Choosing an agency is a critical decision. The cost of a bad choice includes lost time, lost money, lost sales, unhappy employees and sometimes serious damage to your brand. Ideally, an agency relationship should last a minimum of three years and a maximum of 20 years. Work levels may vary greatly during that period, but it’s important to maintain continuity. New agencies typically want to change everything and make their own mark, but a positioning campaign takes multiple years to resonate in customers’ minds.
Are you ready for an agency?
The first step in choosing an agency is to determine if you’re ready. Most clients choose to contact an agency in response to a specific need or opportunity, when they feel they are leaving money on the table, or when they’re so dissatisfied with their current agency that the hassle of working with them surpasses the hassle of replacing them. If you’re not earning all you can earn, you can probably benefit from some help. You should begin with a budget in mind. As a rule, many companies spend 1-3% of gross sales on business development. A successful agency relationship also takes an investment of time. If you’re not prepared to meet with your agency routinely, your priorities can fall behind those of an agency’s other clients—ones that are committed to working with the agency as partners. This brings us to chemistry.
Pay close attention to the people you meet during the business development process. If you’re going to have a successful partnership, you’ll be spending a lot of time with these people. That doesn’t mean you have to like every person at the agency. Diverse groups are rich with ideas. However, make sure you understand who will be your day-to-day contact(s) and that you’re comfortable with those people. Also, make sure you’re meeting the real account team and not a “pitch team.”
This is a factor that’s often overlooked by business leaders and marketing managers. The right size fit is critical for an agency/client relationship. Generally, it’s best to avoid being much larger or much smaller than the agency’s current client list. The largest account may have volume needs the agency simply lacks the capacity to fulfill. The smallest account may be ignored.
Many agencies will energize around a client with the biggest opportunity for creative expression. Even if that client has the smallest budget, it can become the most important if the people doing the work are excited about the opportunity. That doesn’t mean you should let the creatives run amok, though. It’s important to have a thoughtful, written strategy and for your account manager to hold the creatives accountable to that strategy. If you ever reject or refocus the work, it should be on the basis of the pre-determined strategy and never for subjective reasons.
At most new business meetings, clients ask, “what do you know about my business.” Many agencies have experience in your industry because they’ve worked with your competitors in the past. This experience can save you money and time, but it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes, the best ideas come from a fresh perspective. The reality is that you know plenty about your industry and a good agency can minimize the learning curve and bring valuable ideas whether they have industry experience or not.
Great marketing is a comprehensive approach to strategy, creative, publicity, direct marketing, media, Web technology and other skills. Even if you plan to engage the agency for a limited assignment, other needs will come up over time. The time you invested teaching that Web company the ins and outs of your business will be wasted if you suddenly find yourself in need of crisis management communications.
How senior are the people who will be working on my business? (Not the people in the pitch-the ones that will be doing the work.) Pay close attention to the bios of your account team.
Growing or shrinking?
Where is the agency in its life cycle? Is it a new agency on the rise, an old faithful, a declining force? What type of clients has it had in the past? What type of clients is it chasing now. It’s important for you to understand if the agency’s goal is to have accounts like yours or if yours is just a stop along the way. The latter is not a bad thing, but it’s helpful to know where you stand and keep things in perspective.
On the advertising side, most agencies are started either by former creatives (copy writers or designers) or by account managers (strategists). If you plan to beat your competition on the basis of brand personality alone, a creative-led agency may suit your needs. If your brand is truly different from your competition, you must take care to ensure that those competitive differences are not lost behind the creative. In either case, make sure the agency you choose has strong credentials in both creative and strategy. If your account includes public relations (and it should), choose an agency with a strong in-house public relations capability. Subcontracted PR programs are sometimes low priorities for ad agencies and can result in missed opportunities.
Who’s Your Marketing Director?
Any agency can work with your marketing director—defined as a staff person whose full-time responsibility and background is marketing (not sales or general management). Often in organizations spending less than $1 million a year in advertising, that function is not represented on the management team. In this case, the agency’s account manager is often called upon to perform some of the thinking and functions, reporting directly to the president, the board or a sales VP. In this case, the account manager must be a smart, long-term agency member with good chemistry with the client and a passion for the client’s business.