Agency Review & Selection
Finding the right public relations or marketing communications agency is no simple task. It takes dedicated time, industry knowledge and a proven ability to evaluate intangibles. In these resource-constrained times, sometimes clients are afraid to hire an agency - or to part with a firm that may know their business but no longer suits their needs. Companies still have plenty of communications work to do, though, and realistically some of that must be outsourced.
Here's the real problem. Because they don't formally review agencies very often, clients often wind up engaging the firms that contact them, not always those they should consider. And they don't always ask the right questions of agency people. Worse yet, clients tend to pick the shops that pitch the best, not necessarily those that will perform the best.
Hawkins & Company has helped many organizations evaluate their relationships with external agencies in PR and related marcom fields to determine if they have the right partners. For those who want to find a new agency, Marilyn Hawkins can coordinate the entire review and selection process, saving the client enormous time and producing a better outcome.
Selecting a firm doesn't have to be a time-draining pain in the neck - it can be a very positive move with clear upsides. Done well, it provides a great opportunity to redefine and focus the company's PR and marketing strategies, get fresh ideas, and secure a better overall return on investment.
Key Initial Questions
In order to find the right agency, Hawkins & Company helps the client think through key questions such as: What do you want to accomplish through an agency search process?
Will your current agency be included in the review? Why or why not?
What do you really want and need from outside counsel that you're not getting now?
What core services does your company want (and not want) from an agency?
What specific work experience and capabilities are critical?
What attitudes and philosophies are most important to you in an agency partner?
Do you have strong preferences about?:
- Where the firm is located
- Size, longevity and ownership
- Depth of current industry/category/media contacts
- Connections to another agency you already work with
Any firms you must - or must not - include in the review?
What is your estimated annual budget for a firm and what is the preferred financial arrangement (hourly, retainer, project-based, hybrid or other)?
What is your philosophy about agency conflicts of interest?
How good a client do you think your company is now - or could be? (Based on previous experience, what do you need to do to be a better client?)
Who will be on the review team for a PR firm and who is the ultimate client?
How much time do your people have to devote to an agency review?
Ideally, how many firms do you want to consider and how long do you want the search to take?
1. Evaluate Client's Need for Outside Services
- Help determine what should and shouldn't be done by an agency.
- Outline must-haves and nice-to-haves in a firm.
2. Write Detailed Request for Credentials (RFC) or Request
for Proposals (RFP) to Include:
- Scope of work and realistic budget
- Core agency requirements
- Conflicts of interest
- Specific information about the agency (structure, personnel, experience, billing)
3. Determine the Best Firms to Interview
- Research their capabilities, experience, client base, reputation and staff.
- Assess possible conflicts of interest, other challenges.
- Contact agencies to discuss their interest and compatibility.
- Issue RFPs/RFCs.
4. Review RFP/RFC Submissions
- Prepare detailed comparative analysis.
- Recommend and rank finalists.
- Contact finalists and schedule agency visits and formal presentations.
5. Conduct Extensive Reference Checks
- Contact at least three each in all relevant categories such as current clients, past clients, news media, industry influentials, analysts.
- Contact others who know the firm but weren't listed as references.
- Prepare detailed summary of each reference check.
6. Arrange and Conduct Agency Tours
- Create agenda for meetings at agencies.
- Write detailed list of questions to pose at on-site visits.
- Counsel client on what to look for during tours.
7. Coordinate Agency Presentations
- Communicate to agencies what to include and avoid in their pitches.
- Determine questions for client to pose, key elements to evaluate.
- Conduct debriefings with client immediately after each session.
8. Prepare Tailored Agency Scorecard for Overall Evaluation
- Lead client through a full "apples to apples" comparison of competing firms.
- Help client gain internal consensus on best selection.
- If no clear winner emerges, prepare additional questions for client to use in second meetings with finalists.
9. Notify Successful Firm and Other Review Participants
Provide each agency with complete information on which firm was selected and why.
10. Assist with Contract Negotiations
If requested by client, review draft agency contract and make suggestions for structuring an agreement that meets exact client needs.
Request for Credentials Example
In a search, the central task is to ask for enough of the right kinds of data - and not get buried in puffery.
Here are some of the basic lines of inquiry to use in screeing:
- Provide a brief overview of your agency - its ownership and affiliations, history, geographic reach and presence, strengths and weaknesses, values, points of difference.
- What services does your agency provide (in this office and elsewhere)?
- List all active clients and a contact for each. How long have you held each account and what services do you perform?
- Do you represent any clients with which we may have a conflict of interest, now or in the future?
- What were your total gross billings last year? What is the
average annual billing of all accounts? The largest? The
smallest? Where would our account fit in, in terms of size?
- What experience has the agency - or its staff, if performed elsewhere - had in our field and with accounts like ours? Be specific about services provided and results achieved.
- How is the agency organized? Provide a simple org chart, indicating names, positions and responsibilities of all key personnel in relevant offices (exclude anyone who will have only minimal contact with this account).
- Who would be assigned to our business? What would be the exact responsibilities of each person? Where are they based? What are their billing rates and what do you charge for other agency services we may use?
- References. Provide contact information for three each:
current clients, past clients, relevant reporters/editors,
industry analysts, influentials (prominent industry leaders,
political figures, activists, others).
- Why does your agency want to work on this account?
- What's your description of a great client? Of a great client/
Agency President Marilyn Hawkins has 25 years of experience in public relations and marketing. As a PR counselor, her specialties are B2B marketing communications, reputation management, business and trade media relations, employee communications, labor/management relations, corporate social responsibility and crisis response. She has worked on such major accounts as AT&T Wireless Services, Swedish Medical Center, Medtronic Physio-Control, The Home Depot, Xerox, Frank Russell Company, Boeing, Korn/Ferry International, American Express, TCI, the John Stanford International School and many others.
Before forming her own firm in 1994, Hawkins was VP/Marketing at The Rockey Company (now Hill & Knowlton/Rockey in Seattle), which was then the Northwest's largest full-service public relations and public affairs agency. She began her agency career as VP/PR at Sharp Hartwig Advertising. Hawkins is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America and was Puget Sound Chapter President in 1990. She was named the chapter's "PR Professional of the Year" for 1999. An established teacher and corporate coach, she served five years as an instructor in the University of
Washington's Public Relations Certificate program.
To discuss an agency search, contact Marilyn Hawkins at email@example.com or (541) 552-9922.