Making the most of agencies

Making the most of agencies
Expert advice

Making the most of agencies

Fundraising | 9 Oct 2009

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, charities are well placed to negotiate better deals from agencies, says Alison Cowan

It’s a tough market out there, and your first thoughts are probably not for the agencies that rely on corporate marketing budgets - usually the first spend to be cut in a recession.

Some agencies will survive by taking the usual recession steps of restructure, redundancies and increasing their use of freelance resources. Others will fold, even those with respected creative resource at the helm and a good body of work behind them. But, here’s the good news for charities: in this environment, as well as the ongoing need to win those big pitches, agencies are more than usually focused on softer wins such as good trade press PR.

There’s an increased need to demonstrate evidence of working with a wide mix of clients to show off their unique blend of creativity and strategic thinking to potential clients. A charity account can deliver these needs, even if many of us can’t promise the significant budgets of a big corporate client.

In the last few months at Missing People the fundraising and marketing team’s phones have been ringing every day with salespeople trying the “We’ve always been an ethically focused agency” sales pitch. Or:  “I’ve always been interested in the ‘missing’ issue and wondered if I could pop in to talk to you.” So how can charity fundraisers take advantage of the opportunities out there for the benefit of our beneficiaries, stakeholders and our bottom line?

Pitch perfect

If you understand what agencies want and know how best to work with them you can give yourself the best chance of turning that unexpected phone call into a real competitive advantage for both you and the lucky agency that gets to work on your cause.

As ever in our jobs, our cause is our biggest bargaining tool. From the first time you meet prospective suppliers your focus should be on getting them to love you and love your cause. It’s just as important for you to sell to them as it is for them to sell to you. Don’t be afraid to talk about your cause before you get into the nitty gritty of the work they’d be doing. If you can touch them emotionally with your cause - even make them cry - you can negotiate the best deal for your charity.

When it comes to picking an agency it’s best to keep conversations open and honest. Be clear about the context in which you work and what you want the outcomes of the partnership to be. What exactly is the agency needed for? Not all agencies have strategic strengths and not all agencies can deliver inspiring creative grounded in fact. Make sure the people you are talking to can provide evidence of having done what you need. The way in which the agency behaves in the early days will give you important clues as to how the relationship will pan out in the longer term. How do they talk to you? Are they condescending? Actively engaged with your cause.  Always too busy to talk? Do they deliver on their promises?

Other questions to ask are: What other charities have they worked with? Are you the only charity currently on their books? If you are the only charity client you should be able to get some pro bono projects along the way. Will they introduce you to their other clients? Think about the access an agency can offer to potential corporate partners and any introductions they could make to people with large marketing spend at their disposal.

If you have a reasonable budget to spend, a few prospective agencies and want more proof of suitability for your business you’ll need to hold some kind of pitch, but beware. The pitch process can be an exciting and inspiring rollercoaster for both parties, but don’t hold a beauty contest instead of having an honest chat with your incumbent agency. And don’t pitch because pitches are fun and you get to see loads of new ideas you might be able to pinch. If you waste agency time and money on a fake or woolly pitch process you will lose credibility both personally and for your charity. A reputation for being a bad client sticks and, like fundraisers, agency staff move around so you might end up working with people whose ideas you pinched at a later date in your career.

After picking and choosing

Once you’ve chosen your agency partner the induction process is crucial. Take maximum advantage of those exciting early days to get other internal stakeholders on board and to trust the agency. Winning people over is a key agency client service skill so take advantage of it if you have a tricky director or trustee to get on board.

Ask to spend time at the agency, try to understand how they work, what pressures are they under, what are the different aspects of their roles? It’s a great opportunity to pick up new learnings. Who are the key people you need to hang out with at the agency? Does your account really need the managing director and creative director working on it? Are they worth the extra cost per hour? What about using less experienced but cheaper creative staff who are keen to prove themselves?

A key area where you need to build trust is in your account management staff. It’s their job to liaise between you and the creative teams and you should treat them as your ally. Be realistic about the time they will need to develop new work. The agency has internal processes to follow and that takes time. If you know it will take ages to get something signed off internally at your end make sure you allow extra time up front in the schedule rather than squeezing agency production time at the last minute.

And always underestimate the available budget to the agency. Don’t expect them to allow for contingencies or remember to add on VAT. Creative people don’t always think about print costs, but someone at your agency will know how to print things in the cheapest but most effective manner. Use that knowledge and take the opportunity to learn those new skills. You can save your charity thousands of pounds on print and production if you learn the basics.

For some charity fundraisers working with an agency is the most exciting aspect of their role. When the relationship works well you can create exciting, challenging and eye-opening campaigns. And in the current climate that’s what we’re all looking for.

Alison Cowan is director of fundraising and marketing at Missing People

Richard Hick
Head of Legacy
20 Oct 2009

Very perceptive and positive advice.


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