Finding the Right Agency for your Tourism Marketing, with Robin Boehler

Episode 116

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Robin Boehler is a co-founder of international management consulting firm, Mercer Island Group. Mercer Island group is a prominent global marketing management consulting firm helping clients and agencies solve a broad range of business problems from building business and tough competitive markets, to creating strategic roadmaps, and matching the right clients and agencies for productive relationships, to name a few. Robin’s unique ability to work with teams and help improve organizational productivity is the direct result of an eclectic background, including her degree in human development and family studies from Cornell University, several years of experience in elementary education, plus training and team building experiences across a myriad of industries, and extensive volunteerism experiences. She is a frequent speaker having presented and keynoted at events sponsored by the BMA, the four A’s, AMI, and others. On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Robin Boehler about her wealth of experience in starting and maintaining vital client/agency relationships. How do you uncover what you need from a marketing agency or PR firm and finding the right fit? Robin’s wealth of experience and knowledge is on full display in this can’t miss episode.  

Things to Consider When Choosing an Agency Partners

If you think you are not big enough for an agency to want to work with you, think again. Travel and tourism business is a desirable category for both regional and national marketing agencies. How do you find an agency to work with? Robin’s advice is to start with introspection. Know your organization and what you need before you start looking at your next agency relationship. Know why you need an agency. What are you trying to solve? The reason that’s important is you need to know what business results you think will be improved by hiring an agency. Figuring out the right fit may take some time, but hopefully, you and this agency will be in it for the long haul. Take your time.

Network Your Way to a Good List

You don’t want to automatically go with the first agency you meet. Find out what they are like and what their strengths are and see if that fits with your needs. Do you need a good media buyer? Help with social media? Good creative? Whatever the scope of work, Robin suggests starting with a list of 20 and meeting with at least 5 before making a final decision on who to work with. The goal is to take the mystery out of how this relationship is going to work. This isn’t a commodity that you’re buying. You’re buying strategic intelligent, creative assets from a group of people who will be thinking partners with you.


Nicole Mahoney: 00:19 Hello listeners. This is Nicole Mahoneyy, host of destination. On the left. I am passionate about travel and tourism and love learning from the experiences of professionals in the industry, and that is why I’m so excited to introduce today’s guest, Robin Boehler. Robin is co founder of international management consulting firm, Mercer Island Group. Mercer island group is a prominent global marketing management consulting firm helping clients and agencies solve a broad range of business problems from building business and tough competitive markets, creating strategic roadmaps, matching the right clients and agencies for productive relationships, launching new products and businesses, and enhancing organizational effectiveness as the number six market share from an agency. Searches in the US. Mercer Island Group has managed hundreds of agency searches and relationships for businesses of all sizes and types. Robin’s unique ability to work with teams and help improve organizational productivity is the direct result of an eclectic background, including her degree in human development and family studies from Cornell University, several years of experience in elementary education plus training and team building experiences across a myriad of industries and extensive volunteerism experiences.

Nicole Mahoney: 01:41 Robin is active in her community and brings her leadership and strategy expertise to many nonprofit boards and organizations. She is actively served on over two dozen local and national nonprofit boards over the past 25 years. Robin’s volunteer work has been recognized with many accolades such as Cornell University’s outstanding volunteerism award being named, a wexner heritage foundation scholar receiving the Spitzer young leadership award and recognition and appreciation of outstanding service from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. The surely bridge power of one award and the Lcs Strom Women of Distinction Award. Robin is a frequent speaker having presented and keynoted at events sponsored by the BMA, the four a’s, Ami and others. Thank you for joining me today. Robin. My pleasure. Thanks for having me and listeners. We have a real treat for you today because this episode is going to be a little bit different than a regular episodes with Robin’s background and, and what she brings us in her knowledge of that agency brand relationship. We’re really going to take some time and explore how we can work better with agencies, uh, as, as organizations. And so my hope for today’s episode is that our listeners will learn the best way to find, evaluate and work with an agency

Robin Boehler: 03:00 partner. And I think this is going to be a great conversation. Um, but robin, before we get started, you have an impressive background and I love that you went to Cornell University, which is right here in my neck of the woods, but I would love for you to tell us your story in your own words because I find it just adds so much more context to our conversation. Sure. You know, my story is, um, it’s, it’s an unplanned journey, um, where I kind of, um, you know, people often say that walking is just really falling forward. Um, and you catch yourself with each step. And I feel like my journey, especially regarding my career has been kind of falling forward and seeing where it takes me and just landing wherever I go and figuring out how to make, um, make something great out of whatever it is I’m doing.

Robin Boehler: 03:47 And so, um, after I left college and went to graduate school and then became a teacher, I had my children and stayed home for a little while when I went back to work after my youngest got to kindergarten, when I went to back to work for pay, I should say, um, I didn’t really want to teach other people’s kids again. Um, it was not that I didn’t love education. I did, it was fabulous position. But I, I wanted to do something a little bit different. And I was presented. I, I did a tremendous amount of volunteer work all through those years. And through my volunteer work I was on many, many lists. And I got this opportunity to be involved in adult education in the state of Washington and do training at the, um, at the business level. And I jumped at the chance when an interviewed wondered if I’d get hired and did and one thing led to another and that job led to the next job and the next year or the next job.

Robin Boehler: 04:39 And I was doing most of my work in the nonprofit and in the public sector. And um, I loved it because I felt like I was helping to change the world just a little bit. And that felt good each day going to work and helping people who work in the welfare system. People who are police officers. I work with police officers for awhile, um, all different kinds of public servants and it felt really good to be participating. And um, when I finished my last job in the public sector, my husband, who was a consultant with procter and gamble background, I’m a consultant in the business sector, said, you know, what you’re doing, we could translate into the business sector. Come now that our kids are older, let’s come work together. And it was like a dream come true. Who gets to do that? And um, because we really like each other. So I started to move into that space with him, we’d always help each other on projects, but before I knew it, um, the, I, I was full time working with him on projects with different kinds of businesses and agencies and clients and doing strategic work and human resources work and matchmaking between clients and agencies and all our, everything started to come together and we had a different skill set from one another and we were able to kind of make one and one equal three and

Nicole Mahoney: 05:58 that’s kind of my story. It’s not anything that was planned, but it was more, I guess opportunistic at every stage and being open to the possibilities that were around me and being willing to take a risk every now and then. And in most cases it worked out pretty well. Uh, that’s, that’s awesome. And I love how you opened that up with, you know, walking is falling forward with every step. I think that’s such a great. Such a great example of exactly what you just described, but also I think that that resonates with just about anyone, right? That’s, that’s how the journey works. You are falling forward with every step and I think that’s, that’s really awesome and that you get to work with your husband and you like each other. That’s even more of a bonus. It is. Well, that’s fantastic. Well, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know you because of a agency management institute, which is a organization that I belong to you and I have had the pleasure of being in a few of your workshops and having some hands on training from you and your team and so I know that our listeners are going to get a lot out of this conversation.

Nicole Mahoney: 07:06 I know there’ll be a lot of notes that they can take and a lot of things that they can put into action and, and I’m really looking forward to diving in and learning from all of your experience. Um, so let’s just get this conversation started and, and as you and I discussed in our preinterview chat, um, a lot of our listeners, you know, they’re there from the tourism industry in one way or another. They could be a marketing director working for a museum or a nonprofit cultural institution. They could be a marketing director or even a CEO, a destination marketing organization, or they could actually be a business owner that is actively participating in the tourism industry there they own a brewery or a winery or perhaps a BNB b that, you know, there’s all different types of businesses that are in this industry, but one of the things that I think a number of them all have in common is trying to figure out how do I mark it and how do I get help, um, to, to market.

Nicole Mahoney: 08:09 So I’m hoping that you can kind of start us out by talking a little bit about if you are one of our listeners who is thinking that they need some help in their marketing, they think they want to hire an agency. They’re really at square one. What are some of the first things that they should be thinking about as they start to seek out an agency partner? That’s a great question. Um, so there’s, uh, a variety of things. The first thing I should say is that, um, all of the categories that you described are very appealing categories for, um, particularly for small regional agencies and the, um, what I mean by small regional agencies, our agencies under 100 people and staff typically sometimes under 50 even that

Robin Boehler: 08:56 primarily do their work and work with clients that are within a certain radius of their, of where they are a and it’s a day trip, a short plane flight or even a drive. And those agencies are experts in their region. They know the target audience in the region, um, and they, they’re bread and butter comes from a, a list of categories and industries like, um, like the one we’re talking about here is, is one of the very desirable categories for regional agency. So I want to say that first. So in case anyone was thinking, no one would want to work with us, it’s, that’s completely not true. There are many agencies that would love to have pieces of business in the spaces that we just, that you’ve enumerated. So that’s the first thing. Um, if you are a winery or a bed and breakfast or a museum or any of the categories that you mentioned, Nicole, the first and most important thing that a client should do before they look for an agency is know why you want an agency.

Robin Boehler: 10:07 I think it will just say, okay, we need marketing help. Let’s hire an agency. And they go and start looking for agencies. And I don’t think that’s the best way to start. I think you need to do a fair amount of introspection before you jump into your google search or your networking to ask people if they have anybody that they would recommend. And the reason that’s important is you need to know as a marketing director or as a ceo or whoever you are inside of, uh, of, uh, any business that we’re discussing. You need to know what business results you think will be improved by hiring an agency. And the reason that’s important is that it’s going to determine what kind of agency you hire. So what, in other words, what business issues do you have that you think a hiring an agency will help solve?

Robin Boehler: 10:54 So if it’s that you have, um, issues with, uh, image than you might be looking for a PR agency, if you feel like you have issues with driving attendance, then you might be looking for a marketing or advertising agency that understands how to drive traffic. If your issue is, um, you need to introduce a new offering or a new product, then you want some kind of an agency that has those skills and capabilities. So that’s why I think that introspection is the first most important step that a business should take before they dive in to start looking for a marketing partner. An agency. Yeah. I think, um, I think that’s really great advice and I love how you’re starting there. Um, you know, instead of just kind of, I know I need marketing help, I think marketing is going to help me. I’m just going to kind of find and talk to as many people as I can talk to and see what kind of referrals I get without actually understanding what it is that you’re looking for.

Robin Boehler: 11:52 Um, so I think that introspection is, is so important. But I have a question though, robin, when you’re doing an introspection and you’re, you’re thinking about, um, I think you had said what business results do you think would be improved? Can you kind of help our listeners get some context around that? Because what if they are thinking, well, I need Pr. That’s really not what we’re asking, right? You’re getting beyond that. That’s more of the tactic that’s not really getting at what you’re talking about. Exactly. So the question I would ask, if someone came to me and said, hey, I need a PR agency, I would say, I would ask why? So what, what would a PR agency do for you? What’s going on in the company right now where you feel like you need help with something? So is, is it because you want to get your name out there more?

Robin Boehler: 12:36 Is it because you have an issue that you need someone to a crisis of some kind or that you anticipate you could have a crisis of some kind and you know, you need someone who might be able to manage that. Is it because you are, um, you’re doing a grand opening and you think pr is the only way to get the attention that you need? So understanding why, why do you think you need a PR agency? What’s happening in the company where you’re thinking a PR agency would make a difference for you being able to understand that you might be right, it might be a PR agencies in exactly the right solution, especially if it’s crisis management for an example as an example. But, um, but it might, if grand opening is what it is. Well, let’s talk about that a little bit because maybe it’s not pr that you need.

Robin Boehler: 13:17 Maybe it’s actually an I’m an ad agency that can help you with grand openings that has a special expertise there. Maybe as a media agency that can help you make the right buys in the right geographies for that grand opening or someone who could do both. So yes, it’s, it’s more than just I, I know I need an agency. Let’s look at media agencies will may, why always ask why, what are we hoping to achieve by this and how will we know that the agency was successful? That’s the question to ask yourself. Even on the upfront, if we have this agency, what will happen here that’s better than today and I know that it sounds like it’s kind of a. people just want the steps of how to find the right agency, the five steps to finding your ad agency. There’s all kinds of articles all over the Internet on that.

Robin Boehler: 14:07 If you don’t start with the first part that I’m suggesting, you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure for all the other steps. Absolutely. You have to have that needs assessment done, so ask yourself why. Ask Yourself, how will we know that the agency was successful? Are there other questions that will help you get at that deeper understanding? Well, what are the kpis going to be? How are you going to measure success and how how the business measure success at once? Once you’ve got an agency on board, I think it’s also important to ask yourself, how much are we willing to share with an agency so when if we’re going to go out and and we’re going to look for a marketing partner, an agency partner, are we willing to show what we’ve done already? Are we willing to share what we’ve spent in in that space up til now?

Robin Boehler: 14:57 Or do we understand what budgets we have? Don’t go looking for a partner and when they ask how much budget you have, say, well, we actually don’t have any budget for this because no one’s coming to work for you for free. So even if you’re a nonprofit, agencies have to be able to make their payroll and so while some agencies will take on a pro bono client now and then you shouldn’t expect. If you’re a nonprofit, and I’ve done a lot of work in the nonprofit space, you shouldn’t expect. If you’re a nonprofit that an agency will do pro bono work for you. You should expect to pay fair market value for the work that they do for you. And so you need to know in advance what kind of budget you might have, because that will also help determine what kind of an agency you’re looking for.

Robin Boehler: 15:38 If you’re your budget small, you’re likely to be more successful with a smaller agency. So all of those questions are things that you need to think about in advance of getting onto google and searching for agency, for museums, right? Or whatever it is that you’d put into that search box. You need to be able to be prepared to share what you’ve done and share what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and share some assets and data and you can absolutely have agency sign an NDA before you do that so that everything is, um, is protected, but they can’t respond well to your needs unless they understand where you’ve been. And that means you’ve got to do that work upfront. Right? Absolutely. Um, so as you’re getting organized, before you start that Google search or start to reach out, um, you know, it, what does that look like?

Robin Boehler: 16:28 Is there a one sheet that you might prepare or how, how do you get organized so that you know, um, you know, how to direct your first conversation? Yeah, that’s a great question. And there are a few things that you should probably have on paper before you begin. So you should have in your head what you think a scope of work would look like. In other words, what capabilities are you expecting this agency to have? Do they have to be able to buy media? Do they have to be able to do creative work? Do they have to be able to do production? Do they have to be able to do digital and social? Um, what are the things that you’re expecting them to be able to do for you? It doesn’t mean that you have to know the exact scope of work. I know a lot of companies and organizations that are on the smaller side will say, well, we need an agency to tell us what the scope of work is.

Robin Boehler: 17:15 And that’s very much might be true. Uh, and so I don’t want to discount that, but upfront, before you begin, you should have an idea of what capabilities you think you’re gonna be able to lean in against. So if you’re thinking, you know, we have social covered inside our organization, then you can take that off the list. But if you’re thinking, oh my gosh, we can’t possibly handle the social, we just don’t have enough staffers here to be able to handle the social, a social marketing campaign than social would be a capability you would look for. And the reason that’s important is not all agencies are good at. So you want to know what that was, the capabilities is in advance that you’re going to, you think you might need. And I, I leave it vague because a great agency, a great agency partner will be able to say to you to reach your business goals.

Robin Boehler: 18:03 I actually don’t think you should spend money here. I think you should spend money there. Um, and so the open to the idea that the agency after thinking strategically about your business issue might propose a different set of tactics than what you originally considered, but at least have something to work from as you start to screen agencies. I think you also should determine what I call your wants, which is do you want someone in your, in your local, near you. And for many of the kinds of organizations that we’re talking about, having someone that’s fairly local actually makes a lot of sense, um, because they understand the target audience probably a little bit better. And if you’re a regional brand than having a regional agency, a local agency makes a lot of sense having, if you’re working in upstate New York as where you, where you are, where I went to college, hiring a, an agency from California doesn’t make a lot of sense, right?

Robin Boehler: 19:00 If, if you’re offering isn’t going to draw people from California isn’t going to sales to people in California. Having an agency spending that kind of money on travel back and forth and having to get them to understand the culture of the region. That doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I totally rule it out in case the right partner is somewhere else, but I think it would be one of those things that would be an important consideration. Size matters to do. You want a small agency that where you’re going to have the principal’s working on your business. That’s a very appealing, um, element in terms of working with smaller agencies, especially for the kinds of clients we’re talking about. Many clients who maybe are working in a winery now and they used to work for a big spirits from, let’s say in New York City a few years ago, but now they’re, they’re in upstate New York and they are making wine, um, that they have their own winery are thinking, oh, I used to work with these big agencies.

Robin Boehler: 19:53 Um, and they’ve got so much bench strength. That’s why I love them. Well, that’s true. They do have bench strength, but who’s going to run your account? If you’re a small piece of business, you’re likely going to be, um, have a more junior team. So those are all things to think about. Um, and cultural fit, what will the right agency feel like? Is it going to be a hard charging group of people that are going to push you and stretch your thinking and I’m bring you solutions that, that nobody in your, in your company ever thought of and actually are a little uncomfortable. That’s very appealing to some people. And for others it’s, I want someone who feels like us. I want someone who will blend perfectly into our culture. So there’s no right or wrong answer to this one. I have to be clear that this really is completely subjective, but you should think about it in advance because there are some firms that you might go on their website and take a look and it just doesn’t feel right, but you’re not sure why. And I’m having this kind of thought out in advance can help identify that.

Nicole Mahoney: 20:55 Absolutely. You have just given so many really great things to think about and made so many good points. I’m furiously taking notes here. I’m sure our listeners are as well. Um, I do want to just back up a little bit and ask you about the, um, the regional agency and um, I, I do understand exactly what you’re talking about him and why that would be helpful. Um, but I do know some of our listeners work with some New York City based PR firms a lot in the destination marketing industry in particular because that’s where a lot of the media outlets are and that’s where those relationships are built. And I’m wondering if you have any advice on how they should be thinking about whether or not that is a right fit for them looking for that type of a relationship.

Robin Boehler: 21:47 Well, if you already have that relationship and it’s working, then yeah, it’s great and you should keep it. Pr is a little bit of a different animal than everything else. Um, because pr is a very distinct discipline and relationships with media is everything in the PR world. So it’s a little bit different than everything else. So having a New York based firm for a smaller brand is okay if you, if you feel that you’re getting the right attention. And so for anyone who’s listening and that Has New York based firm and you’re happy, I’m certainly not suggesting you should rethink that relationship, but if you’re not happy or you don’t have a pr firm, I would consider looking at both so you can feel the difference and meet with local PR firms because if you’re, if the media placement that you need is local, local pr firms will have the relationships that you need.

Robin Boehler: 22:38 Whereas if you need national pr for whatever it is that you’re doing, if you’re a winery for instance, and you’re thinking, you know what, maybe it will be local for a while, but our hope is that at some point we’ll be expanding our footprint than maybe a, um, a larger pr firm that can expand with you or can, uh, absorb your, your expansion might make a whole lot of sense. So it depends upon what your footprint is, if you will, or where your target audiences. So Pr is a little bit of a different animal. But, um, if you’re local and you’re thinking that most of the media you’re going to buy or most of the outlets that you want to run stories in are going to be local press, then a local pr firm is probably a better bet.

Nicole Mahoney: 23:19 Absolutely. That’s great. Thank you for that. So we’ve done this, a introspection, we’ve prepared some of these bullet points and, and kind of thought through, uh, you know exactly what we’re looking for, what capabilities we might be looking for, what size agency we might want, um, and all of that. And now what we go to the Google, we go to our top 25 lists and our business journal. How do you get the conversation

Robin Boehler: 23:46 started and how many conversations do I really need to have? Well, before you have any conversations, um, what you should do is, um, talk to people who have hired agencies that are already in your industry and find out who they’ve used. Um, so, so you want to network your way to a good list and, um, and, and of course use, use the Internet to find small agencies in, in your region. Agencies who specialize in the wine industry, agencies who specialize in the tourism industry, it’s just start searching. It’s all out there. And create a list. Create a list of 10 more than 10, 20, at least I would say agencies that can show up as possible, agencies for what you’re looking for, and then spend time looking at their websites or talking to people that you know, to see a couple of things. Number one, are they conflicted.

Robin Boehler: 24:44 That’s the first screen of all. So if you are, um, a, a museum in upstate New York and there an agency that’s working with another museum in upstate New York that likely will be considered a conflict. And um, it’s very possible that that current client may not want that agency to work for you. So the first thing you need to do is make sure that you’re looking at agencies that are not conflicted. So you’ll scratch off anyone who is conflicted and that’s the first round. And then you’ll start looking at their capabilities. Remember I said you’re going to make this list of your needs that you have, who can do work? Who has the capability to do the kind of work you think you need? Um, and then you’ll also take a field, take a look at the leadership of the agency, um, who you know is, is it led by people who, um, have been in the business for awhile and what are their past clients?

Robin Boehler: 25:37 Take a look at their client list. Does it seem that they are working for clients that are similar to, to you take a look at their case studies, have they solved problems for other clients that are similar to the problem you need solved? So for instance, if, um, if uh, attendance is what you’re looking for, we need to grow our attendance for our, whether it’s a hotel or a bed and breakfast or a tourism site of any kind in amusement park, anything you want, we want to grow attendance or visits. Look for someone who has done that for others. Someone who’s grown attendance or foot traffic for others. If it’s that we need to do grand openings because we’re going to open a new location of something. Look for agencies that have case studies that say that they’ve done that. If you’re introducing new products, same thing, right?

Robin Boehler: 26:24 So I’m in all of these cases, those, the case studies that are on an agency’s website are really important because it gives you a view into what kind of work that they’ve done. Uh, and then I would narrow the list to 10, no more than 10, and then you can, um, in, in order of the ones that you like, you can then start having conversations. If you don’t want to do a formal rfi, which is a big chunk of work. If you want to just have conversations, just start may have meetings with the first five that are on your list. See how it feels. You can invite them to you. You can go to them and especially if they’re local, these are things you can do over even lunch and get to know them, see if it’s a good chemistry fit and then begin to work through what you’re thinking you need and how they might be able to solve the problems that you have or take advantage of the opportunities that you, that are in front of you.

Robin Boehler: 27:17 I’m not, everything has to be through a formal RFI or RFP process. That’s a bit of a different story. But if you’re just looking to find a partner to work with without going through a whole big formal procurement type process, this is um, this is a good way to do it. Yeah, I think, um, I think that’s a really good strategy on, you know, how to, how to narrow list. I love what you said about networking your way to a good list and, and also, you know, you’re still doing it quite a bit of homework before you get to that first conversation. So yes. Yeah. And I, it sounds like that’s going to make everything a lot more efficient and a lot of set it up for better success in the end. Right, right. Well, the thing is you don’t want to have a conversation with one without knowing who the next nine might be.

Robin Boehler: 28:03 And then fall in love with number one when number two, three, four, five is actually the, um, the right, the right fit for you. So, you know, you almost want to make a commitment that you’re going to meet at least three or you’re going to meet at least five, um, so that you don’t meet one and just go. You want to see what’s out there, see what the differences are between one agency in another. Because there are, they are very different. Every agency has its own personality, has its own strengths and weaknesses, has its own, uh, take a look at the creative work that they’ve done. If they creative agencies is something you even like, like does it creative appeal to you? Is it within your creative sensibility? Take a look at what they’ve done in terms of buying media. Um, what kind of results have they gotten?

Robin Boehler: 28:47 Is that the kind of results that you’re expecting? So all of that you want to, you want to not want to take this kind of an overall view before you jump in and start having conversations. Absolutely. And so what are, what are some of the next steps after we get past the conversation stage? Say say there’s maybe two or three that we feel comfortable with. We haven’t fallen, fallen in love with the one yet, what should we be expecting from that, from the agency at that point? Well, if you, if you’re down to two or three and you really want to be able to compare them apples to apples, I would suggest giving them a business challenge to solve. So for instance, saying to them, okay, we’re going to be off, we’re going to be introducing a new line of products. If you’re a winery, we’re going to be, um, we’re going to introduce a riesling or we’re going to introduce a chardonnay or we’re going to end, how would you go about doing this?

Robin Boehler: 29:40 Um, and ask them, um, you know, defined for them, your target audience defined for them, your competition, give them a background on your brand and a lot of information about the product and ask them to come back to you with a plan for how they might introduce that so that way you could compare two or three firms against the same kind of business challenge and that’s a really great way to, um, and you can do it in writing, but if you’re down to two or three, having them come to you to present how they would do that actually is a much stronger connection for you in a much stronger basis from which to make a decision. Then if you have them submit to you just in writing. Absolutely. And, and you know, what I love about that approach is I think what you’re helping us do right here is take some of the mystery out of how this relationship starts.

Robin Boehler: 30:32 Because, um, you know, as you said that in person, my head just went to, well sure, if I were hiring somebody to be an employee in my business, right? There would be this in person interview, um, where we would vet them. It wouldn’t just be, you know, a written resume, for example, and this is the same kind of thing, right? You’re, you’re, if you’re, especially if you’re hiring an agency to work with you on an ongoing basis, this now really is kind of, you know, you’re getting married here. If this is just for a project, even for that period of time, these people will be an extension of your staff. Uh, you hope, right? So you want to make sure that this feels right. You wouldn’t hire even on the temporary basis to run a project in your company that you didn’t vet carefully. So it’s the same idea.

Robin Boehler: 31:15 Yeah, absolutely. So, robin, you mentioned earlier, um, rfas and rfps and I do know that some of our listeners are required to use those tools. I’m given everything that you’ve shared so far. It sounds to me like everything you’ve shared so far would still work and would be that upfront homework that you would do. But do you have other, um, you know, other things that they should be thinking about if they’re needing to follow a different process? Yeah. So if you, if you’re working through procurement for instance, or you’re needing to release an RFI and an RFP, you still have to do all this stuff that I said upfront. So when we run our [inaudible] and RFPS for clients, we start with interviews of all the stakeholders, the people who would work with the agency as well as the people who would be evaluating whether or not the agency is delivering a return on investment that we can agree to.

Robin Boehler: 32:13 So that way we have upfront. Everybody gets to weigh in on what their expectations are, what they’re looking for, how they would measure success. And then we create a, like a one page needs assessment document that says, okay, this is what you, the client have agreed to, we are looking for. And I think that should happen even if it’s an internally run rfi or RFP, someone should be the point person inside the company that’s gathering points of view from around the company. The important points of view. So whether it’s a, um, someone who’s a product manager or if it’s someone who is, I’m the chief operating officer every, every organization and company is different. I never worked with the same exact group of stakeholders twice. So whoever the important people are, especially the people who will be working with the from day to day, they have to have a say in this.

Robin Boehler: 33:05 That’s important. Someone should run point to gather all that information and create that needs assessment and, and start with that. The other thing that I have to say because I’ll feel bad later if I don’t, is that sometimes procurement, lead searches are run by people who understand how to procure things for your organization that are based on getting the best price. So for instance, a paper or um, pipes or um, transportation, all different kinds of procured services or products for a company are not the same as procuring a marketing services partner. Yeah, that’s a really good point. Very different. And I know this because I’ve worked with procurement every day and sometimes I work with procurement folks who understand that it’s different and sometimes I work with a procurement person who’s fairly new to an organization and as never worked on an agency search or services kind of search of any kind and they’re just thinking, let’s just drive to the lowest price.

Robin Boehler: 34:08 And that’s not the way to evaluate an agency. You want to evaluate the return on investment and whether or not they can solve your problem. This isn’t a commodity that you’re buying. You’re buying strategic intelligent, creative assets from a group of people who are gonna be thinking partners with you and you can’t put a price on that the same way that you can paper. So this is very important. If you’re running a procurement, run a search to make sure that your procurement folks know or can have access to someone who knows how to procure marketing services. That’s a great point. And if you’re running an RFI or an RFP, um, through some sort of a procurement process, but the evaluation might come down to perhaps there’s a committee committee of the stakeholders that’s, that’s evaluating the proposals. Um, how, how can you set that committee up best for success?

Robin Boehler: 35:04 Is it that needs assessment and in the front end, are there other things that can help that? Well, it absolutely is a needs assessment of the front end. So everyone on the committee should sign off in some fashion, a nod in some way. Yes, this is what we’re looking for and we’re going to evaluate agencies against that needs assessment. So if someone’s taking, what I really want is someone who can do radio, but radio is not on this list. We’re not evaluating against radio unless we all agree to add it. So everyone’s agreed to look for the same thing. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, I have to say that making a decision by committee is very difficult. I know this is cultural insight organization. Some organizations are much more collaborative than others, but at the end of any decision making process at the beginning of any decision making process and at the end everyone should know who the final decision maker is.

Robin Boehler: 35:53 There should be someone who owns the final decision in case you can’t come to consensus. Someone has to be able to make a decision so everyone should know what their role is. Is My role to be a con? You know, just someone here who’s there for information. I because I’m the it person and we need to make sure that whatever they’re proposing digitally works with our systems. Then that’s my role and I’m going to comment on that. If it’s that I am, I’m going to work with them day to day, but I know I’m not the decision maker. I’m going to give my input into whether or not I think these would be people I would want to work with and whether or not I think they’d be helpful too to our company, but there has to be someone who is the final arbiter. What?

Robin Boehler: 36:36 Because what happens if you can’t come to consensus and everyone should know who that person is upfront and it’s a little bit of a dicey controversial subject and in some cases that person never has to assert any authority because the group comes to a consensual decision or consensus based decision and then it all works beautifully, but sometimes it doesn’t. Right? Absolutely. I mean, I think that’s just a wonderful advice and um, that everybody understands what their role is and that you have that kind of end game in mind. If we can’t come to consensus, what you know, who is going to make that decision, I think that’s really great. So, um, we are having such a great conversation and I’ve got a couple more questions I want to ask you before, uh, before we close out and one is, um, what are some, and you just kind of describe a few, but what are some of the pitfalls that can happen when choosing an agency?

Robin Boehler: 37:30 What are some of the things that you see go wrong? The two things that go wrong the most. I mean, assuming that we did everything upfront properly, we’ll just assume that if you did all that stuff up from properly, you won’t have any of the pitfalls because if you don’t do those things that we just talked about the needs assessment and knowing what you’re looking for and all of that, that that’s the biggest pitfall. So let’s assume that we’ve got that covered. So what are other things that could go wrong if you’ve done all your homework and you’ve done everything properly up front. Number one is people fall in love with creative and um, that’s not how you should choose an agency in a pitch because real creative happens when a client and an agency work together. A real media plan. The final media plan doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Robin Boehler: 38:11 During a pitch. A pitch is a bit of an unnatural act. You have some people describe it as one hand clapping. You have one group working in isolation trying to propose solutions to the other group for their evaluation without participating in the iterations that naturally happen when a client or an agency work together. So there no media plan that comes out of a media agency that doesn’t have many iterations back and forth between client and agency. There’s no creative that gets produced without iterations, back and forth between client and agency. But in a pitch here, we have this unnatural act of an agency preparing their solutions in a vacuum alone, away from the client. And so sometimes a client will hit it out of the park and bring this beautiful creative and the a or the agency will bring beautiful Caribbean. They have client will fall in love without looking at everything else along the way.

Robin Boehler: 39:05 And so just don’t get, don’t get blinded by shiny objects, evaluate everything that you’re seeing against your needs assessment, um, creative that is, that is meaningful to you matters, but it should not be everything. Another pitfall or pitch teams, make sure that the people who are presenting to you are the people you’re going to actually work with as opposed to the top of the agency organization. And then you’re never going to see those people again. And that’s particularly true with larger agencies. So if everybody has a, you know, if it’s a larger agency, 100 people or more and you’re a smaller piece of business and they bring their chief creative officer and their chief strategy officer, those people are likely not going to work on your business. Make sure that you ask for the day to day people who are actually going to be your team or are likely to be your team that can, oh, agency doesn’t always know, but who would likely be your team so you can get a feel for do I think this person is smart and is this an account person I’d want to work with on a day to day basis versus this shiny group?

Robin Boehler: 40:06 That’s a really good at at presenting. And the final thing that I think is most important is not evaluating an agency against strategy. What I tell my clients as we’re about to go into the room to see pitches is as you’re looking at these three or four agencies, choose the group of people who you think have thought the most about and understand your business and can it be a thinking partner for you? And with you people who seem to understand the business situation that you’re in seem to understand your target audience seemed to understand your competition, has seemed to understand your brand and can bring you insights that are things you might not have thought of without them in the room. That’s what you’re actually buying within an agency. You’re not buying creative. You’re not buying a digital ad. You’re not buying a social post.

Robin Boehler: 40:59 Those are the tactics. Those are the ways that great thinking gets executed. What you’re buying. If you do this right, a great thinking partners, and that’s the biggest mistake that clients make when they’re hiring an agency is they’re not looking for that deep strategy. Creative will come later. They wouldn’t be in the room if you hadn’t already validated that they can do creative work or do media plans or do good pr or do good social posts. You did that already in your first, you know, look through as to which agencies you even wanted to talk to, but who’s going to be the people that you want to have sitting around when you have the biggest, gnarliest Harry, his problem to solve. It’s like, let’s get these people in the room because they’re going to help us figure it out. That’s what you’re,

Nicole Mahoney: 41:41 that’s what you’re paying for. That’s really great because, um, you know, I think you’re right, that know you see that shiny object, right? And you’re attracted to that and you kind of forget about all of these other evaluating pieces. Um, and, and I think that, um, that’s such a great point is this is a lot, especially because a longterm relationship, um, that you want that thinking partner. Um, and to make sure that, that bells right, it’s, uh, it’s all chemistry, right? Part of it’s chemistry is that right? A lot of it’s chemistry because if you’re in the room with people and you’re thinking, God, if I had to talk to her everyday, I’d kill myself. You probably not. You’re right. That’s right. Which is back to why we want them in person. Right? And then the room. Exactly. So Robin, I’d like to have you, I want to divert from our questions, uh, for a brief moment and have you just talk about how mercer island group or how agencies search firms help clients because I’m sure some of our listeners might be a little bit aware of agency search firms, but some of them might not be.

Nicole Mahoney: 42:41 So can you just spend a few minutes and talk a little bit about how agencies search firms help brands and clients?

Robin Boehler: 42:48 Yes, certainly. Um, what we do at our agency search firms do is everything that we’ve been talking about here. So this is a lot of work. What we’ve done, what I’m describing to you is it is a lot of work and in most cases my experience is that marketers have plates that are completely full to begin with. And now you add this to someone’s plate. Um, this becomes a gigantic work pill and a huge project to manage for an individual inside of an organization. And so what we do is we come in and we manage that for you, for a client. Um, we, um, we do all those interviews, we create that needs assessment. We do all the research on which agencies might be able to fit the bill. And, um, I mean we track over a thousand agencies so much of this. If, when I sit down with a client for a new new search, I always have ideas in mind as soon as they described their issues and their problems.

Robin Boehler: 43:41 And we do that needs assessment. I have a list that comes to my mind because I, that’s where I’m spending most of my time everyday is thinking about these kinds of things so I can come up with that list. But we always do original research for every search. And the reason we do original research is the landscape. The agency landscape changes so rapidly. So an agency that was here today is gone tomorrow and agency that wasn’t here today, wasn’t here yesterday, is here today to agencies over here merged. Um, uh, somebody has new offerings that they didn’t use to have because they acquired someone or, or, or there’s so many changes. So what we always, we also might not know who’s hot, who might have hired a new CEO or who might have hired our new creative person who’s changed the whole game for that agency.

Robin Boehler: 44:23 So we want to see what their current work is, you know, an agency who didn’t have a really good real two years ago might have a really great meal now because they had some really clients and between. So we do original research every time as well. And then what we do is we score those agencies against the needs assessment. Um, and usually it’s three consultants on our side and we kind of look. So if you needed, how are they on the capabilities, do they have case studies to show what you know, that they can solve the same problems that you had. And then we bring back this very complete deck that says, okay, here is everyone we looked at, here’s what we recommend is the top 10. And then we, um, we run an RFI process where we write a request for information, get it out to all those agencies, they sign an NDA with us and we get it out to them.

Robin Boehler: 45:08 It comes back, we manage all the phone calls, all of the, I mean, we recommended I should actually back up and say we recommend 10 agencies, but the client always chooses the agencies that they want to see. It’s often our recommendation, but sometimes it’s not because they don’t agree with what we said they liked. They liked number 12, but the number nine and you know, it’s, it’s up to them. And so we manage all that entire process. We score all those rfid, we post them, the clients sometimes reads every word, sometimes read enough reads nothing. Um, it just depends on the client group and we then recommend which three or four should come in for a, um, uh, the for that final visit that we’ve talked about. And we, we designed that RFP as well. Uh, we will recommend which final for the client chooses the final four, where there, for those pitches, we run them all the logistics for those we set up q and a calls.

Robin Boehler: 45:59 We do a scope of work exercise where we can see how the costing is coming out. Are we within budgets? Uh, we have the red line and MSA if that’s important to do. And um, we run that whole process and help the client get to a final decision. We help to coordinate that decision at the end, which is why I feel so confident saying you should have a final decision maker because sometimes you sit in a room with 12 people and you know, they swirl around. So, um, so we help get to that final choice and uh, hopefully we make the perfect match. That’s fabulous. I, I’m wondering what size, um, client, if I’m a listener, I’m thinking I might need this help because my plate is full. Is there a certain type of engagement that lends itself better to an agency search firm versus trying to do something in house?

Robin Boehler: 46:51 You know, it depends on budget. So, um, we’ve done huge, huge searches, 70, I’m $70, million dollars or you know, many, many millions of dollars in fees. So for um, for big, big firms, big companies like sprint for instance, we rented a big search for them and that’s a big agency fee, right? But that’s the more unusual. We also have run searches for firms that are looking to spend $700,000. I’m all in on pr for the year or looking to spend, um, so um, Delta dental of Washington, a small organization, every state has them. I’m a small firm, I think they, it was 100,000 dollars in agency fees and they were looking for a pr firm. They hired us to do it because they just didn’t have the bandwidth to be able to run this search. So, um, that’s on the smaller side, but for them it was worth paying us to do that. Uh, so most of our, most of our work is higher than that. It’s more closer to the million dollars in fees, but we do a fair number every year. Um, letter less than that. So it really is up to the client, so you’re going to be an investment, you’re going to pay, be paying some amount to the search firm, but if it’s, um, if it’s something you can handle on your own, then it’s obviously worth paying for.

Nicole Mahoney: 48:14 Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you sharing that because, um, you obviously have a, you know, as we, as we talked today, I’m sure our listeners understand that you’ve done a lot of these and you certainly had the experience and I’m, I’m certain some of them are thinking maybe I need an agency search firms. So I really appreciate you sharing that with us. And Robin, this has been just a really awesome conversation. I have so many more questions, but I want to be mindful of your time and our listeners’ time and perhaps we’ll have to have you on again sometime because I’m sure you and I could just keep talking for, for several hours probably. Um, so before we say goodbye, do you have any final words that you would like to share? Anything that I didn’t ask you or that you didn’t get to say?

Robin Boehler: 49:01 No, I know, yeah. The final thing that I would say is that the most important thing is to, is to get the right take the time to make sure you have the right match. This is an important choice. I’m making the choice to hire an agency is important, but more important is finding the right partner and it’s um, it’s worth the due diligence. Most agency searches are done by clients. We do many every year, somewhere between 12 and 18 a year, we do searches, but the majority of searches, when you take all of the search firms out, the majority of searches are done by clients. So I’m never in my wildest dreams do I think I’ll, I’ll rule the world and get them all. That’s not realistic, nor do I want to have that kind of a business. What’s most important is that clients who decide to run these for themselves, which is totally legitimate to do, must understand the due diligence that needs to happen in order to be able to

Nicole Mahoney: 49:59 get

Robin Boehler: 50:00 the right match at the end because it’s really hard to fire an agency and start over when you’ve made this choice. You invest too much in onboarding them and getting them up to speed on your business until you want to make sure you hire the right folks and get them started properly so that this can be a win win for both parties.

Nicole Mahoney: 50:18 Absolutely. I really appreciate that and again, robin, thank you so much for spending time with us today and we’ll definitely want to check back with you again soon.

Speaker 1: 50:26 My pleasure. It’s time to hit the road again. Visit destination on the During your travels for more podcasts, show notes and fresh ideas.

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