A New Way To Look At Hiring An Agency
Columnist Scott Rayden takes a look at why traditional hiring practices are flawed and how you can find an agency with the right vision and culture.
Digital marketing agencies are a whole lot different than they were even a year ago. Straight-up channel management is part of an increasingly broad picture that includes complex attribution across devices and channels, technology solutions management, fast-evolving consumer expectations, and more. Compare a thriving agency from 2010 to a thriving agency today, and it’s not apples to oranges; it’s apples to gourmet fruit salad.
As in any dynamic industry, the only true constant is change. So why are so many companies still using the same old approach to hiring those agencies?
In this post, I’ll look at outdated hiring practices and why they don’t work, and then I’ll propose two significant (but often overlooked) factors that should matter in your hiring process going forward.
Out With The Old
Turnover happens roughly every two to three years even when an agency is doing a great job. It’s rare for agencies to boast 6- to 10-year clients. But why is that? What gets in the way?
It goes back to hiring — specifically, the traditional trinity of relationships, short lists and RFPs (request for proposals).
Brands often hire agencies based on a relationship. While relationships mean the world in our space and are vital for agencies to build and maintain, they’re not always the best predictor of client/agency success, especially when in a vacuum.
Let’s say a client knows an agency or individual who did amazing work four years ago — does that mean they’re still at the top of the space? Not necessarily.
While relationships are important, CMOs who choose an agency because of a relationship alone are taking a huge risk.
Most CMOs these days have a short list: three to four agencies that are top of mind based on past experience or reputation. Agencies on the short list get the work; agencies that are not don’t.
The problem here is that those short-listed agencies are being perceived based on past work, a reputation that may no longer be relevant, or its status as a “safe bet.” As our CEO, David Rodnitzky, likes to say, bringing in a known commodity won’t get you fired — but it may not get you a big raise, either.
RFPs are a funny thing. I’ve probably looked at hundreds of these over the years, and they all come from the same playbook. They ask a ton of questions about the agency: what you have done in the past, what services you offer, how you think about A, B and C. They are very rigid — to the point of being reductive — and most of the time their framework doesn’t give agencies the latitude to show the real value they can provide.
I think of RFPs as the sticker price shown on a car — you see all the features, the price, etc., but unless you actually drive the car, you really don’t know what you’re in for.
So if all of the above is flawed, how should brands look for the right agency?
In With The…
Let’s start simple: Qualify the agency based on what they have done in the past, but hire the agency based on what they will do in the future.
Sounds easy, right? Maybe. But although we’re rapidly evolving, we don’t have digital crystal balls just yet. When you’re evaluating how an agency will perform going forward, I recommend you spend time researching two characteristics: vision and culture.
Where is the agency going, and what is their plan to get there? What investments — in tools, in people, in projects — have they made to prove their commitment?
Most importantly, how does the agency’s vision align with yours? How can their vision help your company succeed? I can’t remember the last time I saw an RFP that covered this. Most companies I talk to today don’t spend time here — which means agencies might not have glib answers at the ready.
Ask those questions of agencies, and you might really get a look into what it would be like to work with them.
If an agency can’t articulate exactly how their vision aligns with yours (and how they can prove it), that’s pretty much writing on the wall. The future comes fast in digital marketing; in our world, three years is a lifetime. If you’re not in step from the outset, things will pull apart in a hurry.
Agencies don’t have silver bullets. People are their No. 1 asset, and they’re at the heart of everything, even technology.
Success comes from the right people, with the right experience, doing the right thing for their clients. This is why a company’s core values are so important: They shape the culture that attracts and retains top talent.
When was the last time you asked an agency to spend time talking about their values? In my experience, brands don’t tend to dive too deeply into an agency’s values and assess how they align with their own. But these questions are hugely important, both for the client/agency fit and for assessing the agency’s culture.
These days, more than ever, talent is hard to find and even harder to retain. Without a great culture, an agency will lose its talent, lose its edge and die. It’s that simple (though it may take longer to become evident with bigger outfits).
If you do your research on an agency’s vision and culture, you give yourself a real chance to find a long-term growth partner who ties their success with yours.
If you take the traditional approach to hiring, you might have a nice two-year run — just long enough to let the dust settle on your RFP before you have to send it out again. It’s your call.