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— Article 03  Choosing the Right Agency

Choosing the Right Agency Hero Illustration

Over the past 20 years, we’ve interviewed with hundreds of clients and led our own selection process for partners. Like you, we know pricing and schedule alignment are top-of-mind when it comes to selecting an agency. But if you have a short-list of agencies with similar fees and timelines, what criteria can help you make the best choice?

Our clients often cite traits like alignment, clarity, poise, and integrity. While these traits are useful, there are other, more concrete indicators that a prospective partner will understand your needs and deliver the goods. Let’s look at five factors that make a real difference and questions to ask to make sure you see your candidates clearly.

First impressions

You can tell a lot from first encounters. Pay particular attention to preparedness – how an agency approaches their interview or pitch says a lot about how they approach their work. While pre-contract research will always lack the depth of a client-agency collaboration, these activities illustrate how an agency thinks.

Agencies that perform the due diligence to understand your organization, market, and audience are showcasing their commitment to the work ahead. What they draw from that preliminary research is also important – look for a team whose interpretations demonstrate both the range to deliver new insights and the rigor to separate fact from fiction. Truly detail-oriented agencies spend the time to think things through even before they sign a contract.

Recent work

Naturally, the work your candidates have accomplished is an important indicator of the work they’ll do for you. For each project an agency presents, make sure you’re clear about when it was produced. More recent examples – even if they are less explicitly aligned with your current scope – offer the most accurate impression of the team the agency will assign to your project.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of great work, always take a deep look. Great design produces solutions to specific challenges, so try to understand what drove the decisions that produced each final product. Ask what was unique about each client and audience. Inquire about the business objectives the agency pursued and the results their work produced. Question the technical constraints and opportunities the agency encountered. By listening carefully, you can get a clear picture of what an agency values, and if they do one thing well or many.

You can deduce if they’ll do their thing or your thing.

This inquiry helps with two essential responsibilities of your selection team. First, it helps you see how each agency’s priorities and proficiencies show up in their finished work. These insights let you more confidently assess contenders across strategy, ideation, and production. Second, it illuminates the processes and habits each agency brings to the table. In other words, you can deduce if they’ll do their thing or your thing.

Team

Perhaps even more important than their work is the group of people you’ll work with moving forward. An agency team is comprised of many people with varied levels of experience spanning numerous disciplines, so the more you can understand about the people you’ll work with, the better.

One great question is what defines the character of the team. Ask what differentiates their studio from others, and explicitly focus not on their service offering, process, or clientele, but on what they get from working with each other. One great way to elicit candid responses is to ask what attributes the agency prizes most in their hiring process. In any partnership, the people are an essential component, and the answers you’ll hear provide an opportunity to gauge your comfort and confidence level with each potential partner’s approach to personnel.

Process / Methodology

The next step is to dig into how each agency works in order to decide what approach best fits your organizational structure and schedule. There’s more to say about design and production methodologies than will fit in this article, but with many agencies seeking to differentiate through process, a little demystification is in order. Most creative productions move through a series of steps – planning, concepting, design, production, testing, and deployment. Put simply, agency working models are defined by how they organize those steps.

Agencies at one end of the spectrum see projects as a ‘waterfall’ – a single, linear flow, with each step concluding and passing the baton to the next. At the other, more ‘agile’ end, agencies break the project into smaller pieces, then sprint through all the steps for each piece, repeating those sprints until work is complete. Both methods offer distinct strengths and weaknesses. The former hews to long-established management procedures centered on formal approvals. The latter emphasizes speed and agility, but typically demands more consistent and intense participation from your team. Ask prospective partners how they see the pros and cons of different methodologies, and if they feel hybrid solutions might work. We’ve found in many cases optimal solutions take from each camp, incorporating the positive attributes of each.

Some agencies may be committed to an established approach they feel delivers the best outcomes, and others may shape their process to your organization.

When selecting your agency partner, consider how their preferred method aligns with your needs and your internal processes. Do an honest accounting of your organization: note where power is held, who makes decisions, how quickly you can move, and how open you are to changing your own approach. Also think about your audience or users. Do you feel user research and analysis of your existing product, platform, or content performance would provide value to the work ahead? Would creating and testing prototypes help you glean necessary insights? Based on your responses to questions like these, have a candid conversation with prospective agencies about what those answers indicate and how their process does or doesn’t accommodate your needs. Some agencies may be committed to an established approach they feel delivers the best outcomes, and others may shape their process to your organization. The more you understand these options, the better you’ll be able to find the right partner.

References

Don’t miss this step, because there are insights you can only get by speaking to people who have worked with an agency. Always start a reference check by establishing the context. When was the engagement? What was the contracted scope? What was the duration? Who on the agency team did you work with? Consider how these parameters match up with what you’re seeking to accomplish and what the agency is recommending for your project.

Questions like these highlight the potential of an agency to build a relationship that transcends the scope of an initial engagement.

With that frame in mind, ask how the agency delivered against the scope in their previous engagements, and seek to understand the nature of the collaboration. Ask what the referee felt was particular to their project, so you can better assess how directly relevant or analogous the reference might be. Check if the agency exceeded expectations and what was required of the client’s team to achieve that excellence. Find out where the agency struggled, and again ask for a candid evaluation of the context. Questions like these also highlight the character of the agency and its potential to build a relationship that transcends the scope of an initial engagement. At a more tactical level, these inquiries create an opportunity to circle back to the agency for clarifications that can guide your selection.

Conclusion

Each line of questioning we’ve outlined above fills in different parts of the portrait, helping you and your team see candidates more clearly. As you work through this process and discuss the outcomes, you’ll see what each agency does best. You’ll have a better sense of your own needs, and how each candidate aligns with your expectations and values. In short, you’ll be in a great position to select a great partner.

About the project

This series of articles shares what we've learned from 20 years of working with clients. Whether you’re a CMO or a project manager, the Client Handbook will help you find the right agency and deliver value for your organization.