Interviewing a brand strategy firm can be tricky and frustrating.

It’s easy to get caught up in their animated, graphics-rich presentations (with file sizes so large they can’t simply be emailed to you after the meeting, they have to be Dropbox’d); shiny objects (their latest AR/AI/VR campaign); industry awards (“here’s our content marketer of the year award from the content marketing awards show, sponsored by the content marketing association”); and the introductions to team members with an artful array of job titles (Brady the design thinker, Seychelles the UX lead, Marianella the Instagram rockstar).

Sometimes you find yourself 20 minutes into a one-hour meeting wondering when the meeting’s going to start.

Here are some tips for your first meeting with a B2B brand strategy firm to ensure you get what you need–including one HUGE topic you absolutely need to ask about. (HINT: This post was inspired by getting some pretty blank looks when I asked several CEOs who recently embarked on rebranding or branding efforts, “Did the agency interview your customers?”)

Tips for Interviewing Brand Strategy Firms

  1. Contact each agency via their web contact form. Someone should get back to you by the next business day. Deduct 2 points for every day after that. The person who contacts you should be a principal or partner. If it’s a lower level employee or business development person with no branding expertise, deduct 1 point.
  2. Tell each agency the initial meeting is 45 minutes, while marking your team’s calendar for an hour. That should focus everyone on getting to the point, while allowing for 15 minutes of overtime. If an agency squawks that they really need 90 minutes, deduct 1 point and tell them you’re interested in a conversation, not a dog an pony show. If the agency still shows up with a massive slide deck, deduct 3 more points.
  3. Some agencies like to bring numerous staff members in an attempt to demonstrate something called “bench strength.” This only wastes time on introductions and micro-digressions on non-critical topics (have you tried Snapchat filters!??!). Encourage agencies to bring 2 – 3 representatives max and deduct 1 point for every additional staffer.
  4. Start the meeting by asking why companies do or don’t choose them. Deduct 1 point every time they mention, “people,” “service” or “creative.” Add a point for “sales,” “revenue,” “ROI” or “business objectives.”
  5. When they list their full range of capabilities, ask how many they are great at. Deduct 1 point for each capability they say they’re great at beyond 3.
  6. Ask about their staff experience. Deduct 1 point if the average number of years out of college is below 10 and 1 point if their staff’s aggregate experience is less than 25% on the client side.
  7. Now, here’s the 800 lb. gorilla:
    • Count how many minutes before they ask about your customers’ problems, priorities, perceptions and preferences–or talk about their process for gaining insights into your target audience. The over/under is 7. Add a point for every minute below that and deduct 1 for every minute over.
    • Ask which agency executive will lead the customer insights process and which will lead brand strategy. It’s critical that nothing get lost in translation between insights and strategy, so if these are two different people, deduct 5 points. And don’t settle for having a less experienced staffer in charge of insights and strategy. If it’s not an agency principal, deduct 15 points.
    • If the agency doesn’t recommend interviewing customers and prospects, deduct 5 points. If the lead executive personally conducts the interviews, add 10 points.
    • Follow up by asking what percent of their total project hours, on average, goes into understanding your customers’ problems, priorities, perceptions and preferences vs. design. Deduct 1 point for every 10 points below 30%.

BOTTOM LINE: The only purpose of your brand is to make a rational and emotional connection with your target audience. Yet too many branding engagements give lip service to understanding the voice of the customer. Why? Because that’s not where agencies make most of their money. They want you to buy more profitable brand identity, web design, content marketing and digital campaigns, where they can bill out lower level staffers at high rates. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this model, per se; but as always, it’s “Caveat Emptor.” If you’re hiring a branding firm, it’s your obligation to understand what you’re getting and not getting. If you need their help understanding your target audience, this post will make sure they’re up for the job.

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