Agency Search Flaws Prompt ANA, 4A's to Update Guidelines

Best Practices Discourage 'RFP's from Hell' that Barely Reference Marketing Objective

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Tom Finneran
Tom Finneran

Marketers need to work on issuing more detailed briefings to agencies throughout the new business search process, according to recent findings that inspired a new set of agency search guidelines from both the ANA and 4A's.

The guidelines -- which show an increased willingness between the leading trade group for marketers and leading trade group for agencies to align their messaging to members -- are a follow-up to a similar, two-year-old set of best practices by both advertising organizations.

When the 4A's and ANA recently revisited those guidelines, they discovered that their members were not adhering to the suggested practices, said Tom Finneran, exec VP of agency management services at the 4A's. So after conducting another study earlier this year, they produced a new, more specific set of best practices throughout each stage of the search process, including the RFI, RFP and finalist stage.

"We tried to find out what were the areas of weak adherence," said Mr. Finneran. "What we found, first and foremost, is there were inadequate briefings. They were lacking details about the marketers' business and guidance, he explained.

That's why the ad trade groups are suggesting, in the new best practices, that "each review phase warrants different types and levels of client briefing information."

"Marketers are strongly encouraged to take the time to provide proper and detailed briefing guidance throughout the agency selection process or otherwise risk a 'garbage in, garbage out' result," said Bill Duggan, Group Executive Vice President of the ANA, in a statement.

Request for Information

In the RFI stage, the guidelines suggest marketers "share enough information about the search and your expectations as a client to allow the agencies to make an informed decision about whether this is a good fit."

Marketers are also missing out on basic but valuable information when they skip the RFI stage and jump straight to the request for proposal -- especially if they're considering a long list of agencies, according to the report.

During the earlier, long-list phase of an agency search, "Clients weren't using RFIs to do the preliminary screening," said Mr. Finneran. "RFI's are more simple. They're easier [than RFPs] as prescreeners for both clients and agencies."

Request for Proposal and Semi-Finals

Although the most common pitfall was "inadequate" briefings, Mr. Finneran also also cited "RFPs from hell."

Bill Duggan
Bill Duggan

"Some clients would take the same RFP they used to send to suppliers of chemical ingredients and corrugated materials to marketing creative agencies and media buying firms," he said, referring to the procurement departments that handle vendor sourcing. "There would be a marketing question or two in the back."

What clients should do, according to the new guidelines, is provide in-depth information about its business and goals "to allow the agencies to customize their responses and provide more information about their appropriate experience." At this stage, they should outline agency staff requirements, deliverables and compensation requirements, as well as ask for agencies to provide work samples.

During the RFP stage, the 4A's and ANA also suggest that the client conduct semi-finalist meetings in the agency's office to "get a true sense of the agency's culture."


The finalist phase, during which a client is evaluating only two or three agencies, should include briefings and in-person meetings, according to the guidelines.

"We recommended there be one-on-one breakout sessions for each finalist," said Mr. Finneran.
"If you ask agency to go through work of a speculative assignment it warrants a face-to-face."

Clients will often ask agencies to do real speculative work at this stage, which can be costly and time-consuming. To get the most out of the request, clients should schedule work sessions prior to the final presentation.

It's also good practice to discuss and offer token stipends "to partially offset an agency's cost of participating in a review," according to the report.

When an agency presents actual strategy and work, that shop shouldn't just assume that marketers won't go with the cheaper shop and steal the better work from them. That's why marketers following these guidelines should clarify that "usage rights to the speculative creative are not included in the stipend, and a discussion on fair value should take place separately."

Still, speculative work isn't necessary and can be more work for both marketers and agencies than its worth. Clients should be able to make a decision when they're "discussing credentials and case histories and looking at agencies' past body of work," said Mr. Finneran. That is, as long as they're properly briefed throughout the process and can in turn submit the appropriate work and information.

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