In a crowded marketplace, it is no surprise that brand teams face an overwhelming number of agencies to choose from.  From boutique shops to global organizations, from specialized firms that focus on targeting a niche audience to giants with a portfolio that ranges across a multitude of industries, the potential list of agency partners could stretch for miles.

Knowing that each agency’s attributes will impact the work produced and the relationship with marketers, a criterion that must be addressed centers on how to select one partner from a large pool of candidates.  Doing your homework right will increase the chances of having a long and fruitful relationship with the agency, and to begin with an open mind, learn about the numerous options available, and make sure that each decision is backed with information when narrowing down the list of agencies.

Key to eliminating agencies from consideration is asking the right questions at the right time.  To add structure to this exercise, marketers should take into consideration a three-phased approach.

Phase 1: Determining your prerequisites

The changes in technology and social media, as well as the inception of new agencies and fresh creatives in the field, both marketers and agencies, when first conducting an agency selection process, will be unfamiliar with the other.  Even for partnerships that have lasted for years, how a team will work to fulfill the demands of each unique marketing objective is likely to remain an unknown when candidates are first introduced to the selection process and criteria.  Thus, to start, it is important for marketing teams to ensure that each agency on their list is able to meet the fundamental needs of the project(s), from both a capability and policy perspective.

As a first step, businesses need to look outwards to ensure that the agencies have the capabilities and experience to handle a specific project.  In addition, organizations should also look inwards to make sure that their budget and products are in line with the agency’s size and specialties.  For instance, while certain agencies are famous for their award-winning ads, they may not have the resources to scale up for a larger global project, while a small startup client may not want to work with a large, traditional agency.  Certain products or agencies cater to a niche target; thus, brand teams need to assess an agency’s current client’s and campaigns.  A pharmaceutical company looking to reach out to patients should not hire an agency whose expertise lies in communicating with healthcare professionals. 

Businesses should also ensure that there are no conflicts of interest that exist with the agency’s current and future client base.  Even if a company has the capabilities, experience, and right profile, they may already be working for another competitor.

In short, to start trimming down a list of potential agency candidates, marketers should evaluate the basics.  Removing those that do not immediately qualify will save everyone time in the long run.

Recommended procedure: Marketers can obtain this information through an introductory phone conversation or with an RFI.

Phase 2: Aligning values and insights

Once the qualified agencies are determined, marketers should further refine their list by assessing whether the candidates would be a good fit for the needs of a certain project.  Each agency will work to tailor their approach to the objectives of the client.  To differentiate one shop from the other, marketers should take this opportunity to explore their candidates’ strategic approach, methodology, and proposed tactics, as well as the team’s creative thinking, expressed through deliverables such as recommended implementation plans or tissue presentations to app mock ups.  And, to ensure that shops do not win simply because they are the flashiest, ask the agencies what metrics they use to make sure promises are delivered, and what happens when there is a mistake.  The purpose of this phase is not to make the agencies produce a finished advertisement, but rather, to learn about how they think and whether their values and philosophy will benefit the client, and remove from consideration shops that are perceived to be less than a good fit.

Other factors to weigh are how well the individuals of each party will interact and whether there will be positive chemistry or debilitating clashes of personalities.  Getting to know the leaders of the organization, account managers, and key developers, creatives, and other important members from both parties will be critical when narrowing the list of agencies.

Recommended procedure: RFP, but key to this is the submission of a detailed strategic/creative proposal.  Furthermore, the client should consider the option of holding a pitch presentation, and providing the agencies the opportunity to express their strategic approach and ideas in person.  This will also be a key chance to meet to determine whether there is chemistry for both the marketing team and the agency.

Phase 3: Due diligence

As a result of the discussions that take place during a pitch presentation, it is common for additional questions to arise, or for brand teams to be sitting on the fence between the two top finalists.  Marketers may want to take another chance to investigate before making their final decision and ask the agency to revise their proposal based on the insights and ideas generated during contact with the client.  The last deliberations may also be accompanied by a visit to the agency, which would provide valuable information on how the organization operates on a typical day, and to meet additional team members and gain a more genuine sense of the agency’s culture.  Reference calls can also help provide brand teams a fresh perspective on how the agency operates.

Recommended Procedure: revised proposals, agency onsite visits, and reference calls all provide more information on the agency and help marketing teams determine their top finalists.


In general, one method to finding a fitting agency partner is to take a measured approach in narrowing a list of various options. In taking into consideration a three phased approach, by first determining basic qualifications and then delving deeper into the team’s thinking and cultural alignment, and finishing with examining different perspectives, marketers can avoid jumping to hasty conclusions and risking the waste of time and money when committing its resources on a critical aspect of their business.

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Katherine Wang

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