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The Brand Manager's Series: How to Choose Agencies


By Stephen Lepitak | -


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May 28, 2014 | 14 min read

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It’s a topic close to our heart. The selection of the right agency partners has for years been a conundrum wrapped up in an enigma. Is it instinct? Luck? Or science? All play a role with no guarantees - but you can improve your odds.

One of the few certainties in marketing is that at some point in your career as a brand marketer you will need the ideas and creativity of agencies to enhance your brand, acquire new customers or keep those you have. It’s bread and butter stuff, but it’s rarely obvious who the ideal agency partner should be. This subject will confront every brand marketer at some point in their career. The agency appointment decision might be the single most important one that you’ll make on a number of levels.

Phil Rumbol, founder of 101

Brands and careers can stand or fall on the output of agencies so it’s remarkable how often the method of choosing partners is neglected. So how should those decisions be made and where do marketers turn to for guidance when that search begins? Well, according to former Cadbury and Inbev marketing director Phil Rumbol, who now runs his own agency 101, the agency search can often begin at home. “I would keep an eye out for what was going on in the market by watching out for great work and finding out who was doing it.” he advises.

Hamish Stone, head of motors and marketing bij

Of course, watching TV might not be your best method of sourcing agencies across the dizzying array of marketing services today. A growing number of brands turn to independent consultancies like RAR or their own procurement teams to source and select suitable agency partners. But as we discovered in our conversations with leading marketers there are many different approaches at play. Microsoft’s chief marketing officer Philippa Snare reveals that discussion with peers is an important element in its agency recruitment process; she spends a day or two each month with other CMOs and marketers to discuss their plans and insights, as well as problems and success stories on working with agencies. Before speaking to peers or beginning an agency search, it’s vital that the marketer considers the ultimate goals they need to achieve and recognise the values and attitude that they will expect from their agency.“Be clear what your goals are from the outset and plan for the long term so that you really know how far you want your agency to integrate with your business and where you want them to be supporting you,” advises Oliver Garner, senior marketing manager at Expedia. “But also be aware of exactly what measurement techniques you are going to be putting in place to measure effectiveness. Be pragmatic in terms of what’s in the marketplace and what you’re looking for in terms of quality versus cost.” Meanwhile, Hamish Stone, former head of marketing for eBay’s classified advertising business Gumtree, says that it is important to be clear in the problems that the agency is being brought in to solve. “What does your business need over the next few years? It’s a long process so you should aim to have an agency that you plan to work with over a long period of time. Establish a clear criteria and then proceed to rank agencies in order to avoid any inconsistency over how you’re feeling that day to give you a clearer view. I find that is a great way to get additional stakeholders’ input and consistency from people across the business.”Phil Rumbol adds that the decision to make an appointment comes down to both philosophy and belief that are relayed by an agency during the pitching process. “I had a fairly clear set of beliefs as a marketing director and as a client,” he says. “One of the key factors while looking through stuff was to find who I thought would be like minded people.” Rumbol offers an example of what he feels is a crucial factor in the creative execution and the abilities of an agency was to utilise the power of emotion in connecting with consumer. “Even some of the most rational or functional product categories can benefit from engaging people emotionally and involving them through their hearts and minds. I would always be looking out for examples of activity and the agencies behind that which fitted with that. If you take the John Lewis campaign, the first time I saw that I was really struck and thought that these would be a bunch of people who had similar beliefs and would know how brands work and could be kindred spirits.”

Andrew Garrihy, European VP of Marketing at Qualcomm

For Andrew Garrihy, former director of corporate marketing at Samsung Electronics, an understanding of the business is one if the main factors when making his agency appointments. “Agencies have to be in synchronicity with your organisation. You need to tell them ‘this is the way I work and you need to be in sync with me’. An agency’s flexibility and adaptability to really get in sync with their clients is key.” Richard Bateson, commercial director for lottery operator Camelot, feels the same. “During the appointment process is when it is crucial for them to listen as much as it is to have an insight into the business. I am always frustrated when someone comes in that hasn’t done their homework and it does happen. This can show you the sloppiness of some agencies or maybe how seriously they are taking the opportunity. Before you go into pitch, is the stage you find whether agencies really understand. I believe in transparency when it comes to pitching and I would rather someone saying ‘we want to focus on this approach’ - but I was flabbergasted that some people didn’t even know the basics.” Garrihy adds that agencies must have “a strong business acumen” in order to be successful in their undertakings with a client: “They really need to get the business and be quite commercially aware as well. It’s a tough balance for an agency. How do I have absolute creativity, innovation, drive, freedom and flexibility while being very commercial and in tune with my client who may not know what’s best for them?” A tough brief in itself, he adds.

McDonald’s UK head of marketing Jo Webster

So an agency’s approach, empathy and understanding of your business are all factors to be considered, but what about the people? For McDonald’s UK head of marketing Jo Webster, the people are a key consideration. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned through agency pitching and appointing agencies is making sure that the people who are pitching are the same ones who will be working on your business. Quite often agencies will have a team that pitch to you, and part of the decision for selecting that agency is down to the rapport, relationship and the trust that you’ve built with that team, and then suddenly they introduce a new account team without warning.” Sage CMO Amanda Jobbins reveals that, depending on the scale of the project, an agency’s previous experience can be absolutely critical for some appointments. “I’m working with Ogilvy right now on a branding campaign and we’re working with them because of their global experience,” she explains. “It’s unlikely a smaller agency will have that kind of scale or experience. But when we’re going to market, we’ll consider how important that is in relation to the brief so we can still look out for an up-and-coming agency.” However, Jobbins is willing to state that she has noticed a fundamental difference in the service, quality and response that she has received from working with different sizes of agencies, and claims to have found “more creativity” from smaller creative companies. “You get more access to the best minds, the people who are running the agency - whether it’s a two-to-five-man-band or even a 30-man-band. You get more time with the key principles. Sharing the sentiments expressed by Webster, Jobbins continues: “the classic thing still happens within classic agencies, which is that the bright minds come in to see you at first and then disappear to leave you with more junior people working on your projects.” Rumbol is another believer that chemistry is crucial and that if a marketer believes they see kindred spirits in their philosophy and strategy, then it’s less of a risk. “Where you would probably cast a slightly more critical eye is depending on what you are looking to do as a client, the ability of a smaller agency to empirically deliver against that. It’s one thing if your output is a TV ad, that’s not too challenging. If you’re a retail client however and you know that you have to do a volume of stuff then you would probably cast a more exacting eye over the operational capability and how much muscle they have got to do that kind of stuff.” When it comes to the opportunity to work alongside an exciting new start-up creative business, a brand might often have to take a risk in order to do so. Employing an agency without a proven track record and then selling that appointment to the board can often prove a difficult task for a marketer when budgets are under scrutiny. Explaining what he would look for when actively seeking an exciting and fresh start-up business full of new ideas and insights, Rumbol claims that belief in themselves and confidence in their process of working is significant. “As a marketing director that is one of the things I would want to have on my radar. Depending on what my needs were at any one moment in time, I might reach out to those people or keep tabs on them and see what clients they pick up and what work they’re doing and take it from there.”Of course the appointment decision of a new-start need be less risky should the appointment be made on a small or limited test basis. Philippa Snare says: “There is a fair appetite within Microsoft for taking risks. It’s all about how big the risk is and the impact is but we put a very rigorous process in place when looking for agencies that are keeping their ideas fresh. We’re lucky enough to have enough activity where we can try out smaller agencies before we give them a shot at our crown jewels.” But just how intricate does the appointment process need to be before you know for sure that the agency chosen is the correct one? “There are different types of meetings that you should go through to really understand who these individuals are that are going to be working on your business and look at the types of processes that they have while getting them to be very clear on how they will answer your brief or manage a project,“ advises Gumtree’s Hamish Stone.“For us, we believe that you should go through a very detailed process of ticking all of the boxes from the people, to their processes and how they will charge you for their service. You need to be very thorough with all of those. So the appointment of new agencies can be a tricky, complicated and time consuming process. So why do so many brands decide to change agencies so often? And how does a marketer know when the time is right to shake up their agency rosters or review that relationship? Chemistry is hugely important within the client-agency relationship and according to Helen Normoyle, CMO for national furniture retailer DFS, when it begins to wane, it’s time to move on. “If it gets to the point where you just don’t feel it’s working – and sometimes it’s tough to put a finger on it – but if you just don’t feel it’s working and the passion isn’t there or it’s getting quite tired and stale, that’s a reason to move on. Clearly, campaign performance is a big issue in terms of the creative, the execution and the performance – you definitely know when that’s not working, although one poor campaign shouldn’t mean the end of a relationship at all. It’s more about the context in which that happens and the frequency. “You know it when you know it,” she adds.

Sage CMO Amanda Jobbins

When creativity declines, brands should think about a review, according to Sage’s Jobbins. “One of the main reasons you review is when you realise that the quality of the work has deteriorated. It’s when you sense that you’re just not getting the best work or that the creativity has declined,“ she explains, adding that the company has recently changed agency because the incumbent was “not coming up with any new ideas”. “We very much had the feeling that they were taking the retainer and sitting on it while they worked on new clients. So there’s a natural time period where an agency is providing the optimal contribution and that would be between one and two years – personally I believe after that is when it’s time to start thinking about a refresh,” she adds. Rumbol believes that the decision to review is not always clear-cut and should be a strategy taken when it is obvious that the agency no longer has anything to offer in terms of evolving the brand.“You have to give them feedback and be clear on your expectations. You work with them, you support them, you coach them, and if having done all of those things you are still not getting what you’re looking for, then that’s the point that you need to recognise it. I’ve had situations like that where I gave an agency feedback and talked about what I was looking for and gave it the opportunity to keep working, but after about six months it got to the point where I’d lost confidence in its ability to do the thing I needed. That’s when I took a decision to speak to someone else. I was probably more patient than most and I think a lot of people would look elsewhere a lot quicker. But I would always say try and consider things as it could be partially your fault. Too many people too readily default to deciding that it’s the agency’s fault.” Agency and client relationships are cyclical. They begin, they proceed, they eventually break down and they end. The difficult factor throughout the process for the brand involved is that the decisions made along the way are the correct ones. That includes the decision to employ that agency in the first place. More often than not, when the decisions prove to be wrong, the brand suffers. This is true no matter how large the marketing budget is.This piece was originally published as part of The Recommended Agency Register (RAR) Brand Manager's Book, released last year. A copy of the RAR Brand Manager's Bookis available for free online to client-side marketers. For more information on the Recommended Agency Register, see its newly launched website.
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