In many cases, the relationship status between companies and their digital agencies can be described facebook-like as “it’s complicated”. Business partners continually enter these relationships with false expectations. On the one hand, companies do not precisely define what they imagine and, on the other hand, some agencies do not ask enough questions at the right moments or explain what is simply not feasible. Agency screening, i.e. rough pre-selection, often works exactly as it did decades ago: multiple agencies that you are familiar with, from which you have already seen something impressive, or whose employees are already known in the company, are invited to pitch. Agencies are increasingly wary of these pitches, especially when they are more than just meetings to get to know each other.
Why pitches are the wrong instrument
“More than ever, pitches are unsuitable as a selection tool for jointly mastering digital and other projects. They are inefficient when it comes to making a sound, sensible decision for a digital project,” explains Marco Zingler, Managing Director of the Cologne-based full-service digital agency Denkwerk and Jury President of the German Digital Award. He complains that neither the agency nor the company that commissioned the project can make a meaningful judgment about who they are dealing with, whether the agency’s competencies match the customer’s requirements, and ultimately whether the mindset and the chemistry between the two partners is right.
If ten or twelve agencies present detailed concepts to the client, it is an expensive undertaking for the parties involved, which is also of little use to the potential client, because it also costs them a lot of time. “The truth is that a reasonable presentation costs an agency between 30 and 80 project days – an effort that many companies, even agencies themselves, underestimate and which will then have to pay off later on”, Zingler explains. This also has to do with the fact that the number of trades, interfaces and participants in digital projects is usually significantly higher than in other agency tasks.
Cherrypicker, a company that supports companies in choosing the right agency, has found that not even every second pitch is paid for digital projects and that this is probably one of the reasons why almost half of the pitch requests are rejected by agencies. For this reason alone, companies should consider whether they can really get the best and most sought-after agencies on the market via pitches.
Serious offers only provided after clear briefings
In addition to this, many companies find it difficult to formulate an invitation to tender in the digital sector in such a way that agencies can draw up reasonable specifications and professionally price all the subtasks involved. “If, for example, we want to design a website, we not only need a windy briefing that has more holes than a Swiss cheese, but we also need a complete specification sheet that can be used to draw up a contract for work,” says Zingler. He even goes one step further: “My opinion is that even today many marketing managers in companies do not completely master their task of managing digital agencies professionally and some do not master it at all.”
But how can a company really find out whether an agency fits its own way of working? More and more agencies are working on digital projects in particular, but not only there, with agile methods, especially those based on Scrum, in which there are fixed cycles and sprints. The customer does not only see the finished product, but also sees in the course of development whether it is going in the right direction and the result corresponds with what they imagine. But agile management methods that replace the old waterfall model also mean for the company that it must at least participate in the process as a product owner. The client therefore not only takes on an observer role, but is permanently involved as a fixed function.
Workshops or test projects create trust on both sides
Zingler also advises companies to book an initial workshop format with the agency, which of course also has to be rewarded. “You can use this to extract a real existing issue or a partial aspect from the planned project and work on the solution together. These can have a wide range of formats, such as a growth hacking workshop, a design thinking project or a brand workshop. Even creative brief workshops make sense, because marketing managers often only then understand what answers they need to work out to manage an agency sensibly.”
This is useful and well invested time for both sides. The client experiences the people who actually work in the agency—and not only those who are successfully sent off for customer acquisition—and the agency also learns a lot about the client’s workflows. At the same time, neither of the partners has a cost risk. The agency does not work for nothing and the commissioning company receives concrete results for an amount in the four-digit to low five-digit range, which can continue to be used with another implementation partner or internally in the worst case.
In addition, both partners also learn how much effort and budget is required and which functions can be implemented only in a later phase due to the legacy IT situation. For both partners, all this also means building trust. This is certainly not a bad basis if you want to avoid jumping in the deep in.
The bottom line: Chemistry meetings instead of pitches
Digital projects in particular are often so complex that a pitch is not suitable for either companies or agencies to really assess the partner. But there are fair ways to get to know each other so well that you don’t buy a pig in a poke. After all, in addition to a service provider’s competencies, the human component of daily cooperation should not be underestimated.