An Open Letter to CMOs

  |  April 5, 2007   |  Comments

Selecting the right agency isn't an easy process. Here's how to do it right.

I want to be more than your agency; I want to be your partner. Here's a modest proposal to help make that happen.

Without being trite, I want to ask you to think differently about the whole process of selecting an agency and getting the most value from the investment. Thinking about this in a new way will help you stand out from your peers (perhaps even your past decisions). Now's the time to try something new.

You've probably already begun working with in-house decision makers, Web steering committees, e-business teams, and assorted other relevant parties. Their involvement is critical to success, but you must guide their decisions. This is a singular moment. You can make "thinking differently" a hallmark of the entire agency selection process. Involve them, certainly. But educate them, too. Ultimately, you must ensure everyone's aligned around the goals, costs, timelines, rewards, and risks associated with making site changes and selecting an agency to help you.

Once you know who all the internal players are in the agency selection process, to clearly articulate the reasons you're looking for an agency in the first place. It's more than just needing to have a better site, isn't it? Keywords here are "articulate" and "communicate":

  • Articulate the behaviors you want to drive on your Web site:

    • Clicks

    • Purchases

    • Information requests

    • Comments

    • Something else

  • Articulate your expectations about those behaviors:

    • Immediate increase

    • Steady growth

    • Controlled growth (perhaps your factory can only produce so many widgets)

    • New business, new products, new services, etc.

  • Communicate your reality:

    • Current site behaviors

    • Back-end limitations

    • Conversion value

    • Competitive pressures

  • Communicate your constraints:

    • Budget

    • Timeline

    • Resources

If you're successful at articulating and communicating, the process becomes much easier. Not easy, but easier. In business, nothing really valuable ever is easy.

Time to get the contending agencies in for a meeting. Once you've taken the above steps, you should have also narrowed down the agencies under consideration. At this point, limit discussions to no more than three contenders. More than that means you haven't done enough advance work.

When the agencies come in to pitch, ensure your reality filters are in place. The agency will quickly weave a web of fantasy and illusion that requires some very careful analysis. Don't blame the agency for this, however. Magic is part of their assignment, so expect them to show off their best tricks.

Typical agency team members to watch for: the creative director, usually in black with a cool watch and funky glasses; account people, all ready with a laugh at your jokes and a pat on the back; and the agency principal, lit from within by a passion for the work and a ready enthusiasm to do whatever it takes to win your business. Be prepared to ask why the user experience and analytics team members aren't at the table. You need them. If you really want to put them to the test, ask them to bring their optimization and social networking team, too.

Once the show begins, sit back and watch carefully. Does the agency talk about your business, or theirs? A good way to differentiate is to determine how much time they spend presenting and how much time they spend listening and discussing. Presenting should be no more than a third of the total time. Is the agency ready to provide case studies, monetization models, and behavioral analysis studies? Can they commit to a schedule and budget? Are they asking you to allocate budget to testing and optimization? We ask our clients to consider allocating 5 percent to this before the first graphic is designed or the first line of HTML is written.

In the middle of the show, ask the agency how many of the people in the room will actually work on your business. If it's less than half, this is a good time to bring the meeting to a quick close. At the very least, ask the agency where those people are now, and when they can present case studies applicable to your business. Can they come over? Can you visit the agency's offices to meet them? Plan on visiting the agency in person anyway; nothing tells you more about a partner more than the feeling you get when you walk into its offices.

Finally, make the agency provide a pro forma financial statement showing how your business will be affected by their work. Agencies have no problem spending your money; good agencies can demonstrate why that spend makes sense. Be daring. Before the agency gets into the conference room, write "ROI" on big letters on the whiteboard. Does anyone notice?

I hope I've kept your attention through this letter. It's just the beginning of the dialogue I hope to have with you as a partner. I want us to hold one another accountable for the work we do together and the value we create. If we can't be great partners, we should go our separate ways now.

Call me. I'm ready to talk.

Meet Shane at the ClickZ Specifics: Analytics seminar on May 2 at the Hilton New York in New York City.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shane Atchison

In 1998, Shane co-founded ZAAZ to advocate a different approach to Web services — one that respects and delivers on the power of the individual and the promise of Web technologies. As CEO, Shane leads the company's long-term strategic vision of working with leading financial service organizations, consumer brands, startups, non-profits, and community-based organizations, helping each realize the potential of the Internet and its meaningful impact on their business.

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