Blog | Robert Davis 06.27.16

Improving the Ad Agency Test Drive

Three key steps for B2B marketers trying out new ad agency partners

n this post-agency of record era we live in, marketers are trying out new agencies with increasing frequency. Some are looking for fresh thinking about their brands; others want to augment in-house staff, platforms, and knowledge with outside expertise. And some just want to try a different partner. Consider: a Marketing Week survey found that only 8% of marketers were “highly satisfied” with their agencies.

While the press is full of stories about consumer brands experimenting with project-based agency relationships, you don’t hear as much about how B2B marketers are navigating  changing client-agency models. From our perspective as an ad agency serving B2B health and technology brands, things look pretty much the same. More projects, fewer retainers, and almost always lots of investments in internal marketing teams to execute our ideas on their in-house campaign platforms.

This is just the world we live in now. While we love the security that comes with a long-term retainer, we find ourselves thinking and talking a lot more about making the best of a project-based world – from understanding how our project fits into the client’s overall strategy, to maintaining enough margin to invest in the business. Following are a few ideas for how marketers can use projects as a way to try out different agencies, get the best value for their investments, and create short-term relationships that agencies will feel good about and want to invest in.

Planning to work new agencies into the mix? Try these strategies for success.

Cancel the spec pitch and focus on collaboration

From an agency’s perspective, marketers conducting full spec pitches for project work are trying to have it both ways. It’s no secret that agencies have to make up their investments in spec pitches over the course of time. Doing spec for a project pretty much dooms an agency to unprofitability. A better answer for both marketers and agencies is to recognize that in a new world where agencies need to jump in and get productive, effective collaboration is essential. Here’s how to change up the review process:








  • Forget the agency spec assignment as a way to judge creative capabilities. An agency’s portfolio and references should be enough to validate that they’re capable of the kind of creative work you’re looking for. You can always ask how old work is and if the people who worked on it are still at the agency.
  • Instead of asking for spec, pay a couple agencies a small amount to facilitate a consultative work session to see how they’d collaborate with your team to solve your business problem. You’ll save time and ultimately make a more informed decision about the right partner for you.


Give agencies a project that’s similar to the work you might want to give them in the long run

If you’re spreading out projects in order to get the best thinking from a variety of sources, the thankless slide deck that’s due next week is no way to judge an agency for their potential to help build your brand. If your larger agenda is to build the brand, consider finding a project – however modest – that lets your potential agency partner show you how they would think about building your brand.

Use a project to start building the kind of relationship you’d want to have with a trusted, long-term partner

With lots of little, short-turn projects, it’s easy to think of an agency as a tactical resource. Pigeonholing an agency that way pretty much dictates that that’s how they’ll work. Instead, I recommend over-investing in the kind of relationship that can lead to mutual success.










  • Establish a senior-level relationship between your marketing and agency leaders. Everyone benefits when communication happens at multiple levels.
  • Establish clear project metrics and help the agency understand how they support your overall brand and business strategies and objectives.
  • Integrate the agency team with your internal team and resources, including the business owner for the project. Outcomes get better when agencies can take advantage of your data, marketing platforms, and your team’s specific domain expertise.


By starting with the goal of establishing productive and respectful relationship, even project work can add value for your brand beyond the project itself. But there’s one more thing you probably should do: make sure your brand platform is designed to inspire the best work from your evolving mix of external and internal teams.

Building a platform to align teams and inspire great branding

Working with a rotating mix of partners is in many ways a reflection of the changeable environment brand marketers are faced with. A media mix increasingly made up of dynamic channels of engagement demands brand ideas that can be expressed with behavior, not just messaging. Innovative brand marketers are moving toward defining a brand role that expresses a behavioral arc for the brand, and defines a desired impact on the market that’s larger than their products, or a single ad campaign.

In a recent interview on PJA’s The Unconventionals, GE CMO Linda Boff talked about working with a range of agencies she describes as GE’s  “string of pearls” – each creating unique brand storytelling campaigns, and all aligned by GE’s brand role to foster invention. Notable examples range from the “Breakthrough” series on Nat Geo to hugely-successful social content series of six-second science experiments. The result: a broad, rich range of brand experiences that take advantage of each agency partner’s strengths, while collectively communicating the new face of the GE brand. Listen to the Unconventionals GE episode to learn more here.

Got a tip about effective client-agency relationships in a project-driven world? Let me know at @heyrobertdavis.


Discover more incredible stories of counter-intuitive moves that paid off big.


Never miss an episode.

Subscribe on iTunes now.


Brand for change

Life is too short to build an ordinary brand. Get ongoing perspectives on marketing that creates your highest value opportunities.