Running First Meetings with Prospective Agency Partners

CMS Myth - Running First Meetings with Prospective Agency Partners

Part 3 of a 10 part series

(The right digital agency partner can make or break your organization’s online success. And yet, unless you’re extremely lucky, your partner will only be as good as the process by which you find and select them. In this 10-part series, we’ll share what we’ve learned from our clients about agency selection processes that lead to successful, enduring relationships.)

Ready for your agency selection process to get fun? In the first two parts of this series, we discussed the importance of getting early internal alignment and curating a tight list of qualified potential partners. Both are essential steps but—typically—a lot of work. Not to worry; we promise things will soon move faster and be more fun!

Meeting prospective agency partners for the first time is exciting. Inside of 90 minutes with 2-3 of their senior leaders, you’ll be taking away important first impressions. Did they come prepared? Does it seem like they can help solve your challenges? Are they a style fit? Can you imagine being “in the trenches” with them? You’ll also be making a first impression with these agencies. Do your needs align with their skills and experience? Do you and your team seem like a style fit? Are there any cautionary signs warning of problems ahead?

We’ve seen first meetings work really well. How?

  • Brief the agencies ahead of time on your goals and metrics, as well as what you see as your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. If there are constraints like a deadline or legacy technology, let them know. Share your hidden assets too—prepaid license fees or already created content, for instance. Likewise, be explicit about the role of your partner and how you see them adding value. Finally, be transparent about your process and timeline, as well as your goals for this first meeting. Remind them it’s a starting point. This briefing note should be brief—2-3 pages will work if you’re concise.
  • Offer budget guidance, even if only a broad range. You should know your organization’s appetite for investing digitally. You should also have a sense of prevailing market rates for similar projects and relationships. Nobody’s expecting precision here, but being as forthright as you can will align everyone’s expectations, encourage realistic solutions, and attract agencies appropriate to your size.
  • Drive the agenda for your time together. Lacking guidance, some agencies will fall back on generic “about us” presentations and case studies. You need a basic set of facts to qualify your prospective partners and you’ll definitely want to review relevant end-to-end case studies, but ensure they also come with (1) a strategic perspective on 1-2 of the challenges you highlighted in your brief, and (2) an early point-of-view about your goals and how they’d approach addressing your challenges. They’ll be uneasy about offering such early strategic thinking, but hold your ground and remind them that you’re curious about their approach to problem-solving, not the quality of their solutions.
  • Invite the right group of core attendees. This is a first meeting so strictly limit your team’s attendance to those whose success will be linked to the agency’s efforts. Invite your senior leaders only if you think there’s a real risk of roadblocks down the line. Everyone will have opportunities later in the process to participate and meet your favored candidates. Don’t forget to brief your attendees about why they’ve been invited and what role you want them to play.
  • Encourage open, discovery-oriented conversations. These meetings should be considered conversations, not formal presentations and certainly not uncomfortable inquisitions. You’re looking to assess interpersonal fit and gauge their approach to problem-solving. This won’t be accomplished if the focus becomes racing through a stack of PowerPoint slides instead of having a thoughtful back-and-forth dialogue. In fact, consider enforcing a 10-slide presentation limit. We’ve seen it done!
  • Round out your research by proactively asking for references. Asking for client references at the end of the selection process overlooks their immense value as early sources of helpful counsel. References—if they’re 4-5 relevant ones who’ve done what you’re seeking to do—can validate your assumptions, comment on your budget and timeline, and even tip you to unexpected bumps down the road. And they can of course also provide insight on their experiences working with the agency you’re considering. Even there, go beyond cursory questions about their overall satisfaction. Of course they’re happy—they’re references, after all. Invest the time to unpack the work that was done and how and why it was successful.

With this preparation in place, you’re ready for show time! You should expect these first meetings to be high energy and a lot of fun. You’ll meet some really smart people eager to work with your team and make you successful. And you’ll be leading your organization towards a very important decision. At the same time, you’ll also be making first impressions about your fit and desirability as a client. Ready to get underway?

 We’ll be continuing this 10-part series over the coming weeks and months. If you’d like, please tell us what you’d personally put on your list of best practices for finding and selecting agency partners. We’ll incorporate the best of the best in our series and share credit with you for your contribution. Horror stories and happy anecdotes are particularly welcomed!

About the Author
James Gardner

James has been a marketing professional with leading organizations and their brands for over 15 years. Born in Toronto, he started his career with Procter & Gamble before earning his MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Since then, James has served CxO clients as a strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company and led numerous high-performing marketing teams. His B-to-C and B-to-B expertise ranges from corporate/marketing strategy and online marketing to strategic partnerships and business development. James lives in Brookline, MA with his wife and daughter.

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One response… read them below or add one.

  1. Cory Mann says:

    I would add: Show your warts!

    There’s nothing worse than asking for a fixed-bid, selecting an agency, and having them find unexpected complexity part way through a project. No one likes change orders, but a responsible agency will quickly communicate when the project scope has expanded beyond the original plan. To avoid this, be as forthcoming as possible, not just on the “as is” technology, but also regarding the internal vetting process, likely differences of opinion, and potential obstacles.

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