Don’t worry - you’re not alone. Hiring and getting the most out of creative partners is a challenge for organizations of all sizes, across all industries. Not only is hiring an agency partner a difficult, time-consuming task, but it can also be a scary one, with a lot on the line, from wasted budgets and lost time to people’s jobs.

From the moment you decide to look for outside help, questions on the best way to go about finding and selecting a partner begin to pile up: How many agencies should I talk to? Should we write an RFP? Where do I start? How am I going to get this done and deal with my day-to-day? The task becomes even more complicated when certainty becomes a requirement and distance from the ultimate decision makers is standard operating procedure.

There are, however, a few things you can do from the outset to make finding the right partner a more straightforward task, lower your chances of making a mistake, and increase the probability that you’ll hire the right agency the first time around.

1. Define Your Goal (not your deliverable)

Before diving into actually finding the right partner, clearly defining your goal will set you up for success. We recommend you start by zooming out, pulling the ask all the way back, and getting to the essential question: why are you hiring a partner? I don’t mean, why aren’t you trying to complete any given project yourself - I mean, in hiring a partner, what is your organization’s ultimate goal?

Define your goal in as simple and straightforward of terms as possible, leaving out anything that describes how you are going to get there. In other words, define your goal without any explicit mention of a solution. Businesses often make the mistake of expressing their goals in terms of a solution. For example, they will say “we need a responsive website” or “we need to design an native app.” Instead, they should be thinking first and foremost about what they actually want to accomplish as a business, instead using language like “we want to be accessible on the go” or “we’re trying to reach our customers via all channels.”

When you start with the solution rather than the goal, you may end up spending a lot of time and money investing in an agency partner to build a solution that doesn’t solve a real problem or ladder up to your actual goals. This is one of the most common mistakes we see businesses make. Incorporating these little language tweaks can help move your focus from defining the deliverable you think you need to articulating the problem you know you have.

2. Consider Hiring a Trusted Advisor to Help

To RFP or not to RFP? Writing an RFP can be a daunting task. Get it wrong and you’re negatively influencing the partner selection process and putting the project itself at risk. Getting it right is more art than science. It is rarely someone’s full-time gig to write RFPs for their company, and it usually falls on a project sponsor’s shoulders, and they either do it or delegate it to someone else, a person who most likely already has a full time job, with daily duties, demands and responsibilities. Managing the partner selection process then becomes a difficult dance of getting the right people to focus on a thing at one time.

My advice? Bring in someone from the outside to help, someone who can be 100% focused on writing a good RFP that will solicit the right kind of responses. Hiring a consultant to write your RFP for you is a great way to bring clarity to your goals and allow someone with fresh eyes and an open schedule to manage the process of vetting agencies. If you hire the right consultant with the right expertise, you could even consider putting this person in charge of the selection process, not only helping you vet partners, but also play a key role in selecting who the right partner will be.

The other option? Don’t write an RFP at all. Have the project discussions be conversational, but if you do go down this road, my advice here is to assign a PM on your side to help bring people together and to be responsible for keeping track of notes and next steps, and to have that person tied at the hip with your potential partners.

3. Show Your Cards (and by cards I mean your budget)

One of the mistakes I see a lot of companies make in issuing RFPs, is that they leave responders guessing by failing to articulate key assumptions, the most obvious one being budget. There. I just said it. The B word: budget. The most important part about a budget is that you have one. Make sure you have set aside an investment for any project you are doing, and my advice is to share your budget.

I understand the fear around sharing a budget: If I say I have a million dollars, you are going to tell me it costs a million dollars. You’re worried about companies artificially inflating their fees because you moved first and gave them a number. Here is a question though: when was the last time your budget was bigger than your scope? And, when was the last time you put a scope out into the market and qualified, good partners came back with quotes that were less than what you had in mind? It almost never, ever happens. For this reason, it’s my opinion there is only a perceived risk in sharing your budget, not an actual one. There is always going to be negotiation involved in getting a certain amount of scope in for a given budget; if you’re very worried about your partner under-delivering because you’ve shown your cards, they probably aren’t the right partner.

And if you are still worried about potential partners mirroring your price back to you, remember that there are almost always multiple ways to solve a problem and achieve a goal, and with each, come a range of budgets. But sharing as much as you can from the outset helps your creative partners focus on a plan that they can deliver for an understood price. Not comfortable giving an exact number? Even broad ranges can help. Low six figures, mid six figures, upper six figures, low seven figures. An indication of the scale of your investment helps both sides align around the right solutions. And perhaps even more importantly, being upfront about assumptions, and especially budgets, builds trust with your potential partner from the outset, perhaps most the most important component of a successful partnership.

4. Avoid Apples-to-Apples Comparisons

Now that you have clearly defined your goal, and issued your RFP, you are ready to actually start looking for the right partner to help you accomplish it. My second recommendation is an important one: stop trying to make apples-to-apples comparisons between potential partners. Forget about rate cards and hours, and instead focus on finding the right agency for the job. Think: which agency is best equipped to help my company achieve the goal we have set for ourselves, not which agency can do it the fastest and has the lowest rate cards. You need to have an agreement on price, an alignment on project outcomes, and be able to trust that your selected partner is going to nail the engagement - and that has nothing to do with how their rate cards stack up against the competition.

Apples-to-apples comparisons tend to commoditize your partners, force them to jump through hoops to try to win your business, and can get in the way of properly defining your project and its success criteria. Comparing rate cards favors low performing partners and introduces noise against recognizing real differentiators.

From my experience, apples-to-apples comparisons are rarely about finding the best partner, the one most suited to successfully solving the problem and achieving the goal. Rather, they are driven by fear that whoever is responsible for selecting a partner will have a hard time justifying their choice if something goes wrong.

This doesn’t mean you can’t compare agencies. You absolutely need to know the details of each agency’s proposed process and project plan and the duration and expected outcomes of the engagement, but you want to avoid seeking a like-for-like project approach and budget rationale between partners. Instead, focus more on trying to identify who is the best fit for the particular project. To do so, we recommend spending some time within your organization developing a framework to compare the benefits of each proposal on their own merits. This will allow you to focus on the bigger picture of how the proposal will help you solve a problem and achieve your goal. Compare partners on less exact terms. Ask yourself questions like, which agency displays the most expertise? Who did we feel the most confident in during the pitch process? Who appears to care about the project the most and will deliver? Who do we like the most and who can we see ourselves working with? Assessing these higher-order values in favor of an apples-to-apples comparison is going to set you on the right path for finding a good fit.

5. Be Selective About Who You Talk To

Last piece of tactical advice. Don’t talk to fifteen potential partners. It is too many, you are going to drive yourself nuts. Pick five winners and go from there. This might require a little more upfront research and vetting on your side (another reason to consider hiring someone to do this), but it is much better than sorting through a ton of lengthy RFP responses.

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As I mentioned earlier, hiring the right partner is more art than it is science, but there are certain steps you can take early on that are much more likely to set you up for success. Remember that ultimately, your job isn’t about coming up with a solution, but is to focus first and foremost on isolating problems that are worth solving, articulating your goals, and evaluating who is the best partner to help you achieve them.