When Leo Burnett left his Agency, he told employees that in order for the Agency to succeed long-term, they needed to continuously add value to their clients’ lives otherwise they would just be like everyone else.

They needed to be proactive, they needed to be a smart strategic partners, they needed to have a passion for their client’s businesses.

He finished his valediction by saying that they needed to remember that the apples that sat on the receptionist’s desk weren’t just apples for eating, they represented all of the things that made Burnett different from other Agencies.

And the day that they became “just apples for eating” is the day he wanted his name taken off of the door.

Let’s dial ahead about 30 years….

Soon after I started RSW/US, I had the opportunity to present to a group of Agency principals in Kansas City.  There were approximately 15 Agencies present.

I gave each principal a transparency and a sharpie and asked them to write out their “elevator pitch”.

14 of the 15 Agencies gave me the same pitch:  “We’re strategic, we’re fun to work with, we work it hard, and we are very collaborative”.  It was frightening how similar they all were.

When it comes to stuff like this…all Agencies promise the same thing.

So how do you separate it all out when you’re looking for a new firm – and find that “apple” that isn’t just for eating?

Some suggestions…things we do when we manage a search for our clients:

Start early with the probing questions about their thinking and how they would address problems similar to what you’re dealing with.  Throw some tough questions into the RFI.

Evaluate the degree to which the Agency is proactive in how it works its way through the search process.  Are they proactively asking smart strategic questions or are they diving down into the weeds from the get-go.

Start to assess passion and chemistry early.  We hold what we call Q&A/Chemistry Calls with each Agency selected to move beyond the RFI phase.  Not only is this a chance for the Agency to ask questions and get smarter on the task at hand, but it’s also a chance for the Marketer to begin to get to know the Agency a bit – and begin to assess their level of passion and enthusiasm for the business – and a chance to assess how likely the Marketer is to get along with the Agency team. While the phone conversation isn’t the be-all-end-all…it can be telling.

Talk to their clients.

Visit the Agency.  Talk to random members of the firm.  Do people look like they enjoy what they do.  Does it feel like the kind of firm you’d like to be a part of/visit/have work for you?

Meet the team that will be directly responsible for your account.  What is their background, how long have they been with the Agency?  All questions that deserve answers and can provide a glimpse of the smartness, enthusiasm, and commitment you will get from your new Agency partners.

It takes a bit of effort on your part, but if you push yourself to really dig into each firm, you’ll find the “apples that aren’t just for eating” and the chances of developing a long-term, fruitful (sorry for the pun) relationship will be significantly greater.