Looking beyond the Big Idea

Experts weigh in on how the agency search process is changing and what marketers want from their creative partners today.

Here’s something to bear in mind if you’re an agency pitching for business: it’s all about them, not you, says The Township’s Karen Howe.

Easy enough said, but it’s tempting to fall back into Mad Men-era thinking, when creatives were briefed directly by the c-suite and asked to return months later with a “big reveal” of award-winning creative that would transform the brand and earn its creators a spot on the list of advertising demi-gods.

Things have changed, of course. And so, too, has the way clients (who are looking to be more than springboards for creative achievement) are assessing potential agency partners.

Today, procurement departments are more often in the driver’s seat when it comes to searches, Howe says, echoing other industry experts. She says that means those running the pitch often don’t understand the nuances of client-agency relationships. “Procurement is best suited for the purchase of commodities like chairs or drywall. Not creative.”

Creative capabilities remain important and are still the focus of many agency searches, according to Stephan Argent, founder and CEO of marketing consultancy Listenmore. However, the reality of ever-less-forgiving budgets and increased attention on performance means clients are looking for agencies to better deliver on the “non-sexy stuff,” he says. A brand can have a solid understanding of its positioning – which it can perfectly articulate in the brief – and therefore rely less on a creative agency to develop its strategy. In those cases, factors like faster turnaround time and account management play a more important role in the selection process.

Beyond being able to deliver superior creative, what makes an agency attractive varies wildly by client.

According to Howe and Argent, some clients are looking for a fit in approaches or values, others look for deeper expertise in a particular area, such as analytics, retail or tech. Some prioritize product launches (sometimes in specific categories, such as cannabis) or global experience; others emphasize staff demographics. More than one client, according to Howe, has called out an agency for not having sufficient female representation – especially at a senior level.

The experts also say agency size and independence are increasingly important considerations, as it allows clients to maintain a degree of control over resourcing – no more calling the shots from metropolises down south or overseas – and ensure they don’t fall to the wayside when bigger fish come along.

“Creative was a really strong pillar of the pitch process over the years,” says Argent. “But I think the emphasis on that has been and should be lessened.”

Michael Fyshe, partner at search consultancy Reynolds & Fyshe, agrees that there are other dynamics shifting the focus away from creative on its own. As some clients look for partners that can help evolve or renew their brand through strategic services, he says, “You’re starting to see much more connectivity between strategy and creativity.” Because, clients hate to see their planning insights disappear during creative development.

According to Fyshe – who has sat in on roughly 300 pitches over the last ten years – it’s a dynamic that has become more pronounced recently, as clients look to build out their internal production and execution capabilities. Over time, clients that rely too heavily on their internal teams “to carry the torch for their advertising services feel that their brand has lost touch with strategic needs,” he says.

As a result, there’s new demand for agency partners that can provide strategic and creative guidance to clients’ internal resources, and a growing number of agencies willing to say goodbye to the do-everything AOR model to focus on the planning or consulting side of the business, he says.

All three experts agree that while bringing talent and capabilities in-house may seem easier and cheaper than outsourcing, having an external perspective remains valuable.

“Great agency partners offer a world view that extends beyond your own boardroom. They bring shared learning from other brands and categories, and from around the world,” Howe notes. “They offer an objective, consumer-driven point of view. And say the things you sometimes don’t want to hear.”

Still, under the new paradigm, many believe assessing a third party’s creative abilities remains inherently difficult to do – which raises the question of “spec work.”

Agencies are wary of pouring valuable resources into a pitch that could be rejected or thrown out (without being adequately compensated), and clients want to make sure the agency’s previous award-winning thinking can be replicated for them – that is, whether the “creative lightning can strike twice,” as Argent puts it.

But Fyshe stresses there are ways to be transparent and fair to all parties, while ensuring a good agency fit and treating creativity with the respect it deserves. (He notes that Reynolds & Fyshe have a “strong bias” against spec work, but that it will, in rare instances, allow it to be used to break ties between agencies when a client insists on it. And in those cases, the client must agree to be involved in the creative development with both agency prospects and to pay for those hours spent on the work.)

There are many reasons critics argue spec work doesn’t work (for the agency or the brand) – one being that creative ideas are meaningless without input from the client. Sending agencies off to mull ideas within the confines of their own office isn’t an efficient way to get to a product that hits the core of the brand’s strategy. “Nobody knows the business better than the client,” says Fyshe. “If they’re not involved in the development of creative, it’s not going to land well.”

Instead, the experts suggest that, during the selection process, marketers figure out what their ideal agency-client relationship is. Finding the right match will spur creativity down the road.

Howe suggests clients implement a kind of speed-dating approach, something that goes beyond a formal presentation. A brainstorming session in which a brand and shop come together to work on a creative problem can also prove fruitful, she says.

The speed date format resembles what Fyshe calls the “DNA session,” which is part of the search process at Reynolds & Fyshe. It entails getting agency and client CEOs in the same room, while marketers meet with their agency counterparts. Standardized role-specific questions help gauge how well the agency team meets the brand team’s needs. Fyshe says, “Those DNA sessions have actually broken ties for us, where we’ve had dead heats.”

At the end of the day, it all boils down to relationships, he says. If the people aren’t right, and the cultures don’t match, things aren’t going to go well.

“In the ten years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen a single agency pitch that hasn’t been based on chemistry and fit,” agrees Argent. It has “never, ever” been just about having the best creative product, he says. “That may sound surprising, but it’s never been that [simple].”