How to Conduct Agency Search: ANA, 4A's Offer Guidelines

After Spate of Long, Unwieldy Reviews, Agency and Advertiser Associations Give Advice to Head off Trouble Before It Bubbles up

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After years of marketers marching to the beat of their own drum when it comes to picking agency partners, the industry's two leading trade groups, the Association of National Advertisers and 4A's, are now weighing in with a jointly recommended agency-search procedure. The move marks a first-ever attempt to rectify a process that can be highly inconsistent, and often unnecessarily expensive for both marketers and agencies.

In an 18-page document out today, the ANA and 4A's outline steps for how to conduct an effective search and selection process -- from how to determine whether a search is required in the first place to what to consider during contract negotiations. Two themes repeatedly touched on are the need to make the process simpler by casting a smaller net that includes just a few shops and eliminating paper-pushing when possible, and the need for companies to more carefully evaluate cultural compatibility.

Debra Giampoli, Kraft
Debra Giampoli, Kraft
ANA/4A's Guidelines for Agency Search White Paper
ANA/4A's Guidelines for Agency Search White Paper

Some might say it's too little too late, since reviews have already become far too unwieldy. Recent examples include those that drag on for over a year -- such as Accenture or Exxon -- or cattle-calls that involve more than 100 agencies like the Zappos' review did.

For the 4A's, it's an attempt to address a spike in complaints received this year from its agency members.

Those who compiled the document -- a team of marketer and agency representatives from the likes of Visa, Pfizer, American Express, Kraft, EuroRSCG, Merkley & Partners and the Richards Group -- say a series of factors has altered the dynamics of the client-agency relationship, making the guidance timely. Among them: procurement is sitting at the marketing table and is involved in agency reviews; media fragmentation is leading to more reviews for specialist shops; and a weakened economy is placing more burdens on marketing departments.

"Pitches can be really time-consuming for marketers to lead and very expensive for agencies to participate in," said Debra Giampoli, director of global strategic agency relations at Kraft Foods. "Because of the economy we're in, agencies and clients are pressured more than they ever have been before to make every dollar of spending count and it's more important than ever to make the right decisions. Mistakes can be very distracting and costly to the business."

Per the guidelines, the ideal agency search process should last three months with just one week used to identify which shops to invite, and six weeks granted to prepare and present ideas. "If the review drags on, the entire process is at risk as agency talent that was originally available during the review may be reassigned, or the agency may even decide to back out of your search and participate in an agency RFP with a competitor."

It also suggests a cap on the number of shops asked to participate, saying that no more than six to eight shops should be invited to fill out a request for proposal and no more than three should be invited for a final round. Further, the document calls for companies dropping bulky questionnaires whenever possible, urging them to pick up the phone instead.

The ANA and 4A's even go so far as to say that marketers might want to do away with a formal search process altogether: "You may also want to consider skipping a formal RFI/RFP process in favor of a fast-track, closed-search process where specific agencies are invited to discuss their capabilities."

Said Diane Fannon, principal, new business development at Dallas-based Richards Group: "The fewer agencies you have, the more in-depth time you can have with them. The worst reviews are where agencies don't have any interaction with the key clients, and the best relationships are the ones where you have more than one date before you marry."

"Cultural conflicts will almost certainly sabotage an advertiser-agency relationship, regardless of how well an agency's core competencies and administrative processes match an advertiser's needs," the guidelines say.

To that end, the 4A's and ANA say that agency visits during a search should be required, and marketers should take note of details such as the amenities a shop offers its staff, and the emphasis it places on titles. It's also important to know whether the agency will be able to collaborate with shops already on the marketers' roster.

"It's not a vendor relationship; you are putting your brand and business in the hands of marketing professionals said Ms. Fannon. "The worst thing is when you go through this process and it's really not a great fit ... and the client has to do it all over again."

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS IN 4A'S/ANA GUIDELINES

  1. If procurement is going to be involved, decide if its role will be as a facilitator or driver, and be clear with agencies about fact.
  2. The ideal amount of time for a search process is three months, and the ideal number of shops who answer a request for proposal is no more than eight.
  3. Decide whether a formal search is necessary or whether you can identify a select number of shops -- internally -- or with the help of a consultant to participate in a streamlined, closed process.
  4. Have a discussion about compensation early on, not at the end of the process. Agencies should bring up the topic even if a marketer doesn't.
  5. Agencies shouldn't do a bait-and-switch, bringing in one team to secure the account, and assigning another to do the work. Ensure the client meets the people who will work on their business.
  6. Agency visits are a must and cultural compatibility should be weighed just as heavily as capabilities. Clients should understand how the agency behaves overall and should select the whole agency, with its values and staff, not just the handful of people who pitched the business.
  7. An agency's culture shouldn't only be complementary to a marketer, but also to the other agencies on the marketer's roster.
  8. Speculative work presented by an agency during a review frequently doesn't translate into a campaign, so decide if it's really a necessary part of the process. If it is , allocate enough time for agencies to deliver the assignment.
  9. Offer non-winning agencies a debriefing phone call and give them honest feedback.

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