The surefire way for securing that perfect fit.
ASK YOURSELF THIS ONE QUESTION: “AM I COMPLETELY SATISFIED WITH MY HEALTHCARE BRAND MARKETING AGENCY?”
Most of the time we are either too busy or overworked to ask this question let alone answer it. When was the last time you reviewed the efforts of your current agency? Do they bring strategic thinking and creative ideas that drive results? Do they provide value-added services that prove their commitment to your organization? Do they specialize in the healthcare industry?
Now let’s not jump any guns. Maybe your advertising or brand marketing agency doesn’t need a change and things are going just fine. But in a 2007 annual survey released by the Chief Marketing Officer Council, marketers reported an estimated 41 percent in agency turnover. Your small concerns may not be underestimated at all. If your agency is not performing up to your standards, it may be time for an agency review.
Choosing a new agency is no trivial task; it will take knowledge, expertise, an open mind, but most of all time, time…and more time. It can take anywhere from two to four months to search, evaluate, and select a new agency. Before you start this process, you may want to consider hiring a consultant. Let it be said that you know your organization and what it needs better than anyone else; however, a consultant can greatly reduce your time commitment, and also offer outside perspective. If you decide to go with a consultant, the most critical trait you want from a consultant is expertise in the healthcare industry. The best way to find a consultant is through your contacts. Networking and using your current contacts for suggestions and insights result in positive leads.
Regardless of whether or not you choose a consultant, there are six key steps that should comprise your new agency search process:
- Needs assessment
- Candidate research
- Sending out a Request for Information (RFI)
- Creating the Request for Proposal (RFP)
- Agency presentations and evaluations
- Agency visits and final decision
1. NEEDS ASSESSMENT
Before you even think of which agencies you want included in this review, you should get your internal house in order. Closely define your organization’s needs and goals. Also establish what you require from your agency. Are you looking for a traditional, tactical agency or a strategic full-service one? The latter is more likely to give you access to a breadth of services and allow your team to collaborate on strategic planning, brand development, patient-focused marketing, physician-focused marketing, and online solutions. By conducting a needs assessment, you will set the direction for the next five steps.
2. CANDIDATE RESEARCH
Now that you know what you need, you can start gathering a list of appropriate agencies. You can compile your list through online search or by using resources such as Advertising Age, the American Marketing Association, AAAA or Ad Clubs that list agency members. Consult with organizations or healthcare research firms with whom you already have relationships. They might have some good recommendations.
Determining the size of this primary list is up to your discretion. To help narrow down your completed list, develop a range of requirements that best fit your organizational needs.
Identify agencies that understand the intricacies of the healthcare industry such as physician referrals, operations, reimbursement, charity care, out-migration, capacity and fundraising issues. They may need to understand the difference between marketing “open” and “closed” health systems, as well as a full understanding of AMA, HIPPA, PhARMA guidelines and pharmaceutical regulations.
Strategic requirements may include defining business models and setting business goals for your organizational leadership, setting marketing goals, and defining strategic positioning and creative strategy. Execution requirements may include interactive, media, public relations, promotions, and sponsorship capabilities. Ensure the agencies understand your business goals, patient flow, reimbursement and payer mix, and referral base. Make sure they represent positive ROI. One unneeded concern you might have is the location of the agency. There are benefits to having a nearby location but in this interactive age, it is not completely necessary. So while you can consider it an additional benefit, your primary focus should be on how this agency can meet your business needs.
3. SENDING OUT A RFI
Once you have a refined agency list, your next step is to take a more in-depth look at each agency. To do this, you can send out a Request for Information (RFI). Many organizations conduct a RFI to sift through a larger number of agencies to ensure those in the next step have the essential requirements for your organization. This also saves you time—and the agencies’ time—from reviewing their bids when they would not be considered anyway. Moreover, in this round you are screening out agencies who may work for your competition. If your list happens to be much smaller than anticipated, you can skip this step and move onto the Request for Proposal. If you do choose to skip this step, just be sure that the agencies you’ve identified have the necessary capabilities and resources to meet your needs.
Your RFI should specify the reason you need an agency, whether it be for a new service being launched, the desire to generate awareness or drive referrals, or a new hospital location being announced. The more details you provide, the more details you can expect back. The RFI should convey your idea of a perfect agency. Include an agency questionnaire that will reveal infrastructure, capabilities, relevant experience, longevity and stability, expertise in healthcare including a list of current and past healthcare organizations within your geographical footprint, income, founding date, and ownership. The questionnaire, if done correctly, should represent a substantial biography of the agency.
Include a clearly defined deadline with a minimum of two weeks to complete and deliver the RFI replies. You should have a cross-functional team ready to review and narrow down the options. The review process should take two to three weeks depending on the volume of responses. You and your team should narrow down the options to about five to eight agencies.
4. CREATING THE RFP
Up until this point, you have based your decisions on strictly analytical information that adheres to your requirements. Now that each of these five to eight agencies have what it takes on paper, you will need to test their abilities. A Request for Proposal (RFP) is the next step. It will test their knowledge, strategic thinking and creative problem solving. Organizations are often tempted to request spec creative to “test” creativity, but consider this fact: 95 percent of spec creative never gets to market. This is usually the case because it’s created in a vacuum without the background and research necessary to produce effective creative. Instead, request relevant case studies and creative samples, which should give you a clear picture of their creative talents. Remember, you are seeking a strategic partner, not simply a campaign solution.
Before sending out your RFPs however, have these agencies sign a non-disclosure for any information they may learn about your organization during the RFP process.
The RFP should request the following:
- Introduction – Should include company information, deadline and instructions for responding.
- Terms and conditions – Work with your legal department for this section, and remember to state that no fees will be charged for the completion of these materials.
- Business goals and scope of work – Provide a clear picture regarding your current business needs and challenges, along with the full scope of work that your organization seeks, from strategic planning and research, to tactical execution and analysis.
- Objectives – What is the ROI you are expecting from the endeavor? If you expect increased awareness, say so. This is so critical, because your objectives should drive their recommendations.
- Constraints on budget, schedule and design – Again, the more information you can provide upfront, the more prepared these responses will be. Be very detailed and clear about this opportunity. If you have a limited budget, state that here.
- Evaluation criteria and selection process – Don’t be afraid to let them know how they will be judged. It’s a waste of time for both you and them if they are guessing.
- Request similar work – Ask for similar work done and how successful it was after completion. This should also include references for each project, so you have the option of speaking with the client directly, regarding their satisfaction with their work.
- Request account team bios and/or resumes – Most companies request bios, but resumes are recommended. This allows you to see retention rates, relevant experience, depth of knowledge and so on. Remember, when entering a contract with an agency it can be anywhere from three to five years, and you’ll want to have the same people working on your account that you “bought” in the beginning.
- Give them a problem to solve – Rather than requesting spec creative, give them a business or marketing challenge they need to solve. This will give you the opportunity to see their creativity and strategic thinking in action.
5. AGENCY PRESENTATIONS AND EVALUATIONS
Put together a semi-final and final team for evaluating the agencies. The semi-final group should include your expanded marketing, public relations, interactive and community outreach teams. This team should evaluate each agency’s strategic and creative thinking, consistent track record and their proven ability to achieve clients’ return on objectives. After this round there should be three final agencies. Then it is time to meet and greet—the agency must now come to your office and present the proposal. At this point you will need to include the higher-ups.
Key people to include:
- CEO – You want to build buy-in and a good working relationship with this agency from the top down. This agency is going to have to present work to the CEO on an ongoing basis. Make sure there is a rapport between the agency team and your C-suite, starting with your CEO.
- CFO – You will need your Chief Financial Officer brought in on the project for obvious reasons and it is best to do this early so they too have a voice in the decisions made. The CFO may want to ask questions about ROI tracking, billing and reconciliation.
- CIO – The Chief Interactive Officer or equivalent to this at your office can offer his or her point of view on the various Web strategies the agencies recommend.
- CMO or clinical service line leadership – Much of the work you will be creating with this agency will be service line driven. Ensure the clinical team has trust in and respect for the agency team.
- Marketing Team – Your entire marketing and communications team, including public relations needs to be on the same page and must be included in the decision process.
- Head of Human Resource – It is possible that a large venture with an agency may include having employee ambassadors through internal communications, including recruitment advertising, and so on. If so, HR leadership should be present.
- Head of the Foundation – If the venture will include Foundation development, publications, annual appeals, event invitation, online giving, etc., include Foundation leadership.
When scheduling the agency presentations, allow enough time for the agency to do a 90-minute presentation, plus extra time afterwards for your team to discuss and rate each one. Request a more “formal presentation” of their RFP, then allot time for a more casual Q&A. You want to see them think on their feet so keep some challenging questions on hand for this use. You also want to get a feel for their personality, the culture of the team and how they would “mesh” with your team.
6. AGENCY VISITS AND FINAL DECISION
It’s beneficial to have discussions directly after the meetings, while they’re fresh in the mind. However, do not make any final decisions yet. Having a second meeting at the agency’s office also may be beneficial. It allows you to see the environment and culture in which the agencies work.
The meeting at the agency office should be very casual, where you can meet the team that would actually be working on your account. Get a good feeling for the account lead and creative director with whom you need to have a strong rapport and work closely.
Lastly, if you have the time, you may wish to give the selected agency a service line project which requires a campaign strategy, not merely a single execution, so you can test their thinking, style, healthcare experience and operational excellence. Here, you can see if they have a passion for healthcare and if they bring thought leadership to the table.
Top Five Tips to Maximize Your Marketing Efforts on a Shoestring Budget
- Focus on digital versus traditional media. Hospitals love their newspaper advertising. However, it is an expensive medium with relatively low ROI. Refocus on nontraditional, trackable communications channels like search engine optimization and social media – essentially building “digital” word-of-mouth and opinion leadership.
- Promote from within your organization. Six degrees of separation is a good rule of thumb. Recruit brand ambassadors internally through your employees and volunteers to help promote your initiatives. Utilize internal communications channels to rally your stakeholders around the cause. Develop a contact strategy to organize your brand ambassadors and systematically get your message out to your audience. This is a great way to build word-of-mouth about your services at little or no cost.
- Leverage your call center and website to cross-sell services. Recommend a bone density scan to a female patient scheduling a mammogram. Set pediatric appointments up for all of the family’s children at once. If a patient is calling about bariatric surgery, recommend a cardiac and orthopedic exam.
- When a hospital freezes the hire of FTEs (full-time employees), or worse, lays them off, use an agency to extend your team. During an FTE freeze, use an agency as an extension to your team. If your team is missing a marketing VP or director, use the agency specifically for your marketing plan. If your team is missing public relations, internal communications, Web, media planning or publications support, an agency partner can supply multiple experts working as a team usually for less money than an FTE.
- Reorganize your marketing department by function rather than service line. This will streamline workflow so each function head serves as the gatekeeper of messaging. You will realize efficiencies across the board, and different service lines might benefit from other’s successes.
Ultimately, choosing an agency is not an exact science. How they handle themselves and who exactly will be doing your work are the most important criteria. You don’t want to be just another client on their roster; you need to believe they are striving to showcase the work they do for your organization in agency award shows. Intuition and gut feelings will—in the end—determine your best fit. While this process may feel long and overwhelming, it is worth the effort. It will result in a partnership aimed at improving your business.
For more information about the agency selection process, please contact Gabrielle DeTora at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally seen on the HealthLeaders Media MarketShare Blog.