Cheat Sheet: Hiring a marketing agency

Five steps for finding, vetting and hiring the best marketing firm to meet your show’s needs Hiring an agency can be a headache for time-strapped show organizers — both large and small. So we’ve asked our experts to share these five tips for finding, vetting and hiring help.

Step 1. Consult colleagues, create a short list Forget the yellow pages and Google. Consult your peers and trade associations for successful marketing firms. Better yet, ask successful show organizers you admire whom they used. And keep your short list of candidates to three to four. If you must “blind search” using local directories or the Internet, start with a pool of 10 and narrow it before requesting proposals.

Step 2. Seek substance over style Experience counts, so enlist an agency with a proven record for promoting events. Can’t find an agency with specific show experience? Consider one with similar industry experience — or experience marketing to similar psychographics and demographics. Perhaps the most important aspect: Hire someone who shares your philosophy or corporate culture. You might love an agency’s fun, creative office décor, but its laid-back work approach may clash with your more conservative philosophy.

Step 3. Request a proposal Putting together this critical document can be laborious, but it’s absolutely necessary. The RFP outlines exactly what expertise you want from the agency and answers questions candidates might have about the specific project. When developing your RFP, include these seven components:

1. Objective and selection process. Be specific about the what you want. For example, creating an exhibitor prospectus or direct mail, buying media, etc. Include the deadline for submitting proposals. Tell applicants how they’ll be evaluated. For example, list criteria like event marketing or industry experience, B2B strategies and campaigns, knowledge of database marketing techniques, fee structure, quality of creative, etc. Let them know when final selections will be made.

2. Project overview. Provide details about your event, current challenges, what solutions you want from the agency and your budget.

3. Campaign direction. Include your strategic marketing communications objectives, as well as details about your target audiences, current campaign efforts and ideas for additional elements you’d like.

4. Scope of services. Outline the services you want from the agency (marketing and strategy, branding, creative, database marketing, account management, media or public relations, etc.).

5. Agency overview. Ask candidates to submit detailed information on their: • Background — scope of services or competencies, agency philosophy, years in business, location and staff size. • Marketing experience — event or industry. Request case studies and creative samples. • Process and planning — safeguards for working within budget, approach for developing and executing a marketing plan, project management system and methods for measuring results.

6. Compensation. Three common ways to pay agencies: retainer plus a project fee, retainer only or project only.

7. References. Always talk with others who’ve used the agency’s services.

Step 4. Don’t overlook “unknown” expenses While postage can cause frequent sticker shock among show organizers, fees for change orders often get overlooked. If you’re one to quibble over copy or design, beware: Most agencies charge for multiple revisions. Make sure change order fees are clearly spelled out in your contract. Also keep in mind two primary ways agencies charge:

• Net cost basis — the agency charges for its professional services and the net cost of any outside services (printing, mailing, media buys, etc.), or the agency has vendors bill you directly. This is most common.

• All inclusive — the agency handles everything and typically charges a 25 percent to 50 percent markup on outside services. This is less common because many show organizers can do some tasks in-house or negotiate deals with vendors.  And if you want a “test run” of the agency’s capabilities, be prepared to pay for speculative creative or strategy. It’s one thing to ask an agency to give estimates for specific projects, it’s another to ask for free speculative creative execution or strategy. Another overlooked expense: lists. Reaching new audience members costs money.

Step 5. Compare specifics, make a selection After reviewing proposals, meet the account team. Is there enough staff to meet your needs? If you’re one of many clients, will you receive the service you deserve? Can’t meet the team in person? Try a conference call or Webcast. Ask for solutions to specific challenges you’ve faced. You want people who can think on their toes. Is the proposal well organized, written clearly or just thrown together? This indicates the kind of work you’ll receive from the agency.

Finally, don’t choose on price alone. Chemistry is key. You’ll be working with this agency within a tight deadline and budget, so pick someone who offers fresh ideas, flexibility and reasonable pricing.

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