Hopefully, you’re down to three firms by this time. Only now do you need to spend time face to face. Are they willing to come to your space? They should be. Do they bring 15 people? That’s an overshare. You only need to meet the people who will work directly on your account, who you need to get to know well. Make the interview face to face as much of a ‘working’ session as possible — so you can get a feel for what it might be like to have them on your team.
Tell them to keep the face to face time focused on what they’ll do for you, rather than lots of case studies of their work. At this point, you should be comfortable they are qualified to do the work and you don’t need to have their case studies repeated.
Does the pitch they bring with them speak to what you want, as outlined in the RFP? At this point, you should expect a preliminary idea of how they’d approach reaching the goals you have generously outlined for them; if they don’t, and they haven’t done their homework, it tells me they don’t care and should be discounted. While you cannot expect an agency to have fully understood you and your market, you should at least see one (or even two) ideas you’re excited about in their pitch.
The working relationship
An agency is only as good as the way they are managed, and how much you help them to be successful. Lines of communication are, therefore, absolutely critical.
Find out how often they would meet face to face, and how often for virtual checks ins. I think weekly 30-minute status calls are great, and at least a one month face-to-face. At that point, I’m happy to go to their office. I want them to spend their hourly time working for me, not commuting to see me.
Find out how they track projects. What tools do they use? Do they match your style of project management? Do they seem like they’re in the Agile camp, where you can always see the status of what’s going on and is this important to you?
Finally, do you click? Will you enjoy working with this team? Does your gut tell you can rely on them in a crisis? Chemistry matters!
At this point, the agency should also look to help you define a reasonable budget, with what would be included and excluded. Agencies will likely want a baseline ‘retainer,’ just to be on call to you. You can negotiate a three- or six-month initial engagement, with an opt-out. Agencies don’t like “project” basis engagements (“just do this press release and announcement for me”), though they may accept that work to get their foot in the door. However, you’re never going to get the best results from this manner of engagement. If this is what you feel you really need now, it’s best to find a freelancer who can take on the project.