How to Run an Advertising Agency Review

July 8, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

This is the time of year that corporate marketing teams across the land begin gearing up for advertising agency reviews. Advertising accounts change hands all the time, of course, but many ad agency veterans will tell you that the pace of change begins in the heat of summer and accelerates through fall. Switching ad agencies can be a long, complex process, and companies looking for a fresh start come New Year’s Day are smart to get things started by the third quarter.

My advice for marketers considering change is first to reconsider. Reviews are depleting for client organizations. They’re risky too, because there’s no guarantee a new shop will be any better than the old. Breakups are never easy, but they’re made far more painful when the new partner comes up even shorter than the former. So sort out differences, if you can. If that’s simply not an option, then it’s time to get started and it’s important to do the job right. Process is everything.

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

Having participated in countless reviews over my career, I can sniff out the quality of a prospect’s process at first contact. The truth is, most agency reviews aren’t very well run. That stands to reason, of course, because most clients have limited experience running ad agency reviews. Those with a lot of experience flipping shops are by definition not very appealing prospects for quality agencies.

If you’re considering an ad agency review, there are some great resources available to help organize and guide your efforts. I’ve selected three outstanding sources for anyone charged with organizing and implementing an agency review. They’re a collection of best practices publications from the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), the Institute of Communications and Advertising (ICA), and the International Advertising Association (IAA). The publications represent experiences and universal truths from agencies and clients all over the world, and they contain some darned good advice for the uninitiated and experienced alike. Following are links to the documents along with a summary of my observations on each.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s)

The 4A’s has two excellent guides for conducting reviews on its website. The first is theANA/4A’s Agency Selection Briefing Guidance. The purpose of this document “is to provide basic guidance for clients who are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of briefing an agency.” The second is the ANA/4A’s Guidelines for Agency Searchdocument, which expands on best practices for clients and agencies. They’re both very good and thorough resources.

International Advertising Association (IAA)

The IAA created its best practices guide through three industry forums to generate cross-industry and cross-disciplinary perspectives on what it takes to conduct an excellent ad agency review. As I read this paper, it struck me that the challenges facing clients and agencies in the agency pitch process are truly universal and cross-cultural in nature. You’ll find the IAA’s Best Practice in The Pitch Process informative and helpful. In fact, I recommend starting with this document. It begins with an appropriate elaboration on my own advice to carefully consider whether to hold a review at all, and it concludes with advice for handling the transition of your account. It also includes some handy checklists for the review process.

Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA)

I’ve saved the best for last. The ICA has published an extraordinarily complete and thoroughly useful guide for conducting an agency review. The Best Practice In Agency Search & Selection is a veritable treasure trove of information and insight into the search and review process. It draws from best practices in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. and contains process diagrams, planning checklists, and even an agency evaluation scorecard. Seriously, this document could be a playbook for an ad agency review consultant.

The Bottom Line

There’s a ton of great information for organizing a successful ad agency review in each of these resources. Taken together they’re all you or your team will need to do the job right. You’ll find a couple of themes jump out as you study them, and I’ve summarized them below:

  • The review process will take a lot of organizational energy to do right, so make sure your current resource is the problem. Review the ICA document for an excellent list of considerations on this point.
  • Make sure the C-suite is enrolled. Hiring an ad agency can be a pivotal decision for your company. Quality agencies will want the CEO to be engaged.
  • Sticking to a good process makes all the difference in the outcome.
  • Define your scope of work carefully. What exactly do you need an agency to do for you?
  • Disclose your budget. Transparency serves the process.
  • Determine the size, location, and kind of agency you need.
  • Pay very close attention to cultural fit. Do you really like these folks?
  • You may want to use a search consultant. Expect to pay $10,000 to $40,000. There are pros and cons.
  • Have a plan for informing your incumbent agency. Don’t let the street tell them. Not classy.
  • Conduct reference checks.
  • Understand the financial commitment the agencies are making to participate. It can be upwards of $150,000 or more.
  • Be sure you have a transition plan once you’ve selected your new agency.

For more on best pitch practices and what to consider before initiating a review, read:

Advertising Agency Reviews: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Ad World  

Five Ways To Make Advertising Work Harder For Your Challenger Brand

Mike Sullivan is the president of The Loomis Agency, the country’s leading Challenger Brand advertising agency and the Voice of the Underdog

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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