Agency Review

Identifying the Right Search Consultants for Your Agency Review

“The agency model is broken.” “Agency compensation is broken.” “Agencies must change or risk becoming defunct.” If you read the press, one might think the marcom industry is heading straight for Armageddon.

True, the industry has changed more in the past five years than it probably has in its entire history when Volney B. Palmer opened the first American advertising agency, in Philadelphia in 1850. However, we’re far from extinct. One thing is for sure: the business model that has been in practice at many agencies for more than a half-century does not scale any longer. The industry is taking leaps by evolving at the speed of technology and the digital revolution will only continue to add new layers of complexity and innovation.

So what does this all have to do with search consultants in the industry? Simple. It was difficult enough for CMO’s to keep up with the changing landscape prior to the revolution, now it seems close to impossible. Not only are CMO’s time-pressed and simply pressed to do more with less (time and/or money) but the tailspin of the intensely changing agency environment is enough to make anyone’s head spin. And that’s where a qualified, experienced search consultancy who is anchored into the agency universe as well as understanding the changing needs of today’s “engaged brand” is warranted when the inevitable agency reviews pop up for marketers.

For example, some former agencies of glory have been lagging, some don’t understand digital, some digital agencies don’t understand branding, some branding agencies don’t truly understand the human experience as the new medium. And this doesn’t even scratch the service of getting into the compensation conversation. The more experienced search consultants are keenly aware of where the winds of change are blowing and know the right mix of agencies for every marketer’s unique set of needs.

AAR Partners has been managing reviews for more than 35 years and it is our sole responsibility to keep our finger on the pulse of the ever-changing landscape, to know where all the up-and-coming talent is coming from, and where the “tradigital” thinking lies in order to appropriately introduce the right agency for the right brand. We make sure marketers are evaluating agencies that understand consumer insights, behaviors, take into account innovation that’s going to bring integration to every brand touch-point. Of course, chemistry and cultural compatibility is paramount!

There are many facets to a successful agency search and below is a guideline to the vital factors when evaluating search consultants to help you find the most appropriate agency for your marketing needs with the ultimate goal of increased ROI (or “ROE” in today’s digital world – return on engagement):

  1. How experienced is the consultant? Many consultants managing reviews are between jobs and more are set in their ways, their process and their approach for far too many years. There are consultants that repeatedly recommend the same agencies on the shortlist. Ask the consultant how many agencies they visit, meet with, talk to each year. Find out if they have an agency database and inquire how often it is updated.
  2. What is their methodology? Is the process a framework or a mold? Consultants need to have rationale behind their process. They should have evaluation systems and reports to encourage comprehensive and insightful decisions that also keep marketers’ communication goals in mind. However, the process should be a flexible framework that adjusts to every individual client needs. The process should not be a mold that is forcibly fitted which will only lead to an unsuccessful outcome.
  3. Is the consultant agency-friendly? It is vital for search consultants to spend ample time with agencies through the review process in order to offer guidance, constructive criticism, insights and also give client feedback. Consultants should offer appropriate information but allow agencies to also be authentic.
  4. How does the consultant help you to evaluate and select agencies? Ask how the consultant is objective and request case studies that show positive outcome of relationships forged. Request to see their evaluation tools used at every step of the process. This will help to ensure that decisions are based on quantifiable matrix systems and qualitative discussions. Make sure the consultant is going to be present at every meeting throughout the review in order to assist the marketer with comprehensive decisions.
  5. Is the process consultant or client-driven? It must be both! Consultants should provide strategic insight to clients throughout every phase of the process. In addition, the consultant must also infuse information throughout every phase of the process by offering “behind the scenes” insights, historical and current agency knowledge, as well as strategic counsel at all vital steps. Bottom line, search consultants must allow for rational and emotional decisions throughout the entire review.
  6. What resources does the consultant bring to the process? Find out how the consultant unburdens the client in the process by proving that they can manage all logistics, exemplify depth of industry knowledge, suggesting compensation options, and integrating evaluation tools.
  7. Are they objective? Find out if the consultant has a database of agencies that is free of charge to enter their information. Ask how many agencies are in that database and how many agencies the consultant meets with on an annual basis. Request to see a list of finalists from their past three reviews and see if you notice any repetitiveness in agencies.
  8. What is their track record? The question to ask is about outcomes. What was the result and how did the consultant add value to the outcome? Almost anyone can follow and run a step by step process but not anyone can add insights, solve unexpected problems that arise during a review, understand the rationale behind every step and alter the process in order to be more appropriate for the individual client. Finally, an experienced consultant will forge client-agency partnerships that outlast the three to five-year industry average! (AAR is proud to say that our partnerships average five to seven years…and some have lasted 10+ years!)

Most importantly, be sure to select a consultant that does what they do really well. How can you know for sure? Look for two key points. As mentioned, check the tenure of the relationships they helped to forge and ask for the results of the client-agency partnership. Finally, if they are passionate about the process and exemplify that they love what they do (even after 35+ years) the rest will fall into place…

“I’m sold. After using AAR Partners for EmblemHealth’s last review, I would never go back to managing the process alone,” says Marc Warner, (past) Director, Brand Management and Marketing, EmblemHealth.

Marc and his team contracted AAR Partners for multiple agency reviews in various disciplines over the past 3 years.

For more information on how AAR Partners could potentially help you with your potential agency review, please email Lisa Colantuono at to schedule a confidential conversation and let us help you find an enduring and successful agency partnership.

Tags: Agency Search

Lisa Colantuono

Lisa Colantuono is the President of AAR Partners. An agency search consultant for nearly two decades, Lisa is also an avid writer. Lisa has contributed many articles in top industry trades such as Forbes, Huffington Post, Advertising Age, Adweek and HubSpot Blogs’ Agency Post. Recently, Lisa entered the world of publishing with her book, @AARLisa: New Biz in 140 characters (or Less), written for the on-the-go new business exec that needs cut-to-the-chase insights to nail new business wins again and again. Lisa is also part of the industry speaking circuit, presenting at national conferences including 4A’s Transformation Conference, AAF Admerica National Conference, BOLO, HOW Design Live, Mirren, and AdAge Small Agency Conference.