Design Industry Voices Survey 2009 reveals 38% are planning exit when market picks up.

Industry employees voice dissatisfaction in their agency’s performance in the areas that matter most to them.

In late October 2009 we asked people who work within UK design and digital agencies to anonymously share their views on how it feels to work within their agency right now. The first Design Industry Voices Survey 2009 by Fairley & Associates, Gabriele Skelton and On Pointe Marketing was published in December 2009. Here are the headlines.

Day-to-day client satisfaction at risk

38% of employees responsible for day-to-day client satisfaction are planning their exit when the recession ends, with almost three quarters intending to stay in the industry.

36% of directors, 53% of managers and 47% of coordinators and assistants intend to change employer, compared to only 19% of the executive team. We found that strategists are least likely to change employer (21%) whereas designers (43%), account managers (44%) and those working in other roles in the agency (36%) are most likely to leave.

A substantial change in those responsible for the day-to-day client satisfaction and delivery may have an impact on the agency’s ability to service and farm existing clients. There is also a risk of losing knowledge and experience. Agencies are likely to face the need for financial and time investment in the recruitment and training of new talent, which they can ill afford.

Stef Brown, Managing Director of On Pointe Marketing, says: “Agencies are all about people. Building relationships and satisfying existing clients is one of the best ways to weather any downturn. If agencies start losing the key staff that deliver the work, they risk damaging those relationships to the point where clients may decide to look elsewhere. They also risk being so stretched that they’re unable to seize new opportunities as the market begins to pick up.” 

Perceived agency delivery gap is major factor in deciding whether to stay or go

We asked respondents to tell us how important a series of agency attributes were to them personally and how well their agency is currently performing against those attributes.

Across the industry, people agree on what makes a good agency.

We then measured the difference between importance and performance, which we call the delivery gap. We found that employees who intend to change job perceive bigger agency delivery gaps than those who wish to stay. The median gap is just 13% for those intending to stay and 36% for those intending to leave.

The five attributes in which there is the greatest difference of opinion between those intending to leave and those intending to stay are: ‘rewards people for going the extra mile’ (39% difference); ‘has a management team that demonstrates strong leadership skills’ (35%); ‘helps employees to manage stress’ (33%); ‘supports professional development and growth’ (32%); and ‘is quick to change in reaction to new situations’ (29%).

Rachel Fairley, Managing Director of Fairley & Associates, believes: “Employees agree on what makes a good agency and on how their agencies are letting them down. For two-fifths, enough is enough. It isn’t about money; everyone knows money is tight. It is about respect and appreciation. Agencies must empower their managers to lead, coach and nurture their teams so employees are involved in ensuring their agency’s and their personal success.”

Crucial deficits in agency performance in the psychosocial work environment

For those intending to leave, the greatest delivery gaps are in the psychosocial work environment such as job demands, job control and workplace support/training.

The perceived delivery gap for those intending to leave is significant: ‘rewards people for going the extra mile’ (64%); ‘supports professional development and growth’ (60%); ‘provides training’ (55%); ‘helps employees to manage stress’ (55%); ‘appropriate workload for staffing levels’ (53%).

Jobs with high demands and high control are generally considered the most rewarding whereas jobs with high demands, low control and poor workplace support are worst for mental and physical health. To retain talent, agencies need to nurture their employees. This may also improve their perception of the leadership skills of their management team.

Karina Beasley, Managing Director of Gabriele Skelton, says: “As a recruiter, of course we are reliant on people moving from one agency to another. However, we also want our agency clients to thrive, and from the results of our research, many are risking their future success by not paying attention to nurturing, and therefore, retaining their employees. Bearing in mind the level of redundancies in the first half of 2009, many agencies are now down to teams comprised entirely of their key people – the very people they can least afford to lose when the upturn comes. It is vital that they look at how to reward and recognise their people – something which doesn’t have to cost a fortune.”

Download the full report and press release

Pitch perfect.

Hiring the right strategic and creative agency isn’t easy. Here is some advice on how businesses can find the perfect partner.

 1. Do your homework

Don’t just consider your usual agencies. Find out which agencies are leading their field and most respected by their peers. Make a longlist in order of preference. Decide how many agencies you want to ask for pitch; but don’t ask any more than five.

Plan the process, which should take about four weeks start to finish:

  • You need a week to write the brief and selection criteria and secure internal sign off.
  • Agree who will be on your pitch panel: make sure you get a variety of experience, knowledge, ages and nationalities. If you have any important dissenters, make them part of the process. Secure their time.
  • Allow a few days to speak to the agencies to secure their commitment to pitch, then get confidentiality agreements signed.
  • Send them the brief.
  • Allow a minimum of two weeks for the agency to prepare, with a briefing meeting or call in the first few days.
  • Let the agency send you a draft proposal to review mid-way through the process to ensure they are on the right track.
  • Get the agency to send you their final proposal a few days before the pitch so your team has time to review it.
  • Don’t have any more than four two hour pitches per day.
  • Spend two hours after all the pitches are complete discussing and coming to a decision as a panel.
  • Notify the agencies of your decision.
  • Finalise contacts and terms and conditions.

2. Creative or no creative

The biggest dilemma at this stage is whether to ask for actual strategy or creative in the pitch. My advice is always no.

Part of the joy of working with external experts is to be part of the research, strategy and creative process. Without you, they have no real insider business expert on their team. They will work intensively on producing work, investing emotional energy on something that may or may not meet your stakeholder’s needs. You’ll find it hard not to react subjectively as you’ll have no real strategic criteria to judge their work against and they’ll no longer be fresh when it comes to starting at the beginning again.

It is also a huge investment for an agency to produce actual work when they have a 20% chance of being selected. If you want strategy or creative work at pitch then pay a contribution towards it. The DBA’s code of conduct expressly forbids its members to pitch creative for free.

Instead, ask them to demonstrate their strategic and creative thinking by showing examples of relevant work for previous or existing clients. Hear how they think and what sort of process they have. Be clear that you would like some insights into your challenge and that any sketched ideas, rather than fully designed solutions, are welcome.

In this tough market most agencies will over deliver.

3. Write a really good brief

Be as clear and honest as you can. Use normal language, not pseudo business speak or in house acronyms.

Make sure the brief answers as many questions as you can:

  • The business context driving change
  • Why you are doing this now
  • Who and what you are looking for from an agency
  • Your selection criteria
  • Pitch timings
  • Key project milestones and timings
  • Where you will be holding the pitch
  • Who the decision makers and influencers are in the process; roles and responsibilities
  • How you will measure the success of the work
  • The budget (see below)

Demand that the pitch team is the actual team with whom you will work. Agencies often field pitch teams consisting of highly polished, well rehearsed performers who are masters in the art of persuasion, but who may not work directly with you once appointed. Only the best agencies field your actual team, trusting that experience will win the day even if they aren’t the best presenters.

It is always simplest to give a ballpark budget, otherwise you may have to ask agencies to re-scope and rewrite their proposals. This is a complete waste of time and will significantly delay your ability to appoint an agency. If you can’t because you need their guidance on what would be reasonable, then make sure you discuss indicative budgets on the briefing call (see below).

Ask for the proposal a few days in advance of the pitch so you have time to read it and prepare questions to ask at the pitch. Don’t eliminate an agency based on their proposal unless it is clearly a copy and paste or doesn’t remotely answer your brief.

Agencies will want to know who they are pitching against so that they can work hard to differentiate themselves from the competition. I have never heard a good reason why this a bad idea, so give them the information.

4. Conflict and confidentiality

You are now ready to call (not email) the agency’s managing director or new business leader and ask them if they confidentially if they would like to be considered for pitch.

Find out if they have any conflicts of interests that may eliminate them. Tread a fine line on what would be considered a real conflict if you want to work with an agency with relevant industry experience. But do remember that even with the best intentions, it is really hard to have effective ‘Chinese walls’ within an agency.

If any agencies eliminate themselves because of conflicts then ask the next one on your longlist. You now have your shortlist.

Email a confidentiality agreement to entitle them to receive the brief. Remember, the agency community is small and tends to drink in the same pubs as industry journalists so you’ll have to go to great lengths for the trade press not to hear about it. If you want to control this, offer to work with the agencies on a news release about the appointment once a decision has been made, even if you have to be vague about the nature of the project.

5. Chemistry meetings

The recent trend to have pre-pitch chemistry meetings is a big mistake because it places emphasis on vague and subjective criteria. Chemistry is important, but all too often it is cited as the number one selection criteria. Don’t hire them just because you like them, but because they are the best in their field that you can afford and have shown their ability to deliver success for previous clients.

6. Q&A

Put your time and effort instead into spending an hour with each agency, preferably face to face but otherwise by telephone, so that they can ask questions to make sure they have everything they need to know to shine in their proposal and pitch.

Don’t take a short cut and do it as a group call because the agencies will be afraid to ask any questions which might give others competitive advantage, becoming a waste of everyone’s time.

To be fair, make sure it is the same person does all the briefings so agencies get roughly the same information.

Use any insights you have gleaned from how they handled the call to shape your questions in the pitch.

6. Decision making criteria

From your brief, write your selection criteria, so that everyone on your panel has the opportunity to evaluate as consistently and objectively as possible. Here are some suggestions:

Credentials:

  • Does the agency and specifically the people who will be on your team have relevant industry and project experience?
  • Is this the pitch team or the actual team? Is it the same team at pitch as outlined in the proposal?

Strategic and creative thinking:

  • Have they done their homework on you, your market and the challenges and opportunities you face?
  • Do they have a credible point of view on your challenges?
  • Does their creative work (for other clients) express a ‘big idea’?
  • Is their strategic and creative thinking original? Probe their case studies.

Implementation:

  • What testing do they recommend and how would they go about it?
  • What partners would they work with?
  • Where does their expertise start and end? Can they take you right through implementation?

Project management:

  • Do you trust them to deliver?
  • Is their proposal bespoke, comprehensive and clear?
  • Have they provided a detailed timeline?
  • Are they within your budget range?
  • Can they offering you a discount for volume, visibility or value?

Chemistry

  • Do you think you can work with them every day to deliver what you need?

7. The pitch

You need a big room with space around the walls for anything the agency wishes to display, as well as a good screen and projector for them to show their presentation.

Make sure they have at least 30 minutes set up time on their own and run the pitches as promptly as possible.

The presentation should last no more than an hour and a half, allowing you thirty minutes to have a conversation and ask each other questions. It does sound like a long time but agencies put a lot of effort into pitching and it isn’t often you get to spend time with experts who have an opinion on the market and your business, so make the most of it.

Make sure each panellist captures his or her thoughts on the criteria sheet so you can have a constructive conversation once you’ve met all the agencies.

8. The decision

Make a choice while the pitches are fresh. Talk through each one in turn to make sure that last is not best just because it is freshest in you mind. Be as objective as you can.

Once you’ve made your choice call each agency to let them know your decision and give them honest feedback on their pitch. They have made a significant investment pitching and will appreciate understanding how they might improve their approach in the future. Start with the winning agency but don’t put off having to share the bad news with the others. You never know when you might need them.