Cutting Through the Fluff: Five Things That Really Matter in Ad Agency Pitches
In today’s advertising landscape, working with the best partners has never been more important. Whether you're a scrappy startup or a well-established global corporation, running an ad agency review is a daunting task that no marketing leader looks forward to. Why? Because agency pitches are usually full of fluff.
But finding an agency doesn’t have to be cringeworthy – everything from the process, to the people involved, to the awkward meetings can be a really fun experience, if both sides do it right.
I’ve been in charge of pitching for agencies for more than a decade – specifically brand and performance marketing services across media, creative, social content, measurement and commerce. Recently I joined Code3 as Chief Growth Officer, on a mission to accelerate the revenue of an agency that is just primed for what matters to clients and their brand growth.
When I dove into strategy on how to adjust the go-to-market plan for Code3, I thought back to what has to be over 1,000 pitches I’ve been a part of. If I was the client, what would I want to see? What made for a successful outcome for all parties – both in the pitch, and of course, the relationship (and results!) that followed?
Stepping into the client’s shoes, here are a few “watch outs” when selecting an agency partner:
1. Watch Out for the Salesperson
You can tell a lot about an agency by paying attention to who they have on the front lines. Recently I went to a conference full of CMOs and of course, other sales talent, and was struck by how some sales professionals did not understand complex topics like measurement, content strategy, the intricacies of a scope when you’re managing multiple media channels with different service models or tech fees.
As a brand, pay close attention to the initial introduction call with an agency. Are you able to have a legitimate conversation with the salesperson that you first interacted with? If they can only talk surface-level, if it’s clear they can’t ask solid questions, or don’t know the answers to your most important questions (beyond “sales” questions like pricing or client logos), they are likely not a good fit. The best agencies have sales talent that have actually done the work. These people are able to boil down what is important to you and translate it into solid research, strategy recommendations, and clearly translate what matters to you to the team that will join the big pitch meeting. They will provide you with realistic expectations and protect their team.
2. Watch Out for the Talent
Once you get past the initial RFI or round of introduction meetings, is the agency actually pulling in the right talent? If not, demand it. The agency should be putting a team on the pitch to show you a sampling of their subject matter expertise. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the exact team you’d work with, but a few key team members that will actually be involved is essential for not only a solid pitch but a smooth onboarding. For what it’s worth, no agency can staff every pitch with the future team. If they can, they are sitting on too much bandwidth (which is also a flag).
3. Watch Out for What's Being Sold
Are they selling themselves, or a solution for you? Read that sentence again. Pay attention to what they talk about. Once you get past basic credibility, the agency should talk 90% about your brand, your challenges, and how they have solved those same problems or achieved growth for other similar clients in the past. If all they do is show you shiny awards or talk about themselves, your own goals and strategies will take a backseat to their own brand.
4. Watch Out for the Vibe
How does the meeting feel? If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that your initial gut reaction is usually true. If the meeting feels awkward, there’s no chemistry, or the team seems difficult or defensive– you’re never going to get great work out of them. The best meetings are not a fluffy pitch stage and are genuine, authentic conversations.
As a potential client during a sales pitch, interrupt the slide scripts and ask questions. That’s the best way to see how a team will act in an everyday setting. At the end of the day, unless an agency has a magical unicorn strategy sprinkled in fairy dust, you’re buying people. Buy the smartest, most authentic people that want to do great things for you.
5. Watch Out for an Agency that Refuses to Walk Away
Let’s assume you get to the end of the pitch process and you’re noodling between two agencies or trying to negotiate. If an agency doesn’t stand by their pricing and just drops it to match someone else, or seems really desperate for your business – it means they are. I’ve walked away from more clients than I can count. A lot of them come back when the other agency fumbled the ball or the results weren’t strong enough.
It’s not a cliche: you truly get what you pay for. If an agency is able to simply drop their pricing or is extremely low to begin with, you are 100% getting offshored, they don’t pay well, or they just don’t care about good talent. That’s going to show in the results.
There’s a reason that so many clients have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to agency partners. Keep the 5 Watch Out’s in mind when selecting yours and you’ll have a more positive experience, making for a better relationship down the line.
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