Every company has its own process for evaluating potential agencies to work with. Some use objective rubrics, others use gut feelings. Still, others claim to have a “secret sauce” or hybrid evaluation process.

While that secret sauce is helpful, developing one is no easy feat. Here’s how to create an agency hiring process that gives appropriate weight to both objective and subjective elements.

Start with the facts.

Make your process for hiring an agency as objective as possible at first. To narrow it down to your final three or four agencies, create a list of measurable, tangible must-haves. Any agency that makes it to the final few should have the following attributes:

  • A deep knowledge of your industry, mixed with the ability to provide comprehensive solutions: The agency should have a depth of experience in your industry or with your key audience, but it should also be able to provide holistic counsel. Unfortunately, agencies that hit the sweet spot between niche expertise and integrated solutions are hard to come by. According to one study, 78 percent of clients said they are frustrated with the ways agencies handle holistic communications approaches.
  • An impressive track record of driving leads and sales: The agency should be able to provide hard facts, figures, and insights that demonstrate how those results moved the needle for previous and current clients. No matter how good an agency’s pitch is, it should have measurable results to back up the claims. Pretty words won’t make you money.
  • Solid shop stability: You don’t want to work with a team that will dissolve after only a few months. That’s why having the actual team involved in the new business process is critical. You can see how tight their bonds actually are (or if they just pulled in disparate team members for the pitch). Do these people seem like they actually like working together? Do they seem committed to their roles and projects?

Whip up the secret sauce using these ingredients.

Just like chefs have different go-to dishes and flavor profiles, each company’s secret sauce will be different. However, there are a few agency attributes that every sauce — that is, what you use to subjectively evaluate your final contenders’ pros and cons — should include:

  1. The agency asks thought-provoking questions. Good questions show that the agency representatives are good listeners, an important component of your ongoing partnership. If a team doesn’t seem like it has good communication skills, that’s a red flag.
  2. The agency doesn’t make assumptions. The agency you choose to work with will eventually act as your consultant, and no one wants a consultant that jumps to conclusions or makes recommendations based on nothing. What data is the consultant referencing? What insights are driving his recommendations?
  3. You’d want to have a beer with the agency’s leaders. This is more important than you might think. Every project has its own challenges, and when times get tough, it’s vital you get along well with your agency. A solid rapport and mutual respect will get you through the hard times.
  4. The leaders aren’t glory hogs. When agency leaders talk about existing work, listen to hear if they give their clients credit. Doing so signals they are team players — another valuable attribute in any agency/client partnership. If current clients and staff speak about an agency with respect and affection, it’s a strong indicator of its worth.
  5. You feel comfortable with them. Hire an agency that is hungry for your business, but not desperate. If its leaders seem like they need your business to stay afloat, look the other way. Why doesn’t the firm have any other clients? On the other hand, if an agency seems genuinely interested in the work, you’ll be able to get a feel for its level of passion and expertise in your company’s space.

Once you’ve objectively narrowed down your agency prospects, you’ll be left with three or four that are all capable of doing the work. Then it boils down to which one you want to work with — as well as things like chemistry, comfort, passion, and beer.

By starting with objective measures and moving to subjective, you can master the art of the “secret sauce” for hiring an agency. Having read this method, would you add any other steps? What other tips or “secret ingredients” have you heard of?

This article was written by Drew McLellan and first published on The Marketing Scope.