Hideout 2 free to useMany of my clients ask me to help them identify and hire agency partners like creative agencies, digital firms, media buying agencies and web design companies. I’ve developed a process that makes efficient use of my clients’ and the contending agencies’ time, and it typically culminates in individual 60-minute meetings between my client and three agencies.

The agenda for the meetings is deliberately bare bones:
9:00 – 9:05 – Introductions
9:05-9:35 – Agency walks us through whatever they think we should discuss/learn about them to assist in our decision
9:35-10:00 – Client questions/discussion

The overall purpose of the final meeting is to see if the chemistry is there for my clients and also to compare and contrast the different agencies on something other portfolio,price and process. The 30 minutes of “free time” in the agenda enables me and my clients to get some insight into how the agency thinks and prioritizes.

I’ve been using this process for since 2010 and in that time there have been five key mistakes I’ve seen some of which, fortunately, were one-time wonders.

<strong>Mistake #1:</strong><strong> Wrong People/Wrong Tools</strong>
One of my clients was looking to hire a web design company to design their new e-commerce site. During the exploration phase, one agency clearly stood out from the pack. They did gorgeous work that was very aligned with my client’s essence and I was trying to figure out how my client was going to be able to pay for the $100K+ site. The project was literally theirs to lose.

And they did.

They made two key mistakes. The first is that they showed up with a giant book made of paper instead of computers to take my client through why we should use them to design our sophisticated e-commerce site. Second, because we’d restricted them to two attendees, they brought the two most senior people in the agency. While this showed that they took our business seriously, unfortunately these were not the people we’d been interacting with throughout the process. Sadly, neither person seemed to be well versed in the questions their team had already discussed with us.

It was so disappointing! And, very very long story short, we ultimately worked with the third choice firm and the project was so much more challenging than it would have been had we worked with our first choice.

<strong>Mistake #2 Don’t Be User Friendly</strong>
In a recent RFI, my client and I asked the digital agencies who were interested to provide us with the response to several questions, 3 relevant case studies and a copy of a typical report. We did say that we were not looking for the agencies to create anything new for us and did not want them to be overly fancy.

Unfortunately for the leadership at one agency, their business development guy took us a little too literally. His RFI response consisted of six individual documents in an email. The documents were not in any particular order and they were not labeled beyond the document names embedded in the attachment. In order to figure out what each document was, the reader had to open each one up and then puzzle through things like what exactly is a “Buzz Report” and why was it included.

This signaled a couple of things to us:
1. The agency couldn’t really be interested if they put so little time into the response
2. If this was the agency’s best face, their regular face was not going to be so great
3. If the agency was this user unfriendly from the get go, they likely were not going to give my client the service that they deserved.

Despite this agency’s professed interest in our business, we took a pass and did not invite them to participate in the final phase.

<strong>Mistake #3 Waste the Client’s Time</strong>
Per our requested agenda, we like the agency to present to us for 30 minutes and we reserve about 25 minutes to ask questions. I’m still not sure what one agency CEO was thinking when he spent the entire hour asking my client questions. We could barely get a word in edgewise.

There was no prepared presentation, just a bunch of seemingly random exploratory questions for an hour. When we walked out of the meeting the first thing my client said to me was “Well that was a waste of time!” I couldn’t agree more and was a little baffled by the whole thing.

It did seem like a variation of #1 – the wrong person presented. While it was nice to have the CEO in the meeting, he should not have run it. As it turns out, his people had done some research and had quite a few things they wanted to talk to us about, but they got hijacked by their boss. Which leads me to wonder how efficient would that agency be to work with?

<strong>Mistake #4 Have a Secret Hideout</strong>
This is the most ridiculous one but it’s true! There have been multiple occasions when agencies with hard-to-find or unusual office locations failed to provide enough detail so that we could find them.

One agency that I had visited before neglected to mention their move from one part of the city to another and the fact that their new building that was undergoing significant construction at street level. My clients and I could not figure out how to get into the building! We ultimately had to call the agency and ask how to get in. Very frustrating and definitely not great for a first impression. Not to mention that it also wasted our time (see Mistake #3).

Contrast this with another agency that was located in an easy-to-find location with super easy on-street parking. The President of that agency still sent us a detailed email prior to our meeting telling us how to locate their building, options for parking and the number for his mobile if for any reason we had any problems. Needless to say, this was a great indicator of this agency’s customer service and attention to detail. The location email wasn’t the reason we hired them (although they had been our #2 choice going into the meeting), but it definitely went a long way to forming a great first impression.

<strong>Mistake #5</strong><strong> Show That the Business is Not a Priority</strong>
This is my all-time favorite. In fact, my client and I still laugh about it today.

We were in NYC interviewing media buying agencies. For several reasons we included a super-huge mega agency that was way above our pay grade. We had connections to the agency that needed to be respected despite our concerns that we would be a teeny goldfish in an ocean of giant sturgeon and tuna.

Of course their offices were super cool and the meeting was dynamic – full of personalized swag and fancy bottled water.

Our meeting was on a Friday in the early afternoon. At the very end of the discussion, my client CEO said “Okay, it’s Monday and I call you and say we want to hire you, what happens next?”

The CEO of the agency immediately responded, “Monday is Martin Luther King Day and our office is closed so no one will be here to answer the phone.”


How about something like “We’re closed for Martin Luther King Day on Monday so let me give you my personal cell number, we would love to work with you!”

Fortunately, these stories stand out because they are outliers. For the most part, by the time my clients get to the meeting stage, we are fully prepared to hire any of the three agencies we’re meeting with. We’re really just looking for cultural fit and how the agencies handle the ambiguity of the agenda.