The art of selecting the right agency

09 July 2021

Planning your 2021-2 Attraction/ Student Outreach campaign and need external support? How do you know who to work with?

I can’t fail to notice the creeping tide of webinars around virtual engagement, on how to attract niche audiences (sorry guilty as charged on that one),that had temporarily abated over the past couple of months.  So it must be that time again – Graduate Campaign Planning Season.

If you are working in the student recruitment space and are in the throes of planning your next campaign, then this article might be useful if you are thinking about who to work with to deliver your campaign whether that be a long-term relationship or on an individual project basis.

It all starts with the WHY? Why are you looking for a supplier partner to work with?

In most cases, it is due to either capacity or capability of your own internal team.  Having clarity on this will be hugely helpful for the tendering suppliers as it will shape the expectations of the supplier in its broadest terms. If you have been working with an agency to date, then it is important to understand and to communicate the reasons behind either a re-pitch or a change in agency.  Some of the most cited reasons for a change in agency are:

  • Breakdown of the working relationship
  • Change of personnel at the agency
  • Gone stale/ complacency/ lack of proactivity.
  • Ineffective solutions
  • Cost
  • Trust due to conflict with other agency clients

Secondly it’s really important to focus on ‘WHAT is the response that is required and what is the brief?’

The written brief for your future supplier sets the tone for the rest of the relationship. For agencies, it shows how the client sees the relationship – a well-researched, thought-through brief that sets the agency up for success is what we all would wish for. The brief will include:

The scope of work, (what’s in and what’s not) indicative budget, relevant experience required, size and reputation of agency, culture. I could go on. The agency selection criterion is a really important part of the brief as this will give agencies the opportunity to self-select in or out of the process.

The very best pitches that I have worked on have been where the client has invested more time in the briefing process than in the pitches themselves. Opening their diaries for follow-up sessions post-initial briefings allows agencies to work in collaboration with the client as they develop their response.

Next is to understand WHO can deliver the ask?

Conducting market due diligence is key to understanding who should be in the frame to pitch for this work. How do you gather your long list? It’s a matter of doing the basics – does the supplier website clearly demonstrate they have the experience, the capacity and the approach you require? And are they proud to share client feedback?  It’s also about digging more deeply – talk to your network as well as those you don’t usually approach for personal recommendations. Which agencies are proactive in the market (e.g. on LinkedIn) and has a point of view on student marketing? Its also worth looking at how invested the agency is in student marketing – do they run their own proprietary research into the market showing real passion and commitment?

Holding chemistry meetings with a number of selected agencies is a great opportunity for you to meet with the agencies before any kind of formal pitch takes place – to see how the ‘chemistry‘ works between the  two teams.  Sometimes, the meeting format will be a creds presentation by the agency but sometimes the client will pose a specific challenge for discussion.

As part of understanding who can deliver, ask the age-old question of ‘to pitch or not to pitch? – how many?

IF you ask agencies ‘is pitching helpful ?’, you often get this answer….

And this is because agencies challenge these ‘test’ briefs as being little more than a beauty parade as a way to gauge the skills of their creative vendor. Of course, there is the other controversial part of pitching and that is that these assignments are unpaid, often involving weeks of head scratching and long costly hours that are unrecoverable. (Just jumping down from the high horse now!)

But for clients it’s a tried-and-tested method to differentiate one supplier from another.

A couple of cautionary words on asking for pitch creative. How do you not advantage those agencies who have or who are currently working with you to create that level playing field? For example, sharing as much research around the brand as possible will help; allowing access to internal stakeholders to share their brand insights and stories is helpful.

Secondly, how to avoid basing your decision solely on the creative tingles that one creative campaign has inspired? Ultimately, when seeking a creative agency, it is important they not only understand the power of the creative, but can also demonstrate enthusiasm and passion for your brief. That they understand your brand, what you are trying to achieve and the parameters within which you can work.

And that brings me nicely onto the final decision – the final WHY?

Designing an evaluation scorecard that is agreed upfront and communicated to all stakeholders is key to the successful selection and onboarding of any new supplier. You need to buy into their culture and they need to understand yours. Is the team innovative, collaborative, proactive and reactive?

Here are some key areas that are typically included in an agency evaluation:

Strategic approach, communication skills, Interpersonal and social skills, chemistry (working together), cultural alignment, mission and philosophies alignment, account and PM skills, understanding of the sector and the specific brand and of specific challenges.

In over 25 years of working in the Student Marketing space I think I may have tallied up over 500 pitches and have been asked some interesting questions by my clients here are just a few:

  • Why do you want to win this work?
  • What was your last client win and why did you win it?
  • Who was your last client loss and why?
  • What are your business goals for the next year?
  • What do you wish you could do differently as an agency?
  • What size is your wine budget? (yes, really!)

106 Communications is a Student Marketing agency that helps Student brands transform their communications. We aim to inspire the next generation of talent with authentic storytelling and creative that speaks their language. If you would like to have an informal chat about our experience, our work and our approach please contact Jayne Cullen –

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