Finding the Right Agency
“Hello, Attached please find the RFP for the comprehensive brand development of our new resort. Proposals from interested agencies are due next Monday at 5pm.”
This is a sample inbound solicitation from a prospective client. It's an inquiry that for us, raises a lot of flags. After years of receiving a wide range of new business inquiries, we've found that the best collaborations happen when prospective clients do their homework and avoid generic proposal requests.
With the sheer number of creative agencies that exist, chances are that there's more than one firm that would be a good fit for your organization’s project. Use the suggestions outlined below to help your due diligence process be more efficient and effective. These tips apply regardless of whether you have a large budget or are seeking pro (or low) bono support. Remember that agencies of all shapes and sizes are seeking to find the right client fit… just like you.
Do Your Homework
Rather than issue an RFP that is sent to a dozen or more agencies, or posted in the public domain, now is the time to roll up your sleeves - do some serious research and focus your search. Talk to peers about their branding experiences and partners. Search online and look at agency portfolios to assess skills and sensibility. Narrow your list to several agencies that resonate; contact them and see if they’d be willing to meet to discuss the opportunity. If they extend an offer to host you at their space, say yes to experience the agency environment. Don't cast a wide, nebulous net.
Prepare to be Transparent
You can expect that savvy agencies will ask you questions to assess the opportunity before allocating resources and energy into proposal development. Be prepared to answer questions as: the approved budget (or range), implementation timetable, clarity about scope & deliverables, project goals & objectives, measurement of success, agency search process, among others. Believe it or not, a lack of early candor is often an accurate representation of how an actual collaboration will transpire -- and one that will discourage well-heeled shops from engaging in your search process. Despite routine resistance, there’s not a great reason to hide your project budget. If you don’t have a budget, then you are premature in seeking to find an agency partner. Sharing your budget parameters will quickly help firms identify if the opportunity is a good fit for them, and/or to scope an approach that meets the budget. Similarly, by disclosing the other agencies to which you’ve included in the search process will validate that you are indeed comparing apples-to-apples; it will also help position responding agencies to make a compelling case for themselves versus the others. RFP solicitations that include free-lancers, boutique firms and med/large agencies (or marketing companies, graphic design studios and branding agencies) is an indication that the company hasn’t done its homework.
Kick the Tires
With your initial homework completed and several agencies have invited you to visit their studios, it is time to really start assessing the chemistry. Ideally, you’ll meet with members of the leadership team, including your business development contact, a creative director and others. For this meeting, suggest a high-level agency that encourages a fluid conversation, such that you gain some insight into the agency's overall process & approach and potential team composition for a project like yours. Inquire about why they are interested (and hopefully excited) about working with you. Now is the time to ask tough, but fair questions, and to see if they have any concerns about working with you. Many prospective clients want to meet with and secure a commitment for the people that will actually be working on their project. We totally get this request, as you don’t want the bait-switch, such that you meet with veterans only to have your project assigned to interns. But, seasoned agencies deal with talent matriculation, just like any business (including yours) and usually won’t assign a project team until they’ve actually been hired. Hire an agency, not the person.
Initiatives such as an organizational rebranding or comprehensive website design are substantial endeavors. Recognize that these projects take time and will require real participation from the client team. Expect to be challenged (in a smart way) by your partner agency and for client-side decision making to take longer than envisioned. When client team members with a vested stake in the project aren’t engaged, be prepared for delays and cost increases when these stakeholders finally decide to weigh-in with input. An often overlooked and critically important component of many projects is content. Most clients believe that their internal resources have the skills and capacity to produce the caliber of content (writing, photos, etc.) required for the project, but those resources have existing responsibilities and a full-plate. Trust your agency partner to lead you to the finish line and for guidance on a realistic timeframe.
Inside your agency review or RFP process, don’t ever ask for free (spec) work such as a mock-up of a website home page, logo or ad campaign. Speculative work, commonly referred to as “spec”, is work completed by an agency before it has been contractually engaged and equitably compensated by the client. The many dangers in requesting spec work are detailed in this article.
Saying I Do
After the selected agency has said "yes", now is the time to make the relationship official. Seasoned agencies have a contractual framework that they use for precisely this type of engagement with language that correctly conveys ownership of relevant IP to you after they've been compensated. The agreement should contain balanced protections and be reasonable. In all likelihood, the contractual framework has been utilized with hundreds of other clients and it has been through the legalese meat grinder. It is absolutely OK to ask questions about their proposed terms & conditions, and to challenge language that doesn’t make sense. As most generic contract language we’ve seen is written for commodity procurement, not for professional services engagements with a transfer of IP, your existing “standard” contract might not actually cover your needs. Chances are that you approached this agency for help, so you should be willing to use (or at least consider) their contract. This doesn’t necessarily apply for certain government or institutional organizations that have zero flexibility. Finally, if you are a non-profit organization, you probably have a board member that is an attorney who is supposed to review all contracts, which is great. Please don’t ask the board member to second guess the agency’s contract, but to look for anything problematic. If you are a non-profit, the agency may be providing you with a discounted rate, so don’t have your attorney unnecessarily hijack the positive energy from the project before it gets started.
Perhaps you are an entrepreneur launching a new company (or are the marketing director of a charitable non-profit), and your organization isn’t positioned to fairly compensate the agency for the deep work they will be doing. In this scenario, you may want to consider proposing alternative payment approaches such as performance kickers, deferred comp, equity, licensing share, etc. When an agency really believes in you and your company/product/service/idea, they might be willing to have a vested stake in the project and be amenable to a creative compensation formula.
Seek the Trinity
Ideally, you will find alignment with the 3 most important elements in an agency/client relationship: sensibility, chemistry and skills. Sensibility is probably the easiest to research and can be accomplished by visiting agency websites and reviewing their online portfolio. Do you like how they’ve solved challenges for other clients, capturing the authentic spirit of those brands? Does their creative range seem like a good match for you? Pay attention to what (and why) in their portfolio resonates with you. Don’t overemphasize the importance of working in your specific industry… unless you want to look like everyone else. Likewise, an agency's website should paint an accurate picture of their focus areas and strengths. You will likely need to dig into this beyond what you can glean online, as many agencies will list a wide range of services despite only specializing in a few. To get a real sense of chemistry, an in-person meeting is your best bet; a phone conversation or two can also help. Ultimately, you are seeking commonality in core values and company culture. As branding engagements often last 1-2 years, you’ll want to feel super comfortable about the team with which you will be working.
There are plenty of great agencies and more than one that can be a good fit for you.