Back in 2007, I asked a group of 20 Agency Principals at a conference in Kansas City to write down their agency’s “elevator pitch”. 19 of the 20 stated that they were “strategic, fun to work with, hard working, and had long-standing client relationships”.

Too many agencies think alike, look alike, and operate alike in agency-client relationships.  We see it everyday at our Agency Search firm.

Look at any agency website and I bet that 19 out of 20 look the same. A lot of agency philosophy, a diatribe on their people, and a process for creating work – each with a different “trademarked” name. What Marketers need is the agency that pushes themselves, pushes the client, treats everyday as if it’s the first day of the relationship.

Think about the last time you had an agency present to you. Did they start by asking questions or did they start by telling you all about them? In a recent survey we conducted among Marketers (which you can find on our site –, Marketing executives state that most agencies talk too much and don’t listen to (or ask about) their problems first, before presenting solutions and ideas.

So what to do if you’re a Marketer looking for a new agency? Here are a few steps you can take – or a few things you can watch out for – that will help you set the “must have” agency apart from all the rest.

This direction is borne out of our work in managing searches for Marketers at RSW/AgencySearch (having seen the wide variety of approaches taken by agencies) and our work in representing over 40 agencies across the nation and communicating with thousands every month through the work we do at RSW/US.

We think we have seen (nearly) it all.

So before you start a search, do the following:
Ask yourself and key managers to document where you think your current agency is falling
down – generate a list;

Define (both you and other key managers) the “ideal” next agency (e.g. strong digital
department, mid-size, close in proximity);

Define your timeline for finding a new agency – and stick to it;

Think about the process. What steps are you going to want to take in finding the agencies and
narrowing the field. What information do you expect to get from the agencies.

To start the search for agencies, you can do one of the following:
• Tap into friends, colleagues for ideas of firms;

• Do a search online for agencies in your defined areas (e.g. geography, expertise);

• Tap into resources like Redbooks to narrow your search;

• Explore the use of an agency search firm to assist in your search

If you’re running the search on your own, look for the following from agencies to help you separate out the good, from the “must have” firms:
• Agencies that step outside the limits of your requests to provide ideas, thinking. We had an
agency in a recent search we managed provide perspective on some of the website changes
they would make by comparing the client’s site to that of one of its major competitors. This
perspective wasn’t asked for. They went above/beyond to showcase how they think;

• Look for the agency that asks a lot of smart questions. In searches we manage, we always
give the agencies the chance to ask questions – separate from other agencies. This way the
smart agencies will glean the smart insights by asking good questions. Those agencies that
sit on the sidelines and only present their responses in a vacuum never seem to be all that
engaged in the process;

• Look for the agency that doesn’t just showcase their like category experience, but look for the
agency that details parallel issues and challenges – and presents ideas that demonstrate
unique approaches to addressing problems you’ve had in the past – or currently face. A
search we managed late last year included an agency that was so proud of their work that they
did for a State’s lottery commission that they completely lost sight of the fact that the budget for
this brilliant campaign was 20x the budget of this client’s business – not exactly the most
sensitive, relevant piece of work to be presenting;

• Watch out for the agency that presents all the things about themselves first (people, location,
history). More often than not, there’s little behind the curtain other than smiling faces and pretty
places. Look for the agency that lays out your issues, asks questions during the presentation,
presents their ideas in terms of how they would strategically address problems;

• And finally, you need to feel good about the agency. Don’t be swayed by award winning
creative and slick presenters. At the end of the day, this needs to be a partnership between
you and the firm you’re working with. Meet the players that will likely work with your firm, talk to them about things other than the pitch, and in the end assess the degree to which you think this “marriage” can last. Chemistry can never be over-rated. It’s critical that you respect and enjoy the people you’re going to work with.

So bottom line is don’t rush into it. Take a step back and spell out your needs, explore options broadly and be critical of what is being put in front of you. After all, it’s your brand and your budget. You need to do what’s right for both.

Next week we’ll talk about how to establish the ideal agency search process – the steps you should take to shepherd agencies through the consideration set/review.

If you’re ever looking for a new agency and need some help/perspective, drop us a line (