It’s been a very interesting week. There’s no doubt that the comptetition for talent is greater than ever before. According to the ONS, UK vacancies climbed by 35% in Q3 taking open roles to over one million for the first time ever. So it comes a no surprise that employers are looking for support in building their employer brand and developing their careers website. And that’s good news for us, because that’s what we do. But how do you start? And that, my friends, is the rub.

In the last week we’ve been approached by teo fantastic businesses to support them with the development of their employer brand. I won’t name any names, but their approach was very different. And it’s important to note that both were driven by their procurement teams. We were also very flattered this week to be described by a client as being ‘true partners’ to them. That made me particularly pleased because that’s how we want to be seen by all of our clients.

So it surprised me when a two year long conversation with employer one resulting in an anonymous email carrying the login details to a procurement portal and a spreadsheet to complete. My heart sank. But my mood improved when I recieved another email from employer two simply asking for a quick chat about their employer branding project. Something to get excited about. One of these approaches screamed “we’re choosing a supplier”, the other “we’re looking for a partner”.

Choose a partner, not a supplier

Firstly, please understand that this article comes from a good place. The return of the market could see the return of some bad practices. And nobody wnats that. It is also useful to remember that we don’t sell widgets and we don’t maintain machines. We offer support, value and partnership to your resourcing and talent acquisition teams. We share our intellectual property. Our experience. And trying to articulate that on a spreadsheet of hourly rates is virtually impossible. Where’s the opportunity to highlight the value we can offer? And while I understand that the spreadsheet is a great way of comparing apples to apples. I actually want to tell you why our apples are different – and possibly – better.

And so this week I declined the invitation to submit a proposal to employer one. And told them why. I also had a great 30 minute conversation with employer two. Who told me that they were doing initial calls with potential suppliers to get a better understanding of the market. From there they’d invite a small number of agencies for a chemistry meeting. Following this they’d develop a short list of three agencies and invite them to submit a proposal. A clear and transparent process. And one to get a little bit excited about. And the opportunity to demonstrate our value.

So I thought it might be nice to pull together some thoughts around how to identify a potential partner, and get the best out of them during the selection (or even procurement) process.

A polite note to procurement

All the agencies in our sector are brilliant. All of them. Full of talented people doing great work with clients. Some may have particular strengths, but on the whole they’re all brilliant. And can all deliver the project that you need support on. But we’re also busy. Don’t forget our existing clients are also experiencing the same challenges as your business. And we’ll always support them first. We’re not alone in having picked up some interesting clients during the pandemic. All of who needed help and support which we happily offered with no need to go through a long, drawn-out procurement process. So, please take the critique we’re going to give in the spirit of trying to make this better – for you and us.

Pitching by spreadsheet

Sending out a mass, impersonal invite to all the agencies under the sun and asking them to complete a request for information form on your procurement portal is a dreadful way of developing a shortlist of agencies. Are you only interested in the agencies who are willing to ‘jump through hoops’ or ‘dance, monkey, dance’? I’m sure we’re not alone when we say that none of our best client relationships started this way. Yes of course we’ve had to submit costs, provide details on insurances and business processes, but only after we’d all agreed that this could be a relationship that works for everyone.

And remembering that we don’t sell widgets and we don’t maintain machines, I am often bewildered by some of the questions we’re being asked. And I am so tempted to answer them honestly …

Q: Please name the three key competitors to your company in this market sector.
A: No. This is your job. Why should I help you make your shortlist of people to talk to? Some you may not have even considered. Do your due diligence.

Q: Please give a brief overview of your company’s key customers including how long they have been a customer, what services/products your company provides them and what % they represent of your company’s turnover.
A: Again, no. You’ve just asked us to sign a NDA and honour it. So have our clients. Would you like us telling other businesses about our working relationship with you? I didn’t think so. That said, we will tell you that no single client contributes more than 10% of our income.

The last procurement spreadsheet we recieved had a over 50 such questions. All which could have been covered in a 30 minute call and an email. This process is simply too impersonal for us. Sorry.

And while I am on the subject, here’s another frustrating procurement tactic. Often we’ll ask questions, in an attempt to understand the employer’s challenge a little deeper. This usually demonstrates a particular line of thinking and some initiative. So, why does procurement then offer the questions and answers to all bidders, many of which are then gifted additional information they may not have thought of? Where’s the value of asking the questions?

It’s a ‘beauty parade’

Thankfully, this is a rarity these days. But as I mentioned bad old practices do seem to be returning. So I fear that this may make an unwelcome return too. The issuing of a theoretical brief asking for ‘creative ideas’ to solve a specific problem. Is this really a true reflection of what it will actually be like to work with each agency? Sometimes maybe, often not.

First of all, the brief is meant to be a test of creativity, but the work that comes from it is will lack the required insight. Work should be done on the basis of understanding the expectations of the audience and creating messages against that – rather than the personal preferences or assumptions of the client stakeholder team. So the work certainly isn’t ‘ready to run’. In fact, I would say it would be dangerous ever to run with pitch work. So it has been a waste of time.

And, don’t forget to take a photo of the CEO who has come to the pitch to prove just how important to the agency you are … as that may be the last time you see them.

So Mark, how would you suggest it’s done?

I’m glad you asked. By playing to our strengths obviously. Whether the process is procurement led or not – create your shortlist by asking your peers or people in your network for recommendations. Who do they work with, know and trust? Look at who’s won awards if that’s something that matters to you. We think awards are evidence of a high quality of work but perhaps more importantly, they’re selected by an audience of industry experts who have years of experience.

Check out agency websites and especially the case studies or client stories and ask about the specific results against the KPIs. Visit the links to actual careers websites and see the work for yourselves. Pick up the phone – we all like to talk and you’ll often find out a lot with a preliminary call.  Then invite the agencies you feel comfortable with in for a chat. Tell us the real problems you are trying to solve and see what comes from this. It’s often an opportunity to show a little pro-activity based on more than guesswork, and it’s a good indicator of what it would be like to work with us. Give us a realistic budget and we’ll give you proposals you can actually use – rather than go over the top on speculative pitch work that isn’t fit to see the light of day.

This approach should help you narrow your potential shortlist down to two or three agencies. Maximum. And is much more productive than sending out 20 RFIs. Then, if you do have a pitch, you’ll already have a pretty good grasp of the business and people involved. Also for the pitch, specify at the outset that you want to meet the team you’ll actually be working with. And don’t be afraid to ask for references to help you make a decision.

In conclusion

We’re not saying procurement led processes are bad. But selecting a partner to support you in the development of your employer brand is not the same as finding someone to supply your stationary or water your plants. In fact, we understand that a procurement-led selection process may even be a corporate or legal directive. But don’t use the procurement portal as your entry point to working with an agency. You could miss out on a brilliant business to work with. And don’t focus on the costs … focus on the value.

I hope that this helps you see the process from the point of view of the agencies. After all, we don’t want to go on strike against the pitching process like the agencies in Belgium did.

But my final word on this is the advice I left employer two with … pick the agency that you think will be the most enjoyable to work with. After all, you’re going to be talking to them on an almost daily basis. The very best work is a combination of a great initial idea, a bunch of talented people who all want to deliver something special, and a brave and ambitious client. And if we can have some fun delivering it, all the better. And you won’t find that information in the column of a spreadsheet!

For further information

If you feel that you’d like some help, support or even a little chat around your employer brand, just drop me a line. After all, much of our best work has started with a cup of tea, a biscuit and a Zoom call.