Friday, September 25, 2009

Hiring a Digital Agency

Hiring (and firing) an agency goes with the territory for brand marketers. But what was once a multi-year (or longer) relationship between the brand client and their agency has become much more fluid. Whether you're talking about bringing in a new agency of record or adding another player to your agency mix, brand-side clients are always evaluating agency talent, and the fast pace of digital means that brands will likely have to sign on the dotted line with greater frequency.

There are a number of places to start when hiring a new agency, start by asking, "Why do we need a new agency?" Maybe you've inherited them and you just can't work together -- you've tried, but it's a chemistry thing.

Why do we need a new agency? -- will always lead to some rather profound insights, if the brand can be honest about its own corporate culture as well as what's gone right (and wrong) with the relationship at hand. While that may sound like simple advice, it's a pill not easily swallowed by many clients.

Broadly speaking, ask yourself if your company culture supports the changes the agency is trying to make? Examine your relationship to see if it allows for shared risk. Is the agency forced to stay inside a box or are they given some freedom?

Those answers may not always be available because in some cases, the relationship may have become so bad that it's nearly impossible to see the forest through the trees. Take the time to reflect on your own corporate culture and how it interplayed with their previous agency stand a much better chance of getting it right with their next hire.

Beware of the specialist search
Scan the tech blogs and you'll quickly see that digital creates new communication channels faster than advertisers can figure out how to use them. But CMOs who want to integrate their media strategy face a difficult dilemma: Do you opt for a "specialist" agency -- a social media shop, for example -- to work in a highly technical area, or do you hire one agency that can bring it all together at the risk of sacrificing some key knowledge in an emerging area?

The answer depends more on your own organization's strength and weaknesses than anything else. It's all about orchestration, if you have the time and staff to orchestrate across multiple specialists, then you have the option to spread the love. If you're like most organizations, however, and you're short-staffed and time-crunched, then you should find and assign a lead agency and have them sub-contract for the specialists.

If you have a lead agency responsible for bringing holistic thinking, then they will have the responsibility to be constantly searching for specialists and providing you with thought leadership and success.

Restless can be a winner
No matter how exhaustive your hiring process is, you will always face the same problem: All agencies look great before you hire them.

They always put their best foot forward when you're looking at a new agency. A lot of times you're looking at their work, and maybe it wasn't all their original idea, but they executed on it. Or maybe they had the big idea, but some other agency put it in action -- no agency is ever going to tell you exactly what they did. So, there's always some mystery there.

It's not about what the agency did to get in the room with him -- that's all prelude. In a nutshell, he says, he's always on the lookout for a "restless" agency. It's really about doing great work, but having that mindset to say, okay we hit all of our goals, but how could we have done it better? That's the kind of restlessness you want from your agency.

Find an agency that experiment
It is important that the agency is adding expertise. There's always something new, something that's experimental, and it is important that the agency is keeping up with the times. That's critical, and experimentation is a sign of a good agency.

Look for existing partnerships
For better or worse, most brands use a mix of agencies these days. But whether those agencies work together or fight each other tooth and nail for a larger share of the client's business often depends on two factors.

First, it's up to the client to set the tone for cooperation, and while some brands prefer in-fighting among their agencies, most at least say that they want team work.
My experience on both the client and agency sides shows that regardless of whether the agencies work together; there will always be a level of competition going on.

You need to communicate the ground rules before, during, and after the contracts are signed -- what the rules of engagement will be. If you don't want to see or hear the campaigning, then you need to let them know that and chastise their senior management when they do.

But ground rules will only take you so far, and if you haven't hired an agency that knows how to play well with others, you're going to be in for bumpy ride, which means that even before you set the ground rules, you have to seek out the right kind of agency partner.

If a firm already has existing strategic partnerships, this bodes well for them being willing to share the sandbox with others. A smart agency realizes they can't be the best in every area, and a focused agency will usually want to work on that which they know they can produce superior results.

Chemistry counts, but chemists aren't needed
Nearly all great teams have some level of chemistry. But whether you're talking about the chemistry between your staff and your agency, or the relationship between your various agencies, it is possible to go overboard. And in fact, some CMOs tend to focus too much on chemistry.

Chemistry is probably [the] No. 1 [thing a CMO should look for in an agency. You've got to be able to work together. But don't let a personality glitch blind you to the attributes of an agency if you'll never have to work with that person.