How You Must Adapt to Marketers' New Agency Search Approach

Five Easy Steps to Help Your Firm Outshine the Competition

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Jody Sutter
Jody Sutter

Last summer, Zappos was criticized for its cattle call-like agency review. Now it's Voss, a Norwegian bottled water company that last month launched an open call to small and mid-sized agencies to pitch ideas for a 2011 campaign. While Voss' review may not be making as many headlines, it's yet another example of how the process that clients are using to find their agency partners -- from inviting procurement officers to participate to "casting a wide net" -- is changing.

Agencies need to adapt.

Rather than complaining, we should all be working on figuring out not only how to play but also win under these new rules. New approaches to agency search is a trend that will become more prevalent, not less, and the smart agencies will figure out what they need to do to participate successfully.

If a marketer decides to cast a wide net to find a new agency, then that marketer is going to be inundated with responses. Logic dictates that it'll be very difficult for that marketer to absorb and differentiate between them. So, resist the temptation to make it even more difficult. If you know your response will be one of hundreds, then adapt it to the situation.

Here's some things that might help.

Know your sweet spot. A lot of agencies talk about finding that intersection of criteria that define the ideal prospect but very few agencies actually go through the exercise. Call an early morning breakfast meeting with your senior management team and hammer out those criteria. Then stick with them. It will make it much easier to determine whether to pursue not only an open call for credentials, but any new business opportunity.

Learn to say more with less. I once had to manage a request-for-proposal that needed to be submitted via a procurement website with each answer being 200 words or less. They were some of the best, most succinct answers I've ever written. It's very tempting to say it all, to gush to your prospect about your capabilities and your achievements. But you run the risk that the prospect is going to stop listening. Even in the most-controlled and -managed searches, clients will still have hundreds of pages to get through. Why add to the torture?

Discern which questions don't need an answer. "But," you say, "the clients are asking for all this info!" It's true, clients can be as disciplined as agencies are in this sense. But the truth is you should give yourself the chance to look at these questions with a critical eye. You might discover some of them require just a yes or a no. And, for most of the them, the tight 200-word-or-less paragraph will do. In those cases where neither approach works (the ever present question about your diagnostic tools and processes, for example), consider writing a short, powerful summary, directing the reader to an appendix where they can read more, if interested.

Kick the "boilerplate" habit. Boilerplate is very useful in avoiding the reinvention of the wheel for each pitch. But there are three big downsides: 1.) It's way too easy to throw in everything but the kitchen sink; 2.) There's less likelihood that you will thoughtfully customize the information for the client's needs; 3.) Related to the prior point, it eliminates any possibility that the answer will be written in a fresh and compelling way. So use boilerplate language as a starting point and for consistency, but always make sure it's tailored to respond to the client.

Data is your friend. After the Zappos review, a creative director was quoted in Ad Age, saying, "They never clicked on the page that described how we stay at the forefront of marketing and technology. They never clicked on the video testimonial from the founder of another e-commerce company that we helped increase sales by more than 200%. And they never clicked on the page that outlined our approach to measurement." Good to know, but what's best about using data, like Google Analytics, isn't to say "gotcha!" to the client (which isn't going to get you any closer to winning the business anyway), but so that you can continually learn how your prospects are interacting with your information and refine your approach. It's market research for new business.

It can be hard to adapt, especially when you've spent a lot of time and resources compiling vast amounts of information about why you are different and better than your competitors. But the good news is that the playing field may be changing in such a way that it allows agencies to streamline and simplify the pitch process. As a new business executive, I, for one, am relieved.

Jody Sutter is a business development exec based in New York. She previously led new business efforts for Havas' MPG and Omnicom Group's OMD.
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