There’s a story as old as advertising. An agency is invited to tender…

They come in and sell the client their creative; finding reasons to disregard all the clients’ concerns. When the client feels their preferences have gone unheard, they label the agency “emotionally attached” to their work. They probably are to be fair because they had free rein.

This way lies madness. They weren’t called Mad Men for nothing.

How the story started

We’ve all seen episodes of Mad Men where the advertising guys sit across from the visiting out-of-towner clients. Pete and co. flatter and cajole the other party to ‘go along’ with their creative. Sometimes downright insult the offending naysayer when the other side aren’t ‘getting’ it (Peggy, tut, tut). How are they expected to produce something brilliant when they’re presenting to dolts? is the unspoken reproach from the ad execs. Usually, this is when Don walks in (the ultimate Tinder swipe) and dazzles the room with a perception so piercing that it speaks to every person’s idea of what they’re missing out on, regretting, being denied, etc, etc. Job done. Client sold. Team trails off. 1950s brand of housewife goes shopping.

Challenging the old ways

But there was one notable exception in the show. The Jewish daughter of a department store magnate. Rachel Menken.

This lady walks in and turns the game on its head. She can’t be flattered or cajoled. She asks intelligent questions. Expresses disappointment in their lack of research. Invites them to put together a competent brief by visiting her store. Gain some genuine insight into what it is they are advertising.

agencies tender

Why it had to play out that way

To be fair to Don and his team, they were only doing what the game asked of them. Tendering before they’d had a real conversation. It was only after Rachel had come in; after they’d spent time and money preparing for a tender; after paying for impersonal market research, that the real challenge had been captured.

Before this meeting, the team (including Don) had a notion about the Menken business, which involved luring in bargain basement clients (the store’s base) with incentives and vouchers. But Rachel dug in her heels. She knew she had a problem (footfall) but also a vision (drawing in a more upmarket clientele).

Tired of working with something that’s broken?

And there’s the rub. Until an agency and client meet, any creative is smoke and mirrors, based on hunches and ‘insights’ formed around ‘a lack’. It’s not a mad story, it’s half a story.

It doesn’t answer the problem. It only creates new ones – for all involved.

Half a story

While tendering in the traditional sense seems to work from the client’s side: one document to all, creative comes flooding in, a fair way of assessing costs, transparency etc. It has one looming downside – it puts the cart before the horse.

A winning strategy is based on understanding, and you only get understanding by asking the right questions to the right people.

Writing and presenting ideas for tenders without the fundamental first step, is a bit like ordering a gift for your other half, without subtly probing for what he/she actually wants.

A badly executed story: conflict, conflict.

For too long, ad execs and clients have been treating this like a game of tug of war. Seeing a ‘them’ and an ‘us’. When this is more 3-dimensional than that. It’s about the best partnership between the agency and the client – a marriage of knowledge and skills.

The old way would have us running around trying to fill a hole; only creating unnecessary work for ourselves which isn’t fit for purpose. A new way would see us testing out the water to see if we’re a good fit for each other.

So what’s the answer? If the traditional way of tending doesn’t work, what does?

Stop asking for creative and start assessing if an agency can truly understand your challenge and creatively resolve your problem.

The Tendering Process Re-Imagined

  1. THE AGENCIES WORK

If you’re sending out a tender, you will have already selected a shortlist of agencies. Don’t stop here though. What you really want to know through the tender process is ‘can the agency deliver what we want?’. See if they have produced work for a similar challenge (this might not be in the same industry or even have a style you like, but it will show they can tackle the same challenge). Ask the agency how they approached this project and the results they achieved.

  1. THE AGENCIES PROCESS

Does the agency have a range of examples that demonstrate a formula for success? There’s a reason Burger King, McDonalds and KFC advertise in the same way – because the formula works. Ask the agency what their process is? How do they work with their clients to ensure the creative will be on-message, on-brand and on-time? Why do they work this way?

  1. SET A BUDGET

Whilst there is a huge temptation to not set a budget and just ‘find out what’s possible’ when clients combine this with ‘please send in your creative ideas’, it spells certain disaster. I think it’s fair to say most agencies who have a steady flow of work won’t want to pour energy into a tender like this for one simple reason. Without knowing a budget, you’re firing blind. You could create an amazing concept, which takes 2 weeks to pull together, only to discover an email sitting in your inbox which reads ‘Absolutely loved the concept, unfortunately, we haven’t got the budget for that. What can you do with X?’. If only we’d of known what X was at the start.

Most creative agencies will want to know a budget up front because it’s the budget that steers the creative (rather than constraining it). If you want to know what you can get for your money, most agencies will be able to provide you with a guide with examples.

  1. IN THE ROOM

The final piece of the tendering process is being in the room with people who are looking at your challenge from the outside in. Inviting in the agencies who you feel (from your assessments in 1 and 2), could produce the results you’re after. Pour some coffee and let the conversation flow. This is your opportunity to form an extension to your team.

What you should hear in return, maybe to your surprise, is a lot of questions being answered with a question. This is the fundamentals of how an agency delivers results – they tap into your knowledge and find a creative solution to it. For example, you ask them “how would you solve X”, they should be coming back with “how do you solve X?”. Why? Because you’re the expert and your whole business is about solving X. What the agency then does is figure out the best way of communicating it.

This is the fundamentals of how an agency delivers results – they tap into your knowledge and find a creative solution to it. For example, you ask them “how would you solve X”, they should be coming back with “how do you solve X?”. Why? Because you’re the expert and your whole business is about solving X. What the agency then does is figure out the best way of communicating it.

A new kind of story

In case it hasn’t come through strongly enough, tendering like this works because you’re hiring an agency based on how they work, not some creative they’ve knocked up based on some notion they have of you.

Rachel Menken was an aberration. But she doesn’t have to be.

Curveball Nicola

Nicola worked in digital marketing in-house for big-name publishing companies for 20 years (Amazon, Bloomsbury, BCA). She came to work for Curveball Media, after becoming a convert to video, and advises clients on strategy and approach.

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