A Spy in the Agency-Review Process

Sitting on the Hiring Side of the Table, You'd Be Shocked What Counts

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Some of the most creative work that an agency does takes place when people get together and start talking about what happened after a big pitch. "They loved us." "I noticed a lot of buy signs." "The CMO said 'good job' in the bathroom."

We scrutinize every word and gesture for a sign that we've won, or lost. Eventually, you realize that you've got no idea what's actually happening behind those closed conference-room doors once you pack up and drive away. Switching roles, I recently learned exactly how mind-bendingly unpredictable the client decision-making process can be and that it is more irrational than in my wildest imagination.

As a board member for a large nonprofit cultural institution, I was on a committee to select an agency for a strategic initiative. We drafted an RFP, sent it out to half a dozen firms, and selected three with a national presence to come in and share their ideas.

Eight of us –- board members and administrators combined –- gathered in a big conference room and welcomed the three firms over a two-day period. Each firm had 90 minutes to persuade us. Two came armed with large teams of six or more people. The final group arrived with a modest team of a designer and senior account person.

On the surface they all were good. They had impressive credentials and made polished presentations. Each followed up by making impassioned statements about how much they wanted the assignment.

This was the big shock for me: What the three firms presented, and the quality of their preparation, had little effect on the committee. As a group we responded to a number of intangibles that the firms were not even aware of.

The firm that had done some of the best thinking came across as arrogant, and this turned off the committee from the start. Personally, I interpreted their demeanor as well-deserved confidence, but it rubbed other people the wrong way. Rather than behaving like invited guests, they acted as if it was a fait accompli and that they were the clear front-runners. Even I was a little surprised that the group leader led the presentation with a coffee cup in one hand.

They also did something else that turned the group off. Instead of using traditional graphics, they had created hand-drawn slides that looked like something that might have come out of a brainstorming session. As an agency person, I thought this was refreshing, but I was the only one.

Our second firm came loaded for a bear with an exceptionally well-prepared team. They had done their homework, made a fantastic presentation and had great chemistry as a group. From my perspective, they did everything right. Everybody on the team played an important role. They shared ideas and gave a clear sense of their process. Without giving a definitive solution, they leaned toward some interesting directions. The committee seemed genuinely excited.

In the end, they got dinged on a couple of points. They went into a lot of depth about their internal structure, which was confusing to people unfamiliar with agency roles. They also talked a lot about the process that would lead them to an answer, and not enough about what the answer might be.

We wrapped up the second day with our third group: two guys and a weak PowerPoint. They were also the low-cost provider. They had done minimum preparation and had little to say about our organization, and a lot to say about themselves, too much in my opinion. They were confident but not particularly elegant speakers. I saw some eye rolling around the table. They're out, I said to myself.

Based on the way the committee responded –- the smiles, the compliments and hints of working together, the handshakes –- everyone of those agencies must have walked out the door thinking that they had this one in the bag.

After the last firm left, we took turns going around the room and sharing our observations. Groupthink took hold. After the first couple of people went, everybody jumped on the same bandwagon. Much to my surprise, the third firm, with what I considered to be the weakest presentation, was the crowd favorite. They were the least expensive. To their credit, more than anyone else, they showed a deep understanding of the operational challenges of the project. That appealed to the most practical members of the committee.

What surprised me the most was that all the qualities my agency cares about -– team dynamics, insight, rigorous preparation, a strong process, inspired slides -– didn't seem to factor in the decision.

The other firms may wonder what they could have differently. The answer is nothing. And even if they had it would not have made any difference. An invisible set of criteria was at work.

Footnote: Tom Martin, another Small Agency blogger, also wrote about sitting on the other side of the table for an agency pitch. Check out his post.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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