When an Agency Hires Another Agency

What It Feels Like on the Other Side of the Desk

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Curt Hanke
Curt Hanke
Like many small agencies, our new-business efforts were in full swing last year -- focused on both offsetting budget cuts and trying to (as always) bolster our client roster. Against the backdrop of this heavy influx of presentations, meetings, proposals, RFPs, and pitches, we found ourselves in a unique situation with a couple of our clients. We were helping them hire niche agencies that provided services that were beyond our core competencies.

Now I know what you're thinking. Small agencies hire "vendors" all the time -- photographers, production houses, research firms -- but these were different. At the risk of sounding pejorative, this wasn't a simple case of, "Here's our book, some case studies, references, and a proposal." We were faced with meaty strategic challenges that required deep thinking from the partners we were seeking to engage. As a result, it involved a much more robust vetting process than is typically involved in any of the services that agencies outsource on a regular basis.

In sum: We found ourselves on the other side of the desk. Writing, not responding to, the RFP. Providing the input. Answering agency questions. It was a fascinating counterpoint to a busy year of pitching our own new business, and one that provides a number of important insights for all small agencies.

The Initial Dance.
For starters, it's a lot of work to be a good client. While agency employees spend their entire work lives thinking about clients and their businesses, we are just a fraction our clients' worldview and responsibilities. Crafting a quality RFP that provided meaningful strategic context and input, amid our own day-to-day workload, reminded us of the effort it takes for clients to truly set agencies up to succeed.

That said, it was interesting to see how quickly impressions were formed about each agency. How did they approach the first call or meeting -- one person, or an entire team? What types of questions did they ask? How deep did they dig? What type of information did they request? What was their personality? How easy were they to work with? Did they use our standard RFP or insist that we use theirs (requiring more work on our end)? In the end, lots of little things made a big impression -- fast.

Truth be told, every person involved on our end (at both Shine and our clients) had a very strong impression of what these agencies "were about" -- and even preliminary agency preferences -- based solely on these initial cues.

The Proposal.
In crafting the RFPs with our clients, we tried to find a balance between asking hard questions that would truly showcase the capabilities of each agency and creating an onerous amount of work. After all, every agency in the country has spent plenty of time producing thousands of pages that we feared would likely go unread.

What's interesting is that while the initial stages of our conversations with these agencies revealed significant perceived differences between the firms, their RFP responses were surprisingly similar. They all promised results. They all touted collaboration. They all showcased a "unique and proprietary model." And they all had a sundry of case studies and references. To be honest, the proposal stage actually clouded the picture more than it informed the selection of a final agency partner.

The Decision.
We evaluated how each agency would tackle our thorny problems. Reviewed their thinking and methodology. Debated how they would work with our own teams. (And, yes, discussed compensation.)

In the end? I can't tell you how many times someone on our review panels referenced something from one of our initial interactions as a "reason to hire" -- be it a comment from a phone call, a question in an e-mail or a joke in an exploratory meeting. It was amazing how seemingly innocuous, meaningless interactions snowballed into critical decision-making influences and drivers.

As agency folks, we put tremendous stock, energy, and care into the major deliverables, namely the RFP and the presentation. But my experience on the other side of the desk suggests that it's time for us to take our own advice. In short: Everything matters -- not just the "big stuff," like the RFP and pitch presentation. Every point of contact is critical. And first impressions? Well, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Curt Hanke is the co-founder and account director of Shine, a 28-person advertising and interactive agency headquartered in Madison, Wisc., serving clients such as Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Carver Yachts, Wisconsin Cheese, Kaplan Inc., and Winston Fly Rods.

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