Agency and Vendor Searches without Losing your Mind

Agency and Vendor Searches without Losing your Mind

The right vendors act as valued strategic partners and maximize the time of your marketing team. But if your call center, agency or marketing automation platform aren’t doing the job, is it time to make a switch? Here’s some hints on how to replace a critical vendor without losing your mind.

  1. First, figure out why you want to make a change. Is it possible that if you had a frank discussion, you could work things out with your existing vendor? It’s also smart to take a look in the mirror. Is there something about your company that is causing problems? Be honest and address any issues before you get bring someone new on board.
  2. Use the right consultant to help. A vendor search is time consuming. Expect to spend about 10 hours a week for a couple of months. If you want to streamline the process, hire a consultant that has experience and make sure they aren’t “pay to play”. (Charging agencies and vendors to pay to be part of their database of recommended vendors.) As a certified AAAA search consultant, I never take payment from vendors. It keeps me neutral and it makes a difference to the results.
  3. Decide if you need an interim solution. For something like marketing automation, you’ll need two platforms for a while as you ramp one down and ramp one up. Ditto for a call center or advertising agency. Discuss what projects are coming up and how you’re going to move over to a new solution while keeping business as usual.
  4. Next, let your existing vendor know. They’re going to hear about it anyway, so it’s fair to give them notice and explain your interim plan.
  5. For the search itself, the most critical advice I have is to keep your review team small and made up only of folks who have a day to day relationship with the vendor. Obviously, before the choice is finalized, you’ll need executive approval, but the screening committee needs to be nimble and made up of the team members in the trenches.
  6. Work with this review team to set objectives and define your needs. List any metrics you need to meet, typical deliverables and turnaround and the kind of services you need. It’s also helpful to describe a typical day or week of work of what the vendor will be doing.
  7. Now draft that into an RFP. Your RFP should state exactly how you want the relationship to work, what the needs are, expectations for staffing, budget, typical projects etc. This will make it easier for the vendor to determine if they’re a fit. My no-fail format for an RFP is a comprehensive list of client needs and then questions that let the agency show how well they meet them. Make the RFP clear and easy for the vendor to respond. Good agencies are busy and if you ask them to jump through too many hoops, they may not participate.
  8. While you’re working on your RFP, decide which firms you’d like to include. If you’re smart, you’ve kept a resource file of possible vendors over the years. (This is a great idea – how hard is it to throw those introductory emails into a folder marked “resources”?) Beyond that, network with colleagues, other vendors and peers to get their recommendations. Check out the speakers at recent conferences – did anyone from a good agency speak? Check out blogs and social media too. For advertising agencies, you can go to the AAAA website at Hint – if you’re using a consultant, you save time because they already have this list.
  9. Now, send out the RFP and give a couple of weeks for the vendors to respond. Critical here – DON’T SCHEDULE ANY MEETINGS. You’re using a scientific approach to screen out firms that aren’t a fit so you don’t waste anyone’s time. If you get sucked into a presentation from each firm at this stage, it’ll add many unnecessary hours to the process. Send the RFP and be prepared to answer questions via a half hour phone call with each vendor. This is another place where your consultant can be of most help – if all communication goes through that person, you save lots of time.
  10. If you find a couple of firms are asking the same questions, send out a clarification to the whole list. You want everyone to have the same opportunity.
  11. Once responses come in, have your consultant or a member of your review team see who meets the defined criteria. Screen anyone out who isn’t a fit and prepare an executive summary of the top 3 or 4 firms to share as the “Short List”.
  12. Now it’s time to set in-person meetings with the short list. If possible, bring your whole team to their location, including your executive staff. I normally leave the agenda for these in-person meetings to the vendor. They read the RFP so they know what you need. This is their chance to wow you and make the case on why they’re the best choice. You’re looking to meet their staff, and check out creativity, chemistry and style. Don’t discount practical things like location. If you have two firms you like and one is easy to get to (direct flight, cheap parking, no traffic) long term that saves you time. This is also the time to think about whether a social relationship is important. Do you like to golf or have drinks with your vendors? Are they up for that?
  13. If you want a creative competition, kick it off with your short list at this time. Give them a creative brief and a list of deliverables. However, if you request creative, pay for it. Expect to pay full market price and ask that the work be yours whether or not you engage the firm. Any agency worth hiring won’t do work on spec – the ones that do are desperate.
  14. Once everything is in, pick your winner. In my experience, it’s usually pretty clear who is the best fit. If you’re on the fence, consider calling some references or current clients to get an outside perspective.
  15. Once the contract is signed, contact the agencies that didn’t win to let them know. I think it’s nice to give them a reason or two of why they didn’t make the cut so they learn for the next time.

That’s it – call me if you want some help!

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