In the pre-digital world, searching for a PR agency was easier. There were fewer agencies and PR was, simply, PR. Today, finding agencies that are the best match for needs is a challenge. Agency search consultants and technology are streamlining the process to improve outcomes.
In the digital communications world there are tens of thousands of “communications” agencies with PR, digital, SEO and other skillsets companies need to build their brands. In an age of highly specialized firms and teams – focused around industry and specific PR and digital marketing skillsets – the best agency or consultant for your project can come in all shapes and sizes.
How can companies find the agencies that are the strongest fit for an assignment? And, how can agencies with the skillsets companies need get found?
There are a number of digital search solutions. Trade media and associations offer agency directories, others use recommendation-based tools and, of course, there is Google. But, until CommunicationsMatch™, there wasn’t an industry-wide online search and engagement tool to find agencies, consultants and freelancers by a broad range of search criteria important to companies or with online RFQ and RFP tools required to shortlist agencies that match needs.
But technology can only take us so far. The human vetting and selection process for an agency is critical to hiring success.
This is where agency search consultants can play a key role, and one of the reasons CommunicationsMatch and RFP Associates partnered to support companies in their search process.
Search consultants have always been a resource available to heads of communications. Their role has evolved along with the industry in ways that aren’t necessarily understood.
So, here’s a primer:
What do search consultants do?
Search consultants not only identify and shortlist agencies, but also work closely with clients on strategy and materials to achieve desired outcomes. A well-written RFP, for example, is just as important as a well-executed search, in that all agencies need to be clear on the scope of work, budget, timeline, and other hiring criteria and measures of success.
While creating an agency shortlist is a key starting point for a thorough agency search process, the real value – and time savings for the client – is for a search consultant to manage the process of engaging with candidate agencies to ensure they are both qualified and not conflicted for an assignment, and then to manage the RFP process in a way that helps select finalists that are truly well-matched for the client’s assignment.
Good consultants work with their clients on the preliminary vetting of agencies and understand the requirements of procurement departments in order to satisfy the third-party hiring rules of an organization and to ensure a transparent and well-documented process.
Why use an agency search consultant?
There are a number of reasons why companies may – as has long been the case in the advertising industry – want to engage a search consultant.
Limited time and capacity for a search is one reason companies choose this path, along with the strategic counsel and knowledge of the agency landscape a search consultant can offer. Although agency search consultants won’t entirely eliminate the burden of search on business, marketing or communications executives, they can significantly reduce it. By taking a flexible approach to consulting, companies can determine where consultants can provide the greatest ROI in the search process based on needs and capacity.
By using a search consultant companies can also maintain the client’s anonymity while they identify potential agencies for confidential assignments.
What role does the client play when working with an agency search consultant?
Clients should remain involved in every step of the search process to ensure the hired agency is, indeed, the best fit – in much the same way a manager works closely with an executive search firm when hiring an individual. Bottom line: searches and the client’s role in them must be structured around their needs and preferences.
How much do agency search consultants cost?
Search consulting fees will be driven by the size and scope of the assignment, so it’s important for both parties to be clear about expectations and deliverables. A turn-key search for a large company will take several months and likely constitute a small portion of the overall agency budget, but save a company hundreds of hours of their time. Smaller assignments to consult on the process will have a more modest price tag. The best way to look at fees is in terms of the value provided across a range of dimensions.
The value delivered when the right agency is found – similar to when a company hires someone who goes on to be a star performer – may be multiples of the fees involved, simply because of the quality of the work that agency is able to do.
And, this is key: Any search consultant should be an honest broker with no ties to particular agencies. The transaction should only be between client and consultant and, more importantly, it should be based on a consultant’s fee scale versus any formula that takes into account the final budget a client has determined for the ultimately selected agency.
About the Authors
Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatch™
Locke developed and launched CommunicationsMatch, an agency search and engagement platform with 5,000 listed firms and professionals in 12 countries, to help companies find and engage agencies, consultants and freelancers that match needs. A founder of communications agencies and startups, he previously headed communications functions at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank.
Steve Drake and Robert Udowitz founded RFP Associates in 2011 after observing the agency selection process from “both sides of the aisle” and recognizing the need to streamline and improve the way searches are made and agencies selected from an honest, unbiased approach. Over the course of their careers Robert and Steve have worked at agencies, corporations, and trade associations in New York, Washington, and, for Steve, in Beijing, China, where he opened Fleishman-Hillard’s first Asian office. In recent years they have also been sole practitioners for a variety of clients seeking media, crisis, and strategic counsel.