— Article 04  Make the Most of Meeting Agencies

Make the Most of Meeting Agencies Hero Illustration

The first time you meet with your short list of agencies is a crucial step in choosing a great partner. Below we’ll cover the basics that apply to all of these meetings, and we’ll shed some light on the key question of meeting format, to help you determine what kind of meeting will produce the best result.

The basics

Any time you’re meeting with agencies, there are a few rules of thumb to pay attention to:

  • Avoid the cattle call. Shopping for a great agency partner is still shopping; it’s easy to let curiosity get the best of you. We’ve seen prospective clients reach out to more than a dozen agencies for a single piece of work. Looking at too many options can prevent you from seeing any of them clearly.
  • Settle details in advance. Knowing who’s attending for each agency team and sharing who’s coming from your end helps each party prepare accordingly. It’s also important to schedule sufficient time — we’ve all been in great meetings that end a bit too early. We recommend booking 90 minutes as a baseline. That gives you time for deeper conversations where they’re warranted, and you can always wrap early if it’s not a fit.
  • Prepare your team. Using standard questions for each meeting can produce clear points of comparison and help you hold all agencies to the same standard. Discussing meeting roles within your team helps the meeting move smoothly, allowing you to cover more territory.
  • Ready the room. This sounds obvious, but when it gets overlooked it’s a major headache. Make sure there’s enough space for attendees and any activities you have planned, and that the room can support the kind of presentations the agencies will make.

Those simple guidelines can put you on the path to success, but choosing the right format is a game-changer. There are two standard formats for your first meeting with an agency: interviews and pitches. Many people use “interview” and “pitch” interchangeably, so let’s start with a quick definition of each.

An interview typically follows a standard agenda:

  • Members of each team introduce themselves
  • The agency presents their background and relevant case studies
  • Your team asks as many questions as possible within the remaining time
  • Handshakes all around

With a pitch, you build on those basic interview elements, asking each agency to produce and present ideas or preliminary work for your project.

It might be useful to think of these formats like a line of products — an interview is the standard model that gets the job done, and a pitch builds on that standard model with a special set of features. In cases where an interview will do the trick, asking agencies to pitch can add unnecessary complexity or focus attention on the wrong criteria. In other cases, a pitch is truly the best way to find the right partner.

So let’s walk through some less-known aspects of interviews and pitches to help you choose the right format.

The classic, with a twist

The agency interview is a tried and true method. But even though the format is simple, it hides a number of opportunities worth paying attention to.

In some ways, a conventional format is the perfect circumstance for finding a match. While a pitch emphasizes flashier considerations, a straightforward interview agenda can focus attention on the essential aspects of a professional relationship. It can also provide a lens for evaluating which agencies transcend the mundane meeting framework.

Look for agencies who manage the time and room well, and those who best convey what you need to know about them with little superfluous content. That indicates a potential partner who recognizes the priorities of a situation and is working to leave more time to discuss your current needs rather than their past accomplishments.

Pay attention to which agencies play offense rather than defense. In other words, watch for agencies that ask questions of you. That can be a sign of a proactive partner, and the questions they ask can shed light on how well they grasp your situation. For agencies that lack direct experience with the challenges at hand, these inquiries can show their aptitude for quickly acknowledging and addressing areas they need to focus on.

Getting more from the interview

One method for adding value to interviews is to request each agency prepare a brief exercise to do with your team during the meeting. One of our favorite prompts from a prospective client was:

  • Plan a 15-minute exercise to conduct with our team, so we can get a quick introduction to what it would be like to work with you.

By keeping these exercises to fifteen minutes or fewer, you respect the time commitment of each agency (and of your own team members) while still driving deeper conversations that convey how a longer, more robust partnership might feel.

Given the short duration, we recommend staying high-level rather than trying to address specific aspects of the project agencies are bidding on. These more general, topline sessions can be crafted to ensure relevance and to deliver important insights. Whether mission-alignment exercises for brand-centered work, feature prioritization activities for products and platforms, or user and audience definition for content engagements, this work can highlight an agency’s ability to distill important themes or to shepherd your team to consensus.

For those times when even a deeper interview won’t do the job, a pitch is the answer. So let’s look at the different kinds of pitches.

Calling the right pitch

Pitches fall into two main camps:

  • Unpaid. The agency quickly produces preliminary ideas or directions for review during the meeting with your team.
  • Paid. These typically feature modest compensation, longer timelines, and more defined requirements for the creation of the ideas or directions.

With unpaid pitches, agencies have an incentive to move extremely fast, so the results often favor style over substance — which can be a good thing. Unpaid pitches are a great fit for projects rooted in the conceptual or the visual, projects where creative ideas and style are the most important ingredients. Seeing the fast, lightweight work of agencies can highlight their personalities and the creativity they’ll bring to your specific needs. A good example is advertising, where a great visual or inspired copy can tell you you’ve found the right partner.

Paid pitches are much less common than their unpaid cousins, but in select circumstances, it’s worth the extra effort and cost. Paid pitches act as a gesture of good faith, enabling your prospective partners to run a process that more closely resembles their normal approach. The higher quality context and extended timeline encourage agencies to dig deeper and extract more of the potential within the engagement, all of which helps you see your candidate pool more clearly.

To run a paid pitch, the first step is defining the compensation. A simple rule of thumb we’ve gleaned from well-run paid pitches is to allocate between 5 and 7 percent of your projected project budget. For example:

  • A $500,000 engagement. Presuming a short list of three agencies, you might offer $10,000 to each agency to develop preliminary concepts.

With relatively modest funding, agencies are able to devote additional time and personnel to the work, resulting in deeper, more considered responses. For this reason, paid pitches are a great option for more complex engagements, especially those that are more strategic or technical in nature.

While there are benefits to you and the agencies, paid pitches also present their own challenges. In addition to defining and securing the funding for a paid pitch, you’ll also need to organize the process. Defining the working context, the criteria for evaluation, and the pitch schedule can be time consuming. So you’ll want to carefully assess the cost-to-benefit ratio of pursuing this format.

Each of the considerations outlined above can guide you to the right approach for your next meeting. Whether you stick with the basics or go for the extras, you’ll be on the road to a great outcome.

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.