So you’re a small to mid-size advertiser and you need to hire a marketing communications firm, an ad agency.  Easy.  You send out a Request-for-Proposal to the dozens of agencies in the Buffalo/WNY phonebook(s).  This assumes you still use a phonebook.  Or you went to the Business First List. Stop!  This is not New York, LA or Chicago.  If you’re a good marketing manager, you should know by now who the shops are that can provide you with services clever enough to solve whatever problem you have.  The most valuable product agencies have is their ability to sit and listen to what your challenges are, propose and discuss alternative paths and then creatively execute solutions.  That doesn’t come out in responding to an RFP.

And whatever you do, don’t ask shops you’re considering to respond in an RFP how they would approach your project.  Until senior agency staff members have had in-depth conversations with you about your situation, how could they possibly provide a meaningful response?  Furthermore, 45 years of hard experience on both client and agency sides says most clients don’t really know what their problems are.  A key skill good agencies bring to the table is their ability to define the client’s problem.  It’s a skill most client-side people just don’t have.

Screw the RFP.  Go talk to a few shops. If you don’t know any, ask around town who the good shops are.  Talk to similar size companies about who they’ve had experience with.  And accept that there are only three things you need to know about an advertising agency.

  • Do you like the work they’ve done for their clients? If you personally like their work, you know that the agency can do work for you that you’ll be proud of.
  • Do you respect the clients and brands they represent? If they are working for companies that you can recognize and respect, then they can do work for you.  If you like the work but have never heard of any of their clients, keep looking.
  • After having met them and discussed your issues and marketing communications in general, do you like them?  Great work comes from great relationships and lots of collaboration.  You’re going to spend a lot of time with your new agency.  You better be able to get along with them.

Two other points.  If an agency brags that they have never lost a client, don’t take that as a positive. It just means they haven’t been around very long.

Finally, don’t ask them how much they’re going to charge for everything.  If they don’t know what the problems are, they can’t know what to do or how much to charge.  A good shop will have smart people that you can trust.  They’ll work with you to develop a budget strategy.

If you work for a company or institution that absolutely requires that RFPs go out, don’t let that stop you from sitting down and talking to some good shops prior to sending the RFPs.  They won’t mind and you’ll learn a lot that will stay with you regardless of who you ultimately select.