Have I told you lately that I love you? Part one

Relationships, eh, who’d have them?

Written by
Derek Humphries
May 18, 2013

We talk about them a lot in fundraising don’t we? So today I want to give a caress to those relationships we probably don’t focus on enough, namely those between clients and their agencies (and vice versa).

In doing so I’d like to tip my hat to the blogs of Gill McLellan (@gillmcl) and Alison McCants (@alisonmccants). Apart from giving wise words, they prompted me to dust down a training course I used to run on this topic. Despite some embarrassing clipart, I found some advice that I think still holds true today despite a much-changed agency world from when I devised the training more than 15 years ago.

Contrary to popular belief, a good agency should make you money, not just eat it’.

By changed agency world, I mean massively fragmented. It used to be that fundraising clients made do with one agency. This tended to be a direct marketing agency, most of which eventually described themselves as ‘integrated’; meaning: ‘Please let us do everything for you. We don’t know how to do everything but I’m sure we can rope in someone who does.’

But then in the 1990s, two big things changed. That new-fangled Internet thing came along and so did face-to-face fundraising. So suddenly you needed a direct marketing agency, a digital agency and a face-to-face agency. Oh, and a telephone agency, a PR agency and a few consultants; all depending on how ambitious/silo-driven/masochistic you were.

I was once in a conference session where someone proposed, seriously, that we needed a new kind of strategic agency whose role would be to manage all the other agencies. At which point Tim Hunter, then of NSPCC now of UNICEF, piped up with: ‘It already exists. It’s called the client.’ Too right!

The reality is, most fundraisers will need to manage multiple agencies, even if those ‘agencies’ are freelancers or small creative shops. So, what do you need from an agency? On Twitter recently I asked if anyone wanted to venture what she or he thought makes a good client-agency relationship. The publishable responses included:

Damian O’Broin (@damianobroin): ‘Trust, a shared passion for the work and the cause, a desire to create the best work possible.’

Kimberley MacKenzie (@KimberleyCanada): ‘Respect, paying on time, delivering on time, laughter, knowing when to push and when not to – for both sides – and a contract.’

Daniel Charles (@DPC74): ‘It’s always down to how good the account team is at empathising with the team for me. The loss of a good account manager can have a massive impact in my experience.’

All helpful comments; and I hope the following helps too. It’s a personal view, no doubt incomplete and I’d love your suggestions (or heckles). In this first part I’ll look at:

  • Why would you want an agency anyway?
  • Choosing a shortlist.
  • Selecting the right one.

Then part two will examine:

  • Making the relationship work.
  • What happens if it goes wrong?
  • What happens if it all goes right?

Fundamentally it’s about courtship, the honeymoon, a happy marriage and (amicable) divorce. And while it’s about client-agency relationships, it may also help you with other suppliers, wives, husbands, and other ‘significant third parties’.

So, why would you want an agency anyway? Basically, you want an agency to do things that you can’t because you lack the skills or the capacity, or to solve problems that you can’t solve. These will range from the highly strategic to the purely tactical. And ideally they add value, meaning they give you a bit more than you were expecting.

Sadly, some people appoint an agency when they don’t really want one but merely need one. Such clients may see agencies as a necessary evil. You can see where that relationship is going can’t you?

  • Before you appoint an agency, you’ll probably want a shortlist that should be based on:
  • Your past experience: the best way.
  • Finding out whom did work you like: people are always happy to share.
  • Advice from ‘match-makers’ if such people exist where you are.
  • Professional/social networks. But don’t assume that the best bloggers/tweeters etc are also necessarily the best agencies.
  • Trade press reports.
  • The bar/grapevine/reputation: we work in a tiny world. It’s not hard to find out who is trustworthy, creative, cost-effective, etc.

Depending on the size of the piece of work, you might issue a written brief and from the responses create a short-list of three or four agencies to invite to pitch. Please, please, please keep the scale of the selection process commensurate with the size of the piece of work that needs doing. Managing a pitch well is a demanding business for clients and an intense process for agencies. You can’t afford to waste each other’s time. And it’s simply not fair to invite several agencies to pitch for a tiny piece of work. Indeed, sensible, non-desperate agencies may well decline such an invitation.

Remember that the agency will be judging you on how you conduct the pitch. Pitches, like job interviews, are a two-way selection process. When agencies moan about pitches (of course my own agency never ever moans about anything) they say things like:

  • They haven’t given us enough time.
  • They won’t let us speak to the right people.
  • They aren’t giving us past results.
  • They’re talking to too many agencies.
  • They haven’t given us enough time to present.
  • If they can’t even manage a pitch properly, they’ll be a nightmare to work with…

So try to avoid giving them reasons to moan. Your job in running a pitch is to try to enable each agency to be wonderful. At the end of the process you want to give yourself a tough decision to make because you have enabled everyone to do such a great job.

A properly evaluated decision

You’ve decided that you really do want an agency. You’ve written a clear, precise, realistic brief, while involving the right people, meeting the right agency people (those who will work for you not just the new business persuaders), and allowed plenty of time, now you’ll need to agree how you will make the selection decision.

It’s critical that you make a properly evaluated decision. What criteria will you use? Will they be weighted? Decide this in advance and make sure everyone sitting in on pitches has a score sheet. Otherwise you’ll end up with a subjective debate/argument over whom to appoint. And after watching a few pitches you’ll be amazed how they tend to blur into one. Many agencies confidently tell you how different they are, somehow not realising that all the other agencies are saying the same thing.

In a pitch you will be looking at issues such as:

  • Chemistry
  • Proactivity
  • Strategy
  • Creativity
  • Delivery
  • Value for money

Then there’s experience, enthusiasm, size, location, people, chemistry, costs… the important thing is to be clear in what you want and how you will assess the agency’s ability to deliver it. The key is to assess these things objectively. Give yourself time to make the decision. Go back for clarifications. After all, this may be one of the biggest professional decisions you ever make.

All being well, you will fall in love with an agency. But before getting into bed you may want some form of pre-nuptial agreement. It’s not vital. It’s not always necessary (subject primarily to the size of the piece of business). But it’s generally a good thing to know what you both expect from the relationship.

So coming up in part two: pre-nuptial agreements, what to do if it all goes wrong. And the much neglected issue of what to do if it all goes right.

Derek's article first appeared in 101.Fundraising

About the author: Derek Humphries

Derek Humphries

Derek Humphries spent 14 years with the marketing and communications group Burnett Associates, eight of those as managing director. For the past few years he has been a director at DTV where he writes and produces films for good causes worldwide. You can follow his tweets @derekhumphries.

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