Pitching session at Brooklyn Dodgers Spring Training. Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr.

Pitching session at Brooklyn Dodgers Spring Training. Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr.

The current agency search process is too slow for a marketing world that runs at the speed of light, and it is too expensive for brands – and agencies – that need to prevent waste.

It can take five or six months or even a year for a brand to choose an agency, at the cost of diverted attention from the company’s business and executive time.

With an improved protocol, a well-managed agency search can be concluded infive to six weeks, without hurting the quality of results. In fact, a revised process will lead to a more informed pick and a stable, long-term relationship with the agency.

Different times, different goals

Part of the problem with today’s commonly practised agency search process is that agencies and marketers have different objectives from the get-go.

Marketers are looking for a long-term relationship with an agency. Agencies, on the other hand, are more mercenary. Initially, they are looking for a transaction, not a deep relationship. They are simply looking to win the pitch.

The traditional approach to selecting an agency has been around since the early 1970s and is completely out-of-date. It is complex and selection is determined by a superficial context.

This leads to growing instability in client-agency relationships, and accelerates turnover in agency rosters and eventually hurts brands and their equities. Relationships that used to last 15 or 20 years now break down in less than three years, on average.

A contemporary process needs to be streamlined and optimize interaction between brand marketers and the agencies under consideration.

Here are some ideas for how to redesign the agency selection process, drawn from my personal experience in agency search over the last 30 years:

Do away with the RFP

Most consultants start by contacting 15 or 20 agencies and sending them an RFP. But RFPs are generic and provide very little useful information. The first two or three months of the search process, perhaps more, are wasted sorting through redundant responses from the agencies.

Instead, an independent consultant who has in-depth knowledge of agencies and their capabilities should be able to shortlist the best four or five contenders based on the brand’s brief.

Workshops instead of a pitch

The traditional agency search process is more of a beauty contest that revolves around the “pitch meeting.” The problem with these beauty contests is that agencies are much better at them than marketers.

Agencies pitch all the time and are very good at presenting and showmanship.

Instead, facilitating a number of workshops with each of the contenders gives the brand an opportunity to evaluate how the agencies develop strategy and creative work, how they think, how fast they work, and just how passionate the agency team is.

Unlike a traditional pitch process, this approach mirrors how marketers and agencies work in real life and paints a much clearer picture of the competing agencies’ strengths and weaknesses.

Image by Joey Tanny

Why pitch when you can workshop? Image by Joey Tanny

Hire an agency’s future, not its past

Did the agency adjust to the new communications model, which shifted away from interruptive messages? Did it adopt new technologies and platforms that make listening more important than messaging?

An agency’s future, while somewhat informed by its past, is a better reflection of the agency’s vision and its willingness to embrace what’s coming rather than preserve what’s been.

Hire their criteria for hiring people

Talent rules. Nothing is more important than people. You certainly want collaborative people working on your business, but you may also want to know what qualities the agency looks for when hiring – curiosity? courage? optimism? persistence?

Hire for all screens

Advertising is no longer about just the 30-second spot, although many agencies are still stuck in the old model.

One of the most critical things to find out during the workshops is the agency’s ability to work across all platforms and channels, from mobile, to social, to branded content.

Hire for culture and ethics

Marketers often look at culture in terms of the agency’s creative standards. But its core values, work ethic and commitment to partnership will foretell the kind of relationship you are likely to have.

Marketing is one of the biggest expenses for most companies and hiring the right agency is one of the most important decisions a CMO can make.

It is time for brands to rethink a failing, four-decade-old agency selection process and adapt it to 21st century needs.

A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.com

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