RFPs and Dating

At least once a week Dear Abby gets a letter like this:

Dear Abby, I just broke up with a guy who seemed great at first but a few months later he barely paid any attention to me and finally I caught him cheating. He was handsome and a smooth talker, but ended up being a rat. This is the fourth guy who's done this to me in the last two years. Are there no good men out there? -- Brokenhearted in Texas

Abby's response is generally along the lines of:

Dear Brokenhearted, If you want to meet a different type of guy you'll have to look in different places and look for different qualities than you have been. If you've met a bunch of lousy guys in singles bars, stop going to the singles bars, yadda yadda...

We see advertisers make this same mistake when they're picking agencies. They go through an RFP process, pick the agency with the slickest presentation and smoothest salespeople and end up disappointed with the results. Then, they go through the exact same process, using the exact same criteria to pick the next agency. Remarkably, they end up with the same results.

Oftentimes, this happens against the better judgment of the day-to-day marketing managers for the program in question. The day-to-day folks know enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the senior management folks who get drawn into the process end up making the decision despite the fact that they know little about the field. And, they're swayed by smoke and mirrors.

Senior management also prefers to "choose IBM". Perhaps because they don't know the space they find comfort in picking the largest, the best known, the Forrester favorites, etc. "Choosing IBM" is safe because they're famously solid. Maybe they're not the perfect fit for every job, perhaps they're not the best choice, but you can be certain that they're very good. But that's a problem in paid search and in online marketing in general; there are no IBMs.

It depends on the team.

I've heard it said of many of the largest firms in paid search: "They do a good job if you get the right team on your account." That is an incredibly revealing remark, when you think about it. Can you imagine that being said of a top accounting firm, or law firm, or engineering firm? To me it suggests four weaknesses:

  1. They must take an artistic approach to paid search rather than a scientific approach. A sound bid management system will hit the efficiency targets no matter how badly the account manager has done their job. The program will be smaller than it should be -- potentially dramatically smaller -- absent quality account management, but keyword level performance data shouldn't look crazy if the bid management system works. Erratic performance data strongly implies rules-based bidding, position bidding, or hand bidding done poorly.
  2. Their hiring and training processes must be spotty. In any firm there will be some variation in talent and knowledge among account managers, and even great analysts have their own strengths and weaknesses, but the variance shouldn't be huge in a solid agency.
  3. They likely have retention problems. We've heard the lament from many firms that they can't hold on to their analysts for any length of time. It's tough to provide consistently high quality service if you can't keep the seasoned pros; there is a long learning cycle, so employee churn is extremely damaging.
  4. They must not have much oversight in place. How can an account go south for any length of time? Where is the oversight? A great deal of time and thought must go into developing checks and balances to make sure each account represents the firm's best work. Spotty results indicates short comings in quality control practices.

The point is this: the so called "safe choices" don't exist in our industry, not yet at least. As such the agency selection process must be revised. Advertisers must ask the penetrating questions that defy superficial responses, and they must check references thoroughly. Will the contenders give references from former clients? Do the references they give know their stuff? Do they evaluate success the same way your firm does?

Those advertisers who find themselves disappointed with a service agency should think very hard about how they chose their existing firm, and how they can change their process and evaluation criteria to pick a better firm next time around.

Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Advertisers would be wise to adopt the philosophy: "Fooled me once, shame on you. Fooled me twice, shame on me."

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