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How to choose an agency - and why arms-length beauty parades don’t work



I used to be a big fan of the onefte blog, which would skewer all sorts of business paradoxes in single panel cartoons. Sadly he appears to have taken them all off the net, but you can still find some using Google image search.

One that particularly sticks in my mind is one where he identifies four types of employee:


A: “I am at work eight hours a day”

B: “I work for eight hours a day”

C: “I get eight hours worth of work done a day”

D: “I save eight hours of work a day”


With a challenge underneath to consider very carefully which of these behaviours you actually recognise and reward.

Now I loved this, primarily because it hits straight to the heart of what’s wrong with my personal bête noire, timesheets, which measure A and possibly B if they’re accurate, but certainly not C and never D.

But it popped back into my head recently when I was thinking about the challenges clients face when they go out to pitch for an agency in my sector.

If you create a pitch process that is fair and transparent, and works like a ‘goods’ procurement process, it’ll only really tell you how every entrant would do the same thing. It’ll tell you how much they’d charge to do X, and some indication of how well they’ve done things a bit like X for other companies.

But what it won’t tell you is whether the agency is smart enough to tell you that X doesn’t really need doing, and you’d be better off doing Y which will deliver a better result for the same cash, or Z, which achieves the same thing for less investment, time and resource.

To achieve that, your process needs to allow the agencies to develop different strategies - to test their ability to find things out, explore solutions, and challenge your thinking. But I’ve only ever really encountered one or two with sufficient direct exposure and information to really facilitate this, and for most it’s logistically too difficult. 

So what might help someone find an agency who can do more than what they’re told? I was mulling over how I’d do this in a way that’s fair and doable, and the best ideas I could think of were:

  1. Set an overtly consultancy challenge that directly tests their ability to advise you: e.g. “We’re planning on doing a <insert detail> project. Talk us out of it” or “We’ve proposed five deliverables, but can only afford three. Which would you cut, and why?”
  2. Set a spontaneous brief: like an assessment centre for candidates - e.g. keep 30 mins of the pitch to throw them a challenge with no prep and see what they can come up with.
  3. Try them for real. Once you’re down to a final two or three, give them a small project each, and pay them to do it. You’ll find out how they really solve problems, project manage, deliver and bill.

There might be reasons why the above won’t work, but I’ll throw down the gauntlet to you the reader to come up with a better solution. 

What would actually uncover the agencies who can do what you need, rather than merely what they’re told to do? 

Leave a comment - whether it’s something you’ve actually tried or experienced, or a new idea. Let’s see what we can come up with together, and make pitches a bit more useful. And a bit more fun.

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About Author

Marcus Body
Marcus Body

Now working elsewhere. Shame really.

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