How do clients choose a sales promotion agency? David Reed reveals the findings of exclusive MW/SPCA research.

Reputation may well be, as one agency head puts it, “everything in our business”. It is, after all, what agencies are trying to build for their clients’ brands. When it comes to building their own reputations, however, they find it considerably more difficult to achieve specific goals.

What influences client opinion is a mix of direct experience, industry attitudes, creative awards, advertising and who they last met in the pub.

Size, it would seem, does not matter in the sales promotion industry any more than it does in any other marketing services sector. The combined rankings for agencies in the second Marketing Week/SPCA Sales Promotions Reputations Survey prove the truth of this – IMP takes third position, but does not dominate in the way its size would normally lead one to expect.

That said, IMP clearly does benefit from scale. A promoter drawing up a pitch list that does not include IMP is likely to need a good justification. Among the sample of marketers interviewed, the agency was the most used over the past five years, with 16 per cent having direct experience of it. That helps enormously in building word of mouth.

But size also creates problems. “It means clients have expectations of us that they wouldn’t have of a smaller agency,” says Laura Jones, deputy managing director of IMP. Even so, she believes many clients still do not realise just how large it is, with 170 staff. “A lot of them are surprised when we tell them that.”

This may reflect a key difference between the opinions held by those who have worked with an agency, and those who have simply heard of it. The five agencies which most marketers had experience of in the past five years were IMP (16 per cent), The Marketing Store (13 per cent), Promotional Campaigns Group (11 per cent), Triangle Communications (11 per cent) and KLP (ten per cent).

The ranking based on which agencies marketers had heard of, however, gave the following order: Carlson (31 per cent), IMP (28 per cent), The Business Development Partnership (27 per cent), The Marketing Store (26 per cent) and Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising (22 per cent). Comparing each of these findings with the Top 20 shows that some agencies are better at matching their reputation to the awareness they achieve, while some appear to be under-delivering.

It also suggests that reputation can be a fast-moving thing. As Andrew Orbell, managing director of Promotional Campaigns, says: “You are only as good as the last job you’ve done, unfortunately. All the successes and jobs which have gone smoothly don’t seem to count for anything against the issues which you may face tomorrow.”

This is revealed most strongly in the weight given to creative reputations. When asked what criteria were the most important when shortlisting an agency, three factors came out equal first. Creative execution gained mentions from 99 per cent, while creative concepts scored 98 per cent. Quality of account handling also scored 99 per cent. The fourth most important factor – strategic planning – came in some way below these scores at 86 per cent.

According to Iain Ferguson, chief executive of KLP and chairman of the Sales Promotion Consultants’ Association: “It is right that reputations should be built on a great idea. What marketers want from an agency is a big idea that speaks to consumers. Behind that, they want good service.”

Rankings by creativity can be seen to follow these preferences.

Promotional Campaigns tops the list as it perhaps should, having won twice as many creative awards in its 25-year history as its nearest competitor.

Triangle and IMP both score highly, having had significant triumphs at awards ceremonies over the past few years. Yet creativity is an uncertain footing on which to base a reputation. The fate of creative hot shops demonstrates the risk – Dean Street Marketing (part of Option One) shot to prominence with a clutch of brilliant campaigns, and even scooped the Grand Prix at the Institute of Sales Promotion Awards. But within five years, it had disappeared from sight. Industry opinion also lags behind success. The current hottest shop, Claydon Heeley, did not register in this survey.

Catching the mood of the public with a dynamic campaign is what makes the business of sales promotion exciting. But what makes it tolerable on a daily basis is the quality of account handling. The top three agencies ranked by creativity also scored the same points for this aspect of their service.

It is that perennial favourite “chemistry” which keeps a client coming back. With the current high rate of turnover among marketers, previous good experience with an agency’s account management is much more likely to lead to new business when a client changes jobs.

This is especially true in sectors where marketers move frequently between rival brands. For example, if a drinks product manager leaves, there is a 60 per cent chance his or her new job will be on another drinks brand, rather than in a new sector. As Jones says: “People buy people. You may be presenting the best campaign in the world, but if the client doesn’t like the person presenting it, you’ve got a problem.”

The methodology used to calculate the rankings in this survey reflects the importance of personal knowledge. The sample of 302 marketers consisted solely of those who have direct responsibility for selecting a sales promotion agency.

The percentages scored by each agency represent the total number of mentions, divided by the number of interviewees who had either worked with that agency or heard of it.

If quality of creativity can be measured in gongs, and account handling by the number of suits still drinking with the client at closing time, then strategic thinking is much more intangible. This perhaps accounts for its rating as the fourth most important factor in shortlisting an agency.

Yet Nick Spindler, managing director of Grey Integrated, believes in the long-term, it is strategy that really cements a relationship. “It is what keeps people coming back. That is the reason for basing our reputation on strategy – we take it increasingly seriously. That is not to say creativity isn’t, but we feel there should be a value to strategy.”

As its name suggests, Grey Integrated should be well placed to support clients which are looking for a multi-disciplinary approach to their campaigns. According to respondents, direct marketing is the most widely-used other service (52 per cent), followed by strategic consultancy (46 per cent), event marketing (45 per cent), and interactive communications (38 per cent).

Yet this spreading use of in-tegrated communications does also pose a dilemma for agenciesabout what to call themselves.

Orbell at Promotional Campaigns says: “We used to have problems because of our name – it is the generic name for the category, which can be a bad thing”. As a result, the agency was relaunched as the Promotional Campaigns Group, and has begun to use the abbreviated form, PCG.

Spindler sees advantages in sharing his agency name with the international network. “Part of our reputation is resource and worldwide capacity,” he says, but emphasises: “Our role in the Grey network is as a singular, autonomous entity.”

Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising has clearly not been inhibited by either its name or its reputation for above-the-line work. In a year in which it picked up awards from both the ISP and the DMA, it took tenth place overall, just a fraction behind its sales promotion-dedicated sister agency, Team Saatchi.

Whatever they are called, and whatever services are being bought, one thing which is clear from this survey is that the role of the agency has probably never been more pivotal. According to 55 per cent of respondents, the agency had played a growing role over the past 12 months, with 29 per cent saying it had stayed the same, and only 15 per cent saying it had decreased. Looking ahead to the next 12 months, 54 per cent of clients expected that role to increase further.

In his role as SPCA chairman, Ferguson believes his members are responding well to these demands. “I think agencies are directionally in line with them. There is a huge shift in the way agencies are being used as primary partners by clients. Having a strategic understanding of a client’s business is the way in. If you don’t have that quality of thought, you won’t be invited,” he says.

Despite their importance, it is an industry truism that agencies are hopeless at marketing themselves. Even the largest have only just begun to appoint PR agencies and look at how to market themselves.

The fact that Promotional Campaigns Group recently ran ads promoting itself in the business press for the first time, and has now scored highly in this survey, may give others pause for thought.

What is evident is that reputation does more than get an agency into the press. “It is our most effective new business method,” says Grey Integrated’s Spindler. “Nearly all our growth is organic – we very rarely pitch. It is all from reputation and advocacy among our client base.” Given his agency’s claim to have a growth-rate second only to M&C Saatchi, an agency’s position in this survey could soon become the most important measure of its performance there is.

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