Seven questions agencies should be asking prospective clients

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In order to have a successful meeting with a potential client, there are some questions you should ask. Here are seven of them, taken from various agency execs.

It’s a staple of every job interview: Do you have any questions for me? But when you’re an agency talking with a prospective client, you may gloss over that part because you want to win the business.

That’s understandable, if inadvisable. In order to figure out the best questions to be asking, ClickZ went straight to the source and reached out to five agency executives, such as Chris MacDonald, president of McCann Erickson New York, who thinks romance is a better analogy than employment.

“In so many ways, it’s like having a first date and working out if you want to have dinner again,” he says. “If you’re smart, both sides can get the right answer quickly to be able to say, ‘This is the kind of thing I want to be involved with.’

Here are seven questions you should probably be asking on that first date:

1. What are your goals?

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All five agency executives I spoke to said they like to ask some variation of this question. It gives them an idea of what a potential client is looking to accomplish and ultimately, how they can help them do that.

“Business goals are a huge trigger for me. If they can’t cleanly and quickly answer, that makes me heavily guarded about our ability to be successful. If the idea of success is a specific thing they’ve decided they need already, that severely limits the benefit they can get from us an agency,” says Bryan Hamilton, senior vice president of user experience at Razorfish. “It puts us more in the role of a production partner and that’s not where our value is.”

Mark Singer, a principal at Deloitte Digital, adds that this question helps him gauge the potential of a new client, especially if it’s not a powerhouse brand. More importantly, it helps him gauge the client’s ability to recognize that potential.

“Is the client ready to change and transform? Or are they just looking to do the same thing they’ve been doing, but differently?” he says. “Anybody can do great things for a known brand, but how do  you take someone who’s not so known and turn them into someone that is?”

2. How are decisions made internally?

Before you start working with a new client, it’s helpful to know how things work within the organization. Who controls the budgets? What is the balance between that person and the one in charge of product? And most importantly, can you expect to see any shakeups?

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“Changing your organization – hiring, changing titles – is a part of a large marketing project that clients aren’t really thinking about. It can be a cause for great pain later on,” says Hamilton. “If you’re saying you want to do customer service click-to-chat and that’s completely outsourced – who’s managing that?”

3. Why do you want to work with our agency?

Any hiring manager wants to know whether you’re looking for job or this job. Along those lines, one of the first questions Devin Reiter, managing director of Crispin Porter + Bogusky Boulder, asks prospective clients is how they came to be sitting in front of him.

“Obviously, they’ve been to our site and seen the work we do,” says Reiter, who looks for chemistry, first and foremost. “Was there something specific that attracted you to us: Is it the work? Is it the people? It’s really effective dialogue that’s really testament of us, moving forward, creating some great work together.”

4. How many agencies have you fired in the last five years?

“People fear, like in any relationship, saying something wrong or asking something too revealing,” says Chris Paradysz, founder and chief executive (CEO) of PMX. “It’s a question you may not want to ask until the third date, but in a business transaction, you have to put it on the table.”

Using an emoji to order pizza on Twitter sounds like an off-the-wall idea, but having worked with Crispin Porter + Bogusky for years, Domino’s trusted the agency enough to go along with it. That campaign ended up winning Domino’s a Titanium Grand Prix award in Cannes last year.

There’s a certain sense of trust that comes from a long-term relationship. So when you see that a client is switching teams all the time, wouldn’t you wonder why? It’s a bold question, but one that could have a very telling answer.

5. What are you looking for in an agency?

A client may have one specific project in mind or they may be looking for a long-term relationship. Maybe they’ll need your cell phone number, anticipating a need to call you on a Saturday.

Paradysz wonders whether that Saturday call is social, as he believes that a relationship that flourishes outside the office strengthens the professional one.

Whatever the situation, it’s good to know the details upfront. Maybe your agency isn’t right for the job, but you have a sister agency that would be. Or maybe a one-off project could eventually evolve into a relationship, like an intern getting hired full time.

6. What kind of creative do you like?

Does someone’s all-time favorite ad really have anything to do with what kind of client they’d be? It does for McCann’s MacDonald, who likes to compare your preferences to McCann’s portfolio.

“It’s really good if you can link the client’s creative ambition with how you perceive the kind of work your agency should and wants to be doing,” he says.

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7. How do you feel about taking risks?

Glade took a risk with its Museum of Feelings, launched by Ogilvy & Mather in November, because it does sounds kind of weird, no? It paid off, according to the judges in Cannes.

That’s not to say that everyone needs to pioneer the latest social network or get involved with biohacking. But being too traditional can be problematic in marketing, so it’s good to know if a client crosses the line from conservative to close-minded.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m going to spend $40 for some media around this risky idea, but I’m just testing it.’ That, you expect clients to do,” says Singer“But it’s another thing to say to a client, ‘Don’t spend any money on TV; put all your money in social.’ What’s the client’s mindset? Is it a binary thing? Or do they think risk is good and I need to manage the unrisky side?”

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