The search for strategic partners

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In  today's competitive marketing environment, in which messages must effectively reach prospects who are overwhelmed with information, companies are seeking agencies that are true strategic partners. They want agencies that understand their business and their industry, and can execute an integrated strategy. They also want proof of return on investment. ¶ "Increasingly, there is a desire for agencies to bring more integration and orchestration to a company's overall marketing efforts," said David Beals, president of agency search consultancy Jones Lundin Beals, Chicago. "There is also far more scrutiny on ROI as it relates to marketing and marketing communications investments across the board. As measurement tools have gotten more sophisticated, clients are keeping a sharper eye on this area and are looking for tangible evidence of what the marketing dollar is doing for them."

Clients that have recently gone through agency reviews say an understanding of the business and the ability to think strategically are the most important selection criteria.

"We were looking for a true marketing partner, not an advertising agency," said Donna Shuster, senior manager of marketing communications at Integrated Device Technology, a Santa Clara, Calif., semiconductor manufacturer that completed an agency review last month.

IDT had been working with about six agencies and wanted to consolidate with one partner. Shuster declined to name the previous agency partners.

"When you are in high-tech, you put a lot of time into teaching people about your business," she said. "When you have multiple agencies, it is very time consuming to get everyone up to speed."

IDT's selection criteria included experience in the semiconductor industry and targeting network equipment buyers, strategic expertise solving business problems and having a West Coast office.

Location vs. size

Shuster said a local agency was important because she wanted to have regular face-to-face meetings. Size didn't matter; IDT was willing to consider small, medium and large agencies.

The client identified about 12 prospective agencies through industry references, Internet research and business journal listings. It sent out requests for proposals to those agencies, then eventually narrowed the list to four agencies.

IDT brought in the finalists and posed a business problem to see how they would solve it.

"I didn't want to do a creative shootout. I wanted to do something that displayed their thought process," Shuster said.

After hearing the business problem, the agencies had a chance to put together a presentation on how they would approach it. Three agencies came back to present. Shuster declined to name the finalists.

"We were looking for people who had a broad thought process and were out of the box," she said. "In addition to that, we wanted to make sure they cared about our customers." IDT selected Doremus, San Francisco, to handle its account, including research, positioning, strategic marketing consulting and execution.

"We were very impressed with the thought process Doremus uses. It is very compatible with our thought process," Shuster said. "That is very important long-term with an agency."

Eclipse Aviation Corp., an Albuquerque, N.M., jet manufacturer, completed an agency review six months ago. The company, which was founded in 1998 and is still awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval before rolling out its first aircraft, was seeking its first agency.

"Our industry is not really known for the strength of its advertising," said Dottie Hall, VP-marketing at Eclipse.

"We weren't inclined to go to one of the agencies currently serving other aircraft manufacturers. We are out to change the whole aviation business, and we wanted to look for the very best marketing partner."

Eclipse turned to the Web to research ad agencies.

Its criteria included experience in the aviation business, but not jet manufacturing, and strong creative with an ability to stay on target.

Hall said she also looked at the creative execution of agencies' Web sites.

Overdone creative

"I was surprised at how many agencies overdo it on the creative side and lose the message," she said.

Eclipse started out with a list of about 100 agencies. It conducted telephone interviews, asking preliminary questions about the number of clients, size of clients, length of relationships and how the agencies approached the business.

"The first and foremost consideration was, could they speak well about how they approached the business and how they helped clients be successful," Hall said.

Eclipse asked the agencies to submit background information and creative work, then eventually narrowed the list down to two finalists.

It met with both finalists at their offices and at Eclipse's headquarters, where the agencies presented proposals on how they would approach the client's business initiatives, including strategy, cost and implementation.

Eclipse selected HSR Business to Business, Cincinnati. Hall declined to name the other finalist.

"HSR has experience in the aviation industry [with GE Aircraft Engines], and they have a sound, thoughtful, no-nonsense process that won us over," Hall said.

So far, HSR has created two print campaigns as well as marketing collateral.

"We are thrilled with their work," Hall said.

Siemens Business Services, a subsidiary of Siemens AG, needed an agency to handle relationship marketing for its IT services aimed at C-level executives.

"Our market is very small, so the value of advertising for us isn't huge," said Brian Chertok, director of branding and messaging for Siemens Business Services.

"We can get to our market directly through other means," he said, pointing to traditional direct marketing, e-mail and other direct communications.

Chertok said his priorities for selecting an agency were creative ability and knowledge of the space.

He had a past relationship with Jeff Winsper, president of J. Winsper & Co., an integrated marketing communications agency based in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and selected the agency without a review.

"Jeff knows my tech space. That saves me a lot of time," Chertok said. "He also has the creative resources to get the job done. All the relationships in the world won't save you if the ad stinks."

So far, J. Winsper has created a direct response campaign for Siemens Business Services that had a response rate of between 6% and 7%.

"It was outstanding," Chertok said. 

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