Creative Agency Selection in 2009: Distinguishing the Indistinguishable

Whether you’re a client in advertising, broadcast, or commercial production, 2009 brings a brand new set of rules for how we search and select new creative agencies for rostering. With tense market conditions, budgets have grown increasingly conservative. Shorter production schedules and higher expectations to deliver on brand promise have made the choice in a new creative partner more critical than ever.

However, the evolution of the market and the scramble for survival amongst design firms has resulted in a convergence of near indistinguishable and homogeneous sales propositions, pitches, and service offerings. So how is it possible to distinguish the indistinguishable?

Branding touches so many parts of a client’s daily activities that it has become a full-time job simply ensuring synergy between the business units of any media organization, not to mention new creative properties being created on an organic, near constant basis.

And unlike designers and creative directors, clients don’t have the luxury of spending the majority of the day thinking about design. It is just one of the many critical business areas that are demanding their attention at any one time.

A client’s most valued and dwindling natural resource is time. Shortened deadlines and reductions of in-house resources means clients will often select a creative agency with whom they, or others in their company, have worked with before. Unfortunately, it is often easier to award an assignment to a rostered “average” consultancy than to spend time reviewing and researching a new one. Why spend countless hours briefing brand history and strategy, risking poor creative results and/or lack of return on marketing dollars?

To add complication, 2009 has brought a frenzy of design companies competing for creative assignments at any given time. Has your phone been ringing off the hook, dozens of messages from reps asking for work? You’re not alone.

Unfortunately, many design firms have failed in offering true value differentiation within their sales propositions. Their marketing materials and websites have an annoying habit of looking and sounding near identical. Too much time is spent updating and glossifying reels. An obsession with visual articulation and not enough spent communicating their true agency defining characteristics. It’s the magic that’s hard to articulate in copy, but easy to spot after just a few short meetings. And when it’s all said and done, most judge the experience by a simple question: Do I trust them with brand guardianship?

And so then how does one decide on a new creative partner? Most source candidates through a mixture of traditional strategies. Quite often, we ask our colleagues for recommendations. Some use independent specialist consultants (like myself) who actively advise on the pitch and selection process. In other circumstances, category leadership and reputation help guide the decision making process.

I had lunch with a few longtime clients of mine and asked them to share some of their thoughts on decision-influencing criteria when appointing a new consultancy. Although the answers varied based on project type and scale, almost all criteria shared similar DNA:

1 Value for Money
2 Quality of Creative
3 Level of Service
4 Category Reputation
5 Expertise in Specific Discipline
6 Location / Geographic Availability
7 Client Perception
8 Chemistry

That’s right- chemistry. The most undervalued selling point of all decision-influencing criteria. It’s the little things, as it always seems to be. Does the agency spend more time listening or talking? Do they provide considerable access to key creative talent or to some seemingly unknowledgeable rep? Are they working for your business, or on their business? And at the end of another long, exhausting day, just ask yourself: Would you say yes to a few drinks with your new creative team? If so, it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Love to hear your thoughts, email me at


Filed under opinion

5 responses to “Creative Agency Selection in 2009: Distinguishing the Indistinguishable

  1. Thanks for your comment on my article, it was good to hear from someone on that side of things.

    Your blog is very interesting; I think I’ll be a regular reader.

  2. JMartin


    I’ve really enjoyed your insight. Thanks for continuing your blog and facilitating the business side discussions behind these types of projects. As a client, I definitely agree that it has become increasingly difficult predicting success when choosing a new creative group. You should do a piece on “when overages go bad”-

    J Martin

  3. Pingback: 5 Quick Reminders When Selecting a New Branding Agency « Art & Business of Motion

  4. Thanks for this important discussion.

    As you suggest, one of the most underrated and underused tool in the agency biz dev kit is listening: real concentrated listening, with understanding, to what your prospective client says and to what lies behind their words. So that is the first critical piece.

    The second piece is the clear understanding of what your agency is good at, what value you provide, and the ability to express it clearly and make it relevant to the problems and desires you have heard from the client.

    See how easy it should be! But it’s sad how often a client says “they just didn’t listen to me.” Wait a minute, it’s also sad how often the agency says “the client just wouldn’t listen to us.”

    Thanks for listening to me!

    Michael Pollock

  5. Good stuff again Denny. The chemistry bit is key – being personable in an approach is so important.

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