it going after. The Marine Corps on the other hand, has never had to explain, “the few, the proud, the Marines” – and it helps that Marine Corps dress blues win hands down in the fashion show.

Can you help me right now is great, but will this relationship grow is more important. Will the agency be your partner in growing and extending your brand, or will it just be there for the one trick pony? Expect there to be growing pains. Ask questions about how they collaborate- and communicate- a lot. That’s the key to a good hire, and it takes both sides to make it work.

Just like a marriage.

For further reference:

The 4A’s has ANA/4A’s Agency Selection Briefing Guidance.

The ANA/4A’s Guidelines for Agency Search outlines best practices for clients and agencies.

How to run an advertising agency review?

Business Week on “How to hire an ad agency

Keys to a successful agency review

If you’d like help on how to review your current materials and prepare it to send to agencies for a review, we can help. Feel free to contact us.

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