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Tips for Building a Strong Agency Relationship
By Norwin A. Merens, Managing Director, NM Marketing Communications

Whatever the reason, companies are often challenged to find a good fit with an agency partner.

As the New Year begins, many B2B companies are putting the finishing touches on their marketing plans. These plans often include working with a marketing communications agency. The desire to work with outside resources may be driven by a number of factors, such as supplementing internal resources, introduction of new products or a desire to add specialized marketing expertise in a particular media segment.

Whatever the reason, companies are often challenged to find a good fit with an agency partner. This is particularly true with many of the small- to mid-sized enterprises. Often, these businesses have not used an agency before, so they have questions about starting the process. Their concerns typically fall into two categories:
  •  Selecting a manageable number of potential agency partners to interview.
  •  Understanding the specific agency operating practices that will result in a successful relationship.
Initial Considerations

The first step in choosing an agency is determining your marketing objectives and the scope of your program. For example, are you looking for a comprehensive, full-service program or assistance with a specific project? Once you've set your priorities, you can begin winnowing the list of prospective firms.

There are thousands of communications agencies and providers in the United States, ranging from multi-national Madison Avenue behemoths to solo entrepreneurs. Many of these can be eliminated from initial consideration, however, based on size or location.

Budgets for most B2B companies preclude working with the giants, and most major metropolitan areas have a variety of smaller agencies with good skills. Working with a local firm simplifies communications and response time.

Your local Business Marketing Association chapter can provide lists of local firms specializing in B2B marketing. Other sources include referrals from your vendors or customers, who may be familiar with firms specializing in your industry segment, or conducting a web search.

Next Steps

Depending upon the complexity of your program, and the amount of time and effort you want to expend on the agency search, there are two basic ways to proceed. The first is to identify a list of three to four prospective firms and contact them to explore their interest. A phone call or e-mail exchange outlining the basic parameters and expectations for the marketing program can gauge the interest of both parties in arranging a meeting for a more detailed discussion.

The second method is to issue an RFP to a larger group of potential marketing firms. An RFP is typically used for more complex programs or a marketing effort requiring a certain set of specific skills or experience. Creating an effective RFP takes time since it needs to list as many criteria as possible to enable you to evaluate prospective firms. This upfront effort can pay benefits, however, by quickly eliminating firms that don't meet specific criteria.

Building a Relationship

The initial meeting with prospective agencies is a chance for fact-finding by both sides. You will have the opportunity to probe the agency about how the type of solutions they've provided for other clients with similar objectives, how they approach their assignments, who will be working on your business and similar issues.

The agency will be interested in learning about your previous marketing initiatives, why you are seeking a change - or starting a new program - the decision-making chain, internal resources and other factors that impact the type of program they will propose.

Program cost is a critical issue for the marketing firm and the client. While cost is always a question in any purchasing decision, agency fees and budgets can seem like a mystery to many companies - particularly if the business is starting an agency relationship for the first time. Some clients are reluctant to disclose what they expect to spend on a marketing program. They may not have good benchmarks for marketing costs. Or they think that by providing a budget number the agency will create a program spending the entire budget, whether or not all the expenditures are effective.

On the other hand, the agency can't develop an effective marketing or promotion program without knowing some essential budget parameters. There are often a variety of solutions for the client's marketing needs, so having budget information allows the agency to choose those tactics that will provide the greatest return for the investment.

To assist in this process, agencies can often provide examples of the range of costs for certain types of services. This allows both the client and the agency to determine if the budget is realistic for meeting the client's objectives.

Once there is alignment on the budget and objectives, the agency will typically prepare a proposal outlining how they will achieve the client's objectives. The proposal will include specific tasks and perhaps some initial creative ideas for the marketing program. Most small- to mid-sized agencies will not provide "spec" designs at this stage. The agency's main "product" is their creative ideas, so giving them away at this point does not make business sense. Looking at the agency's portfolio of past work should give most prospective clients ample opportunity to judge the agency's talent.

After reviewing the proposal, the client and agency can discuss any fine-tuning that is needed to rev up your marketing for the new year.




Norwin A. Merens is managing director of Glenview, IL-based NM Marketing Communications, an integrated B2B marketing, public relations and trade show/ special events management firm. He may be reached by calling 847.657.6011 or at nmerens@nmmarketingbiz.com. Find out more at www.nmmarketingbiz.com

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