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A CMO's guide to hiring a digital agency

A CMO's guide to hiring a digital agency Michael Estrin

Hiring (and firing) agencies goes with the territory for brand marketers. But what was once a multi-year (or longer) relationship between the brand client and their agency has become much more fluid. Whether you're talking about bringing in a new agency of record or adding another player to your agency mix, brand-side clients are always evaluating agency talent, and the fast pace of digital means that brands will likely have to sign on the dotted line with greater frequency.

Consider the view from Diane Slayton's seat. As the VP for consumer and member marketing and communications for United Healthcare, Slayton finds herself evaluating agencies as fast as Silicon Valley can invent new digital channels and users can populate them.

"The dynamic world of digital marketing changes in warp speed," Slayton says. "It has been our experience that digital agencies typically have expertise in a few core areas. Our role is to identify the arena where they're out front."

Of course, being "out front" isn't the only criteria for hiring an agency, because reputation can only tell a CMO so much. And while there are no absolutes when it comes to predicting agency performance, there are a lot of things a savvy CMO can do during the search process to help avoid disasters and pick a partner that can make the brand shine.

Start with honesty
There are a number of places a CMO can start when hiring a new agency, but one basic question should always come first for a CMO in such a position, says David Wiggs, the founder of Hitch, a consulting firm that helps advise brand clients on hiring the right digital agency.

"Start by asking, 'why do we need a new agency?' Maybe you've inherited them and you just can't work together -- you've tried, but it's a chemistry thing," Wiggs says.

According to Wiggs, that basic question -- why do we need a new agency? -- will always lead to some rather profound insights, if the brand can be honest about its own corporate culture as well as what's gone right (and wrong) with the relationship at hand. While that may sound like simple advice, it's a pill not easily swallowed by many clients.

"Often, many clients believe that my agency should just know they're not happy," Wiggs says. But for those clients, Wiggs has a blunt answer: "Don't assume!"

The assumption that the onus is on the agency to make its client happy won't get a CMO very far in the long-run because it obfuscates the possibility that the client may share at least some of the blame for what went wrong. If that's the case, it's rather difficult for the CMO to make an informed decision about the next agency, because their problems may just carry over to the next vendor.

"Consider if the issues in the partnership are their fault or yours," Wiggs advises. "Likely, it's a bit of both. So what kind of clues could you look for to take the pulse of this marriage? Broadly speaking, ask yourself if your company culture supports the changes the agency is trying to make? Examine your relationship to see if it allows for shared risk. Is the agency forced to stay inside a box or are they given some freedom?"

Those answers may not always be available because in some cases, the relationship may have become so bad that it's nearly impossible to see the forest through the trees. However, CMOs who take the time to reflect on their own corporate culture and how it interplayed with their previous agency stand a much better chance of getting it right with their next hire.

Beware of the specialist search
Scan the tech blogs and you'll quickly see that digital creates new communication channels faster than advertisers can figure out how to use them. But CMOs who want to integrate their media strategy face a difficult dilemma: Do you opt for a "specialist" agency -- a social media shop, for example -- to work in a highly technical area, or do you hire one agency that can bring it all together at the risk of sacrificing some key knowledge in an emerging area?

The answer depends more on your own organization's strength and weaknesses than anything else, says John Padgett, who directed the agency of record for numerous brands on behalf of Coca-Cola and Minute Maid before leaving to become the VP of media at the Hauser Group.

"It's all about orchestration," Padgett says. "If you have the time and staff to orchestrate across multiple specialists, then you have the option to spread the love. If you're like most organizations, however, and you're short-staffed and time-crunched, then you should find and assign a lead agency and have them sub-contract for the specialists."

Padgett says he prefer the latter approach, in part because of his brand experience.

"If you try to have a specialist for every niche, you'll constantly be searching for a specialist for the next new thing," Padgett says. "If you have a lead agency responsible for bringing holistic thinking, then they will have the responsibility to be constantly searching for those specialists and providing you with thought leadership and success."  

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Restless can be a winner
No matter how exhaustive your hiring process is, CMOs always face the same problem: All agencies look great before you hire them.

"They always put their best foot forward when you're looking at a new agency," says Subway CMO Tony Pace. "A lot of times you're looking at their work, and maybe it wasn't all their original idea, but they executed on it. Or maybe they had the big idea, but some other agency put it in action -- no agency is ever going to tell you exactly what they did. So, there's always some mystery there."

But for Pace, it's not about what the agency did to get in the room with him -- that's all prelude. In a nutshell, he says, he's always on the lookout for a "restless" agency.

"It's really about doing great work, but having that mindset to say, 'okay we hit all of our goals, but how could we have done it better?' That's the kind of restlessness you want as a CMO."

Find an agency that experiments
"Nobody's really written the digital marketing playbook just yet," Pace says. And while it's entirely possible that such a playbook will always remain elusive, it's no reason for your agency to become complacent.

Whether Pace uses a given agency in a particular emerging field or not, he says he always likes to hear that the agency is adding expertise.

"That's just part of what digital means these days," Pace says. "There's always something new, something that's experimental, and I like to see that my agencies are keeping up with the times. That's critical, and experimentation is a sign of a good agency."

Look for existing partnerships
For better or worse, most brands use a mix of agencies these days. But whether those agencies work together or fight each other tooth and nail for a larger share of the client's business often depends on two factors.

First, it's up to the client to set the tone for cooperation, and while some brands prefer in-fighting among their agencies, most at least say that they want team work.

"My experience on both the client and agency sides shows that regardless of whether the agencies work together, there will always be a level of competition going on," Padgett says. "You need to communicate the ground rules before, during, and after the contracts are signed -- what the rules of engagement will be. If you don't want to see or hear the campaigning, then you need to let them know that and chastise their senior management when they do."

But ground rules will only take you so far, and if you haven't hired an agency that knows how to play well with others, you're going to be in for bumpy ride, which means that even before you set the ground rules, you have to seek out the right kind of agency partner.

While the ability to cooperate with competing agencies will always depend on the mix of personalities the brand has brought on board, Gaëtan Fraikin, who helms Audacity, says a CMO can -- and should -- vet for the team player mindset by ascertaining the extent to which the agency is involved in strategic relationships on behalf of other clients.

"Typically, if a firm already has existing strategic partnerships, this bodes well for them being willing to share the sandbox with others," Fraikin explains. "A smart agency realizes they can't be the best in every area, and a focused agency will usually want to work on that which they know they can produce superior results."

Chemistry counts, but chemists aren't needed
Nearly all great teams have some level of chemistry. But whether you're talking about the chemistry between your staff and your agency, or the relationship between your various agencies, it is possible to go overboard. And in fact, some CMOs tend to focus too much on chemistry, Wiggs says, who advocates a common sense approach here.

"Chemistry is probably [the] No. 1 [thing a CMO should look for in an agency]," Wiggs says. "You've got to be able to work together. But don't let a personality glitch blind you to the attributes of an agency if you'll never have to work with that person."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

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Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Joe Van Remortel

2009, September 22

Michael makes some wonderful points about selecting an agency. Having been on both sides of the equation (client and agency), I still find the "transaction" between agency and client biased. Every agency has great case studies, impressive reels and work samples, slick pitches and referrals that make them look wonderful. What is missing is the inside scoop on what it is really like to work with a particular agency. I know some folks at companies like Marmaloo (www.marmaloo.com) that are working on cracking that nut, on giving marketers a place to share their experiences with agencies with fellow marketers. What marketer would not want to hear from previous clients who do not make the agency's official referral list? In this day of social media and digital professional networks, it is just a matter of time before the client-agency transaction becomes unbiased and transparent.

Commenter: Adam Kleinberg

2009, September 18


Smart article. At the end of the day, agencies are groups of people, so I like that you mentioned chemistry as the most important thing.

I also appreciate the advice from David Wiggs: "Start by asking, 'why do we need a new agency?'" This is smart. Many agencies have grown up providing commodity type services—"DR chop shops" for instance. Others provide great value strategic partners who can consistently deliver innovation and creativity. Being honest with yourself about what you need is the best way to find an agency partner that actually meets your needs.