MAKING THE GRADE
ANNUAL EVALUATIONS AREN'T ENOUGH ANYMORE
Debbie Coakley, Contributing Editor
As the agricultural marketplace continually changes, annual agency evaluations are becoming more important than ever. And, while yearly assessments are common practice for many agricultural companies, some are finding that an ongoing system of status reports and regular meetings as well as two-way evaluations are needed to ensure their agencies stay on track.
"With the fast pace of mergers, joint ventures and new players, it's rare to find an agricultural client that's been with an agency for a couple of decades," says Greg Nickerson, executive vice president for Bader Rutter & Associates Inc., Brookfield, Wis. "People are moving around so much that it's vital to sit down regularly to gauge how things are going."
Paul Redhage, communications manager for BASF Ag Products, Research Triangle Park, N.C., adds that the unique and changing dynamics of the agricultural market make it essential to build and maintain a strong partnership with an agency. "If you have a good team in place, you want to keep the relationship going," he explains. "You don't want to start all over with a new agency."
That's where evaluations can help. "When completing an evaluation, we put ourselves in our agency's shoes," Redhage says. "We offer the kind of information and feedback that will help them jump through hoops and think of us first. Too often people see evaluations as a way to hammer an agency. They miss opportunities to further the relationship."
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Annual evaluations work best when they are done in conjunction with the development of a client's annual plan, says Tom Gahm, senior vice president for Meyocks & Priebe Advertising Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa. "But that's not nearly frequent enough," he points out. "We also use monthly and weekly project status reports so any red flags that come up will be addressed on the spot."
Sue Christensen, director of marketing communications for Farm Credit Services of America, Omaha, Neb., likens agency evaluations to employee performance evaluations. "They should be ongoing," she notes. "You should always be upfront and deal with issues - good and bad - as they come up."
To accomplish this, Meyocks & Priebe meets every six weeks with Farm Credit Services of America and has weekly status calls. "We go over our action list, talk about what's hot that week and what we need from each other," Christensen says. "Then they send us a report about what we discussed."
While annual evaluations work well for Bader Rutter, Nickerson says ongoing feedback is also vital. "It doesn't take an annual agency evaluation to know if you have a problem," he explains. "We also use marketing planning time as an informal, ongoing checkup of how we're performing for a client."
BASF conducts an annual evaluation and quarterly checkpoints of St. Louis-based Brighton Inc., but also finds that assessments occur every day. It's more important on a daily basis to give people feedback in a constructive manner than to fill out annual forms," Redhage says. "This leads to building a solid relationship."
PUT TO THE TEST
Bader Rutterís evaluation form is a way to gauge how the agency is meeting client expectations. The standard form uses an expectation rating system where 1 exceeds expectations and 4 fails to meet expectations. It contains 13 performance categories that cover the agency's basic understanding of marketing and strategy, creative, fiscal responsibility and other topics. "At the end, we ask clients for open-ended commentary about what has gone well and things that could be changed or improved," Nickerson says.
A broad range of people complete the form. "We want to get it in front of everybody we touch at some point, including marketing, sales, research, public affairs and regulatory personnel," Nickerson says. "Then the main agency contact sits down with the point person at the client and goes through the comments and ratings. If we have a question or need to dig deeper, we follow up with the person who made the comment."
The agency point person then relays key conclusions to the entire agency team - from front-line personnel to support staff.
While the account team likes to hear things are going well, it's more important to find areas that need improvement and identify small issues before they become big ones. "For example, if a brand or product manager finds the creative process too arduous or time-consuming, they can bring it up during an evaluation and we can find a way to streamline it," Nickerson notes.
While Meyocks & Priebe and Farm Credit Services of America do not do formal evaluations, they take stock of their relationship once or twice a year during planning meetings. "By touching base frequently and making them part of our team, we don't put a wall between us," Christensen says. "This helps them do their work better and challenges our thinking. We expect our agency not to just take orders and direction from us, but to be part of the thinking process in developing marketing strategies."
Other Meyocks & Priebe clients complete an evaluation form - usually during the annual planning phase - covering topics such as how well the agency managed projects according to budget, their thoughts about the quality of the creative, how they feel about the reports they receive from the agency and the day-to-day account management.
The key marketing person completes the form and usually involves other people with whom the agency might not have regular contact, such as the vice president of communications or people in the field, Gahm says. "Then our team members sit down with the client and review the comments," he says. "We put on the table any issues that need to be resolved and work to fix them before they get out of hand."
The result? Annual evaluations can improve the quality of an agency's work. "If clients give us feedback that's positive, we thrive on that and produce even better work," Gahm explains. "If it's negative, we know we need to fix something to make sure we get back on track."
BASF has developed its own agency evaluation form that covers account management, market understanding, creative, media, direct and public relations. "The topics reflect things that are important to us in moving communications ahead, keeping on track, and being timely and consistent," Redhage says.
The company's communications staff completes the form annually. Comments are merged into one chart that is given to Brighton. Agency and client meet and review the evaluations and comments and discuss how to proceed.
Brighton not only asks clients to annually evaluate how the agency is doing, but the agency also evaluates some clients. "It's best if you evaluate each other in a fair and constructive way," President Roger Yount says. "When it's a two-way process, we each evaluate the relationship, what's working and what needs to be worked on."
The agency fills out a form on topics such as internal communications, the input and approval process, and the payment cycle. "Some problems an agency faces are created by things the client does," Yount says. "If they haven't given you the forum in which to evaluate them, you sound like a whiner if you bring up a problem."
Brighton plans to begin using this two-way evaluation with BASF. Redhage is open to two-way discussion, especially when it is completed in a constructive manner. "In the past, with some other agencies, we received superficial feedback about our performance as a client," he says. The agencies only hinted at things that weren't going well because we were their source of income. The longer a client works with an agency, the more trust you build and the more likely both parties are to open up and effectively use evaluations." AM
Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.