Pitch sessions are a lot like interviewing for a new hire. The agency introduces itself, shows what it has to offer, and why you should hire them. It’s an opportunity for a company to get to know an agency in person, not just through their website through their work.
Asking the right questions will clue you in on which agency is a keeper, and which agencies are not. Questions such as:
1. Are you part of the team that will be handling my account?
Let’s say you just sat through an agency pitch. The presenters were charismatic, well-spoken, and prepared with statistics and samples. They’re quick on their feet and know all the right answers. They’ve even had their teeth whitened and gotten fresh haircuts! In short, you can’t wait to start working with them!
But did they actually say that they’d be assigned to your account?
Some agencies like to put their A-listers on the pitch team to increase their chances of landing the account, only to hand it over to a lesser team after the paperwork’s been signed while they stick to the high-profile clients. In fact, there are those that have dedicated pitch teams who function as a sales tool to win clients.
This kind of bait and switch might be good for business (theirs), but it doesn’t bode well for your client-agency relationship. If they’re going to be this dishonest at the start of your relationship, how do you think they’re going to act when it comes time to report bad news? There’s a good chance that they’ll pad the numbers or lie outright.
2. Do you outsource any of the work that you do?
Most agencies are staffed on a knife edge. They need to balance their team composition so that they can properly service accounts, but be lean enough to survive low seasons. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice (it makes perfect sense, actually), but it does mean that they can easily get overworked. When that happens, agencies usually farm some work out to contractors or complementary agencies.
Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice. It’s a smart business decision because it means that your projects don’t have to wait in line while other things get done. But you have a right to know who is handling your work. Were they hired for their efficiency? For their skill? Or because they were the lowest bidder?
When you ask this question, make sure you follow up and ask to see samples of the contractor’s work, so you can determine whether or not your projects are in same hands with them—because sooner or later they will land on their lap. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll have to either prohibit the agency from giving them your projects or turn the agency down entirely.
3. What impressions do you have about our brand?
This is a three for one question that will keep the pitching agency on its toes.
First off, you’re testing their awareness of your brand. If they’re worth your time, they would’ve done their research before entering the room. Do they understand your brand personality and history?
Second, you’re testing their understanding of your market and what they see are the most popular and effective branding and design strategies for your industry. Agencies that aren’t familiar with your industry will have half-baked ideas that will do more harm than good.
Lastly, you’re checking on their branding experience and expertise. Does their analysis make sense based on where you are and where you want to be? Keep in mind that this is a pitch session, not an actual consultation, so they may be a little vague on the details (for all they know, you might just be calling for pitches just so you can steal the ideas and execute them yourself, just to save money). When you ask this question, don’t expect actual actionable answers. That costs money. You’re asking this question to see their thought process.
4. What do you look for when you hire staff?
Having some insight in their hiring process is valuable because it will tell you more about the kind of people who are going to be working on your project. Among other things, it’ll tell you the minimum amount of expertise that you can expect, as well as the kinds of skills they’re likely to have.
You’ll also be able to infer what the agency prioritizes when it comes to their deliverables. An emphasis on fast workers probably means they value timeliness and productivity. A focus on highly creative professionals may mean that they produce very artistic, high-concept advertisements. A well-rounded approach may mean your agency is adaptable and can handle a variety of projects. Don’t be afraid to ask specific follow up questions in order to learn more.
5. What was the most innovative thing you’ve done?
For this question, you’re not just asking about cool stuff that they did. You’re evaluating their answer based on other factors. How did they come up with the idea? Was it suggested by the client, with the agency executing it? How did they relate it to the brand? How did they sell it to the brand? What was the net effect on the brand’s sales? Was that kind of innovative thinking the norm in their agency?
Marketing is about standing out from the crowd. There are many ways to do it, whether it’s an event, an ad campaign, a viral video, or even a funny 404 page. A marketing agency’s writ is to find ways of being unique that fit with the brand and express its personality. Not being unique for the sake of being unique. Some agencies are “award hunters”, or agencies that push Avante garde ads on their clients because they want to submit it to the Clio judging panel. You need to see if the agency you’re going to be working with can be innovative and unique, but do it in a way that benefits you.