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Searching for the right agency partner is like searching for the right spouse. You want a partner with similar experiences and long-term vision, someone who is smart, has a sense of humor and sparks a chemistry that says, "We will make a good team over the long haul."

Not surprisingly, a client-agency relationship starts with a question-asking process similar to questions popped before the actual proposal. A company asks: What are we looking for in an agency partner? What agencies know our industry and have the capabilities we need? Whose work do we admire? How do I evaluate an agency's skills?

The experiences of three companies that recently established new agencies of record — Delta and Pine Land Company, Trimble and NK Seeds — offer hope for successful pairings in the agency-selection process.


In early 2004 leaders at Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL), headquartered in Scott, Miss., knew they needed new energy and fresh ideas to help introduce several upcoming global initiatives and products in 2005. Peter Peerbolte, director of marketing for D&PL, contacted 10 to 12 possible agency candidates.

One was Brighton, St. Louis, which Delta and Pine Land Company eventually named its agency of record. According to Peerbolte, that relationship took shape over the past three years and eventually led to an RFP (request for proposal).

After getting-to-know-you phone calls with all the agencies, Peerbolte visited each one to help winnow his long list. "The agency environment says a lot about its people, its energy and its work. Nothing tells the truth about the caliber of an agency better than an agency tour," Peerbolte says.

Other factors that put agencies like Brighton on the short list included a team's experience, industry relationships and efforts to really understand the company.

"We talked to people in the industry, researched competitors and target markets, evaluated past campaigns and identified pressure points," Brighton's CEO Roger Yount says. "Our goal was to show Peter we understood his needs and had the capabilities to help D&PL's vision."

Peerbolte and a core team at Delta & Pine Land Company invited three agencies to respond to a "carefully constructed" RFP, which outlined three company directives and asked finalists to suggest approaches to an assignment, including a fully integrated campaign. The three directives included: maintain and grow the domestic position, particularly with strong public relations; develop a worldwide brand image similar to the domestic brand; and help American farmers sell more American-made cotton.

"We used an actual score sheet, with a 1 to 5 scale, to measure them," says Peerbolte. "We had been with our last agency since 1988, and this decision was very important to us. We were in this for a marriage, not just a kiss, and we didn't want to rush it. So we took an extra step in developing a score sheet to be sure we were taking our time and thinking it through."

The score sheet tied the three company directives to measurable criteria, such as "On a scale of one to 30, how would this approach help American farmers sell more American-made cotton?" Peerbolte believes it really helped his team see that Brighton best met their criteria.

"Because of its integrated approach to communications, Brighton had the resources for us, particularly with their relationships in database mining," says Peerbolte. "Its people and culture reflected a style and tone that fit with us. They showed they could help us differentiate ourselves and lead the industry."

Yount also sees a fit in the partnership. "The truth is, not every client is right for each agency," he says. "You must be honest about your strengths and the potential client's needs. We contacted DP&L several years ago because we saw potential between our strengths and their needs. We are thrilled to be partnering with them."


Trimble took a second approach when looking for an agency in 2004. Its communications were handled internally from the company's New Zealand office, but a change in the North American business environment told George Huber, global sales director, that the company needed a communications team closer to the North American mindset.

To find that experience, Huber turned to an agency he had worked with before: Nicholson Kovac, known as NKH&W until 2004.

"I was very familiar with the people and work quality of Nicholson Kovac, and I knew they offered what we needed: agricultural advertising, PR, creative and marketing expertise in North America," says Huber.

Huber asked Nicholson Kovac to design several tactics for an industry-leading product whose brand identity did not reflect its high quality. According to Huber, not only did the company run out of product that year because of the campaign's success, it also found an agency partner that could take business to the next level. Trimble named Nicholson Kovac its agency of record with the assignment to develop a fully integrated campaign for the 2005 season.

Jim Stephens, public relations director in Nicholson Kovac's Kansas City office, notes that it is a rare but refreshing opportunity when new business comes without an RFP.

"One benefit to both sides is the hefty savings in time and expenses normally associated with an RFP," says Stephens. "In this case, we were able to help Trimble get a quick win for one of their key new brands. That really helped jump-start our working relationship."

Huber adds, "The team at Nicholson Kovac proved their ability to work both strategically and quickly when they presented the new campaign at our national sales meeting. Nicholson Kovac's proprietary strategic planning process helped the client-agency team agree on what we needed to accomplish and how best to do it. They have been a real asset to me and many others at Trimble."


Doug Knight decided on a third route when his company, NK Seeds, went looking for a new agency partner in October of 2003.

"I believe one of the best things to do in the agency-selection process is to create a formal and comprehensive RFP," says Knight, marketing lead for Syngenta's NK seed brand. "An extensive disclosure of who you are and what you need sets a level playing field for the agencies and shows if they have the abilities to meet your needs both now and down the road."

NK Seeds wanted one partner who could offer cohesion of disciplines and an integrated approach, while creating synergy between its Canadian and North American communications. To help find the right agency, Knight created an RFP that included "good background, a situation analysis and a look at our company's future direction, as well as an invitation to do a one-hour presentation outlining a fully integrated campaign that matched the company's goals."

Knight initially sent the RFP to four agencies and then, two weeks before the scheduled presentation date, realized he needed to send it to one more: Adculture, a marketing consultancy specializing in the North American agricultural and agri-food sectors. The agency was working with several of Syngenta's crop protection categories and its NK Brand Seeds in Canada at the time.

Each agency presented to an evaluation team, a wide range of internal company people who Knight believes were crucial in making the process a long-term success.

"The evaluation team wasn't all high-level VPs, but people from a number of different segments within our organization," says Knight. "We weren't interested in an edict from the top. We wanted the people who would be working day-to-day with the agency to have buy-in."

In addition to team chemistry, the group looked for two things during the presentation. "While the basic work of the presentation day was in some ways about how each agency met the assignment, we were looking much more at the overall skills and attitudes of the organization," says Knight. "You want to partner someone who cannot only hit a target that is assigned but has talent in its organization to meet your future needs down the road. We saw that in Adculture."

According to Knight, Adculture also displayed a remarkable strategic marketing and segmentation ability and the ability to offer multiple disciplines without being biased.

"At Adculture we saw people who understood that knowing where we were headed, and why, was as important as great ads," says Knight.

Jim Gersham, vice president of client services in Adculture's Minneapolis office, admits that the Adculture team had to expend a lot of effort to overcome its "underdog" status but believes that the effort was worth it because of a fit between its core competencies and the needs of NK Brand Seed.

"With two weeks to go, answering this RFP became all about the potential client — learning about them and showing them our team of committed individuals," Gresham concludes. "On the agency side during an RFP, we must remember this is about the client. You can't be afraid of the work it takes to win. Learning everything you can about the company and its customers, establishing rapport and building trust in a consolidated time frame is hard work, but the end result is worth it when you can build such a great partnership." AM

Sabrina Hickel is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

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