Will agency search RFPs be replaced by algorithms? That's what Zach Pardes, the founder of Agency Geek, is betting as he launches a new networking technology to match marketers with agencies.
Agency Geek, which goes live today, allows marketers to post a free search proposal while agencies pay to submit a profile and fill out a survey of "intuitive questions" that details what they are like as client partners. Geek then uses a 100-point algorithm to come up with an initial list of compatible agencies for the marketer before the search progresses.
Inevitably, Pardes likens the new-business courting process to online dating sites like eHarmony.
"It's traditional dating versus online dating. You can go on 100 dates before you find someone you like," Pardes said. Agency Geek saves marketers and clients time by narrowing hundreds of options down to 10.
In an industry being transformed by disintermediation, Geek's offering replaces "costly consultants, ineffective business development executives and outdated, error-laden RFP databases," according to the Agency Geek chief.
"We're looking to simplify the process. RFPs are grossly inefficient with a lot of wasted money and wasted time. When I was at an agency, we spent thousands a month on these antiquated ways to get new business," recalled Pardes who previously worked at Vantage Communications and RLM Public Relations. "With consultants, you're dealing with people who charge massive fees and take part of the retainer every month. There's no attention to the quality of the relationship. They just match up to match up."
Not that consultants, who disagree with that assessment, are feeling any threat from Agency Geek, yet.
"At one's peril, a client will trust a match.com process for a $200 million budget for an 89-year-old brand. You can Google and come up with an agency list. What's the difference here?" said one search expert about Agency Geek. "You're going to find the best agency in a walled-in garden. Perhaps this could work for a smaller client project, but I doubt you're going to get a significant AOR relationship out of this."
Pardes claims to have 1,500 clients involved with Agency Geek, including large marketers like Disney, Samsung and Verizon, as well as smaller regional ones with $5,000 to $10,000 projects. He adds that "a couple of hundred" agencies have signed up for the service, which charges tiered subscription fees ranging from $150 to $600 per month. Pardes declined to identify which agencies have signed up, but said he has large ones, as well as small- to mid-sized shops who don't have the resources to burn through new-business RFPs.
Geek asks agencies about administrative tasks like billing preferences and communications between client and agency. But Pardes also tries to delve into agency intangibles.
"We ask about the edginess of the [agency] brand and willingness to take creative risks and how they operate," he said. "I know a lot of agencies operate simply by being factories and they produce whatever is asked of them, but this tries to take them beyond that."
Still, as agency execs churn out the boilerplate in response to questions that may not be all that different from those in an RFP, how does Pardes adjust for an agency's overly rosy bias? He said questions that could yield a possible bias are factored accordingly in the algorithm. "We take the answers with a grain of salt," he said.
Agency Geek has just come out of Beta testing of the site, which took two years to develop at a cost of $120,000. Pardes cited an example of what he views as a successful use of Agency Geek: During the trial, a mid-sized Midwestern agency landed a $20,000 retainer project, from a "major" East Coast marketer, after being shortlisted.
Pardes declined to identify the companies involved in that transaction, but used this hypothetical case to explain Agency Geek at its best: "There's a fantastic agency in Utah that does amazing digital work, and Samsung doesn't know anything about them. Our system says you two should meet, and we make that happen."
But Pardes then rushes to explain that after a shortlist is calculated, Geek steps aside in that matchmaking ritual. "There's always going to be a component of traditional business development in this process," he said. "Our technology makes sure a good introduction is made, but it still does not replace a quality meeting or phone call."