December 01, 1998

On search consultants, 23% say they do or would use them, but what appears to be a growing number, and reminiscent of the trend in the UK, 69% say they would never use them. Anecdotally, there are questions of conflict, trust, backhanders and double dipping, which may explain some of this. Recently a search consultancy in the UK set up in conjunction with a major news portal. The proprietor of the search agency neglected to tell the portal that they also owned an agency network! Further, only 16% of U.S. decision-makers said that in their experience search consultants have been effective. 24% use member directories or trade organization websites such as and we can surmise that this might be the same group as those that use search consultants. However, 54% never use them. 23% find them fairly effective, a similar number to the 25% that find them fairly ineffective.

46% rely on recommendations about agencies from colleagues (our survey of UK decision-makers shows this to be the most important factor when they search for a new agency). 62% of U.S decision makers rate this as ‘fairly effective’ or ‘very effective’ in their experience.

(‘A combination of sources usually work the best.’)

As effective ways for agencies to engage with organizations, the column inches in the trade press and advertising influences only around 2% of decision-makers. 77% never refer to press or press-based information such as league tables for example, to assist their search. Those conducting their own research from scratch via Google, or similar starting points, are still a relatively small group at just 7%. This demonstrates that agencies should ‘get out there more’, make more direct contact, and that they have an opportunity to be more proactive.

3. What are your reasons for choosing one agency over another?

Though ‘chemistry’ and ‘strength of creative work’ scored highly by the categories ‘highly significant’ and ‘fairly significant in my decision’, interestingly 100% of the respondents rated quality of customer insights under both these categories and customer insights gained the top scores for being ‘highly significant in my decision’ (58%). Quality of customer insight is becoming more and more critical to brand marketing support as marketers aim to remove as much of the guesswork as possible.

Strict adherence to the brief was rated by 25% as ‘fairly insignificant’, but 75% thought level of client service in terms of speed and responding to ongoing needs, as ‘fairly significant’. Flexibility is what the decision-makers are looking for here. It’s not so important to stick to the brief, it is important to be fleet of foot.

Ability to control costs was also rated very highly. Less important in the choice, echoing the questions about preferred manner of engagement, were the agency’s size, geographic location, and its client list. A clear case for ROI, a flair for innovation and creative thinking as you would expect scored highly too. The polling group rated them by order: -

1. Quality customer insights
2. Chemistry
3. Creative work
4. Service level / response to needs ongoing
5. Cost control
6. Innovative / strategic thinking
7. Case for ROI
8. Client list
9. Strict adherence to brief
10. Seniority of account team
11. Location
12. Size

Conclusions & Recommendations

(Q. What advice would you give agencies wishing to approach you? A. “Opportunities to work together should be driven by my needs and not the agency's. Don’t sell, listen!”)

There is a noticeable gap between what the agencies tell us and what we hear from the agencies in many important areas. These have enabled us to make some straightforward recommendations for how marketing agencies might alter their approach to become more effective at new business: -

· In the main, clients don’t feel that size matters, but in the main agencies do. Agencies should not sell themselves so vigorously on size, neither should they worry so much about size being an issue.
· The majority of clients (83%) don’t feel geographical location is an issue - most agencies think it is. Agencies should not overly worry that their physical location will prevent clients from buying a winning solution from them.
· 85% of clients don’t feel agencies prepare enough – many agencies don’t invest much in this area or prefer to fire from the hip – which looks cool, but you can often miss. Agencies must invest more for effective intelligence on their prospects.
· Most clients (75%) are buying solutions to their business problems - most agencies think the client is looking for advertising, or PR, or design or whatever other silo fits their model. Agencies should present a solution, not a discipline.
· Clients want agencies to be far more proactive – most agencies like to sit in the bunker. Agencies should proactively reach out to the brands they want to work with.
· A major trend, and one which will undoubtedly impact on all marketing communications agencies, depending on how prepared they already are, is the increase in demand from clients for better customer insights. This tallies with our own experience of the success levels of agencies that deliver this, and the improved new business performance of agencies that embrace this point. Agencies should develop keener customer insights and communicate these energetically to their prospect-base. Not only will they increase their chances of winning work, they will also be able to better evolve the relationship and hold on to the account moving forwards. Proximity to the mind of the customer is critical.
And Finally

Though a sizeable amount of research is available on the pitching and review environment, largely from search and selection intermediaries in a position to analyze their own data, the gap between what clients and agencies perceive as valuable in key areas of proactive prospecting, indicates more research work is required. However, what this survey does underline is that if agencies present themselves in the right way and are tenacious enough to get through the voicemail, ‘out of office’ replies and over-protective PA, that decision-makers are quite happy to talk and to answer questions about their agenda.

Agencies should certainly never give up too quickly or be afraid of talking to prospects from cold. If they just send an email and hope for a response back, then they’re only dipping their toes in the water. Clients want to be properly engaged, not wade through what might be perilously close to being designated ‘spam’. We learned that clients prefer email when their business is likely to generate short-term project-based work and that a scattergun approach can yield dividends in these circumstances. However, where the client requires more strategic support, the prospecting approach by the agency needs to be commensurate - combining great intelligence, good preparation and a proactive human being on the other end of the phone.

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