Don’t start with who you already know and work with. And don’t start with your own fantasy objectives and strategies. While on the dating scene, they risk impairing you from the get-go. Instead open up by meeting A LOT of people from various agencies. Ask 25 people that you trust who the best agency they ever met is. Invite those. Try to figure out if they show potential for a deep relationship. Listen to their arguments. But don’t rely on gut alone. Ask all of them the same structured interview questions and analyze the answers. Scrutinize your potential partners carefully will save you a lot of time later. The below set of questions can serve as a starting point for a structured assessment.
Who are your owners? – Is your partner a small local player or a subset of a global network? Are the key owners active or inactive? Do they have a long or a short position in the firm? Understand the owners and you understand the foundation for the partnership. Global partners often means stable financials and a solid pipeline of capability, tools and people. A small local agency can give you focus, dedication and a personal relationship – but will they survive?
Where will you be in 1 year from now? In 5 years from now? – Ask for the visions and strategies of the firm. What areas are they expanding into? What competencies do they see needed? What businesses are they focusing on? A simple question often reveals interesting plans ahead – that either makes a partnership more, or less relevant.
How do you make money? – Every industry and every company has it’s own business logic – it’s own set of business drivers that eventually build up to their long term revenue and profitability. Many creative agencies overinvest in the initial pitch to then win it back on ongoing production. Some media agencies lose money on the media planning but win it back from the media owner. The key to happiness for both you and your business partner is a mutual understanding of your respective financial drivers and in-process KPI’s.
What are your core marketing beliefs? – Every company in our industry – and even every individual marketer – has his/her own beliefs about how marketing works and what makes for great advertising. Some believe in broadest possible reach, some in deep engagement from a few devoted fans – and some don’t believe in marketing at all. And all of us have different experiences from launches we worked on that failed miserably – or from campaigns and ads we personally loved. Uncovering any fundamental disagreements about how marketing works early on will save you both time and money.
What is your innovation strategy and how do you plan to apply it on me? – In a rapidly changing media landscape the key to success will be fast not big. A spelled out method with resources and mandate for innovation is a good starting point. Making sure that you are part of the journey is though as important. It is only by joining forces and looking at problems from different viewpoints that we truly can learn something new. Innovation is a journey – not an end-point.
How do you ensure that you recruit the best people? – Almost any company can put forward a brilliant individual that can sell the firm as the next big thing. But how do you know that the rest of the crowd is equally talented? The likelihood that the stellar person you just met will run your daily operations is probably slim. Ask for clarity on their full people systems. How do they recruit? What does their pipeline look like? How do they invest in ongoing capabilities? How do they reward great work?
How much time will your team dedicate to this partnership? – Most firms are open to over-invest early on in a relationship. It is fun and inspiring – and they are eager to put their best foot forward to close as much new business as possible. But how do you know that you over time will get the resources needed? How do you know the best people will still be on your team? Make sure to schedule regular and structured feedback sessions, and be clear already upfront what you require to keep the relationship alive.
How honest do you dare to be with me? – Any good relationship is built on mutual trust. Test these waters early on by asking things that requires your partner to give a little of themselves – professionally first, but then also personally. What would bring a smile to their face? What would make them shine versus their bosses? What is it that really make them tick at work? Just be prepared to open up a bit yourself too.