People are always saying the agency–client relationship is like a marriage, but really what it's like is an arranged marriage.
Consider: When I lived in New York, I had a close friend who had grown up in an orthodox Sephardic Jewish family. David would often say he was convinced that the arranged marriages of his parents' generation worked much better than all the dating, breaking up, and agonizing of modern, romantic relationships. Back then, the parents from both sides talked endlessly about possibly compatible couples. When they thought they had found one, they would introduce them. After a few chaperoned sessions of tea drinking, the young people were expected to commit to one another or to reject one another. And if they committed, they had to make it work.
Use recommendations and introductions from people you trust, by all means, but chances are that you will end up pulling a few names from some directory or from the purchasing department's roster of suitable agencies. Here you are then, meeting over coffee. Are you going to tell these strangers everything they need to know about your business, your priorities, your constraints, and your competitors? Are you going to mention the suspected weight-gain problem in the unpublished Phase III? The CEO's fondness for publicity stunts? The marketing director's predilection for releasing money in October that has to be spent by the 15th of December? What about your colleague who left after Italian authorities found out that he had bought a villa for the head of the patient association?
If you don't tell them the whole truth, expect lots of good but useless ideas to come back. You will have an agency that explains, very sensibly, that you don't need a media campaign or eye-catching events, that most patients in this category can be targeted efficiently through a joint electronic outreach with patient associations.
They will then spend a couple of hours setting out the details of their campaign, including a reward of a monthly box of chocolates for everyone who remains in the compliance program.
If you do tell them the whole truth, expect the rest of the market to know within a few months. Agencies take confidentiality agreements very seriously, but many agencies have 40 percent staff turnover each year, so the eager young account executive who pitched unsuccessfully for your business finds herself pitching to your main competitor in a few weeks time as part of her next job.
It would be almost irresistible to point out to them that they might have a major advantage if they focused on the dangers of weight gain. In the unlikely event that you discover how your competitors got a preview of the unpublished data, are you going to track her down and sue her?
Besides the problems with confidentiality, do you really have the time to sit and brief five teams on everything they need to know about your product and your market? It took you months to figure it out; do you think you're so dim that a team of strangers will be able to do it in a couple of hours?
Working it out
Like an arranged marriage, you'll get to meet the family before you commit to an agency contract. Unlike an arranged marriage, you may not find out who you're marrying until some time into the honeymoon.
This seems dishonest, but actually it is a result of what purchasing departments have done to agency economics. The rule of thumb is that each front-line agency employee has to earn 3.5 times their salary for a public relations or communications agency to make an overall profit of 10 to 15 percent. (For ad agencies, the sums are different but the rules are similar).
Whether you see it or not, every six-minute increment of the employees' days will be recorded on a time sheet somewhere. If you are not billed directly for the time, your retainer will be set and adjusted based on how much of each employee's time is allocated to you.