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If I Were “Shopping” for an Agency…

November 16, 2010

Last night I had the opportunity to share my real-life experience with the accelerated degree (B.A. Marketing) students of St. Scholastica.
They all get high marks for not falling asleep as I expounded on my answer to this question:
If I were “shopping” for an agency, what would I do and/or consider?

If you want to know what I said, read on. If you would rather check out St. Scholastica…I totally understand.


1. Start internally: GOALS
Don’t wander into a selection process without a significant amount of internal dialog and outlining. You can’t expect anyone to accomplish undefined objectives. Don’t despair if you don’t meet this first criterion, instead understand that the need to define objectives is perhaps the work you need from an agency.

2. What support do you really need to accomplish these goals?
a.     planning
b.     researching
c.     producing
d.     creating
e.     buying, etc.

3. What do you know for sure?
a.     your organization’s make-up
b.     key products and services
c.     target audience
d.     competitive knowledge
e.     do you think it…or do you have data to prove it

WHAT YOU NEED DONE will guide you through the next factors.

Advertising Agencies, by name, are obsolete. An ad agency typically means an entity that creates and places media. Advertising is merely a component of the competencies that comprise MARKETING.


If the scope of your need is narrow, for example, you just need a new website, specialized agencies can be a great choice. Don’t however choose “best of breed” for each type of media if your need is broad.

Typically, breadth of work is more important than depth of work. Employing a single agency to manage the full scope of your marketing is the best way to maximize your time and your brand’s integrity.

Professional marketers understand the science behind the art. Don’t worry about an agency not having direct experience in an industry, vertical or market segment—instead—look for relatable experience.

For example: You are a telecom company that needs to boil down high-tech information into consumer-friendly material. Looking for an agency with experience in the “boiling down” portion tends to be more important than telecom experience.

While you may still choose to work with an agency with telecom experience, be sure to do your research on any conflicts of interest. It’s not likely that Coke and Pepsi have the same ad agency and with good reason.

Partner with an agency that is as large within its field as you are in yours. In other words a small company would not typically use a big agency. Agency size may impact overall communication and the attention you get and the number of levels your idea travels through to get executed. You are one account among many. How fast do you need work done and how important do you want to be in your agency’s world.

On a related note, location should also be considered if you are old-fashioned like me and still appreciate “face time.” At least have Skype.

Be positive that the people you will work with have knowledge of your business, an interest in your business, and knowledge of the competitive situation. Look for agencies that do their homework before expecting a paycheck.

Seek an agency with process, but avoid bias or overly formulaic strategies.
Some agencies may tell you there is no value in social media and that it’s just a trend.
Others may say a yellow page ad is a must in any marketing mix.

Blanket statements are red flags.
Initial conversations with an agency should reek of the agencies desire to LEARN about you!

How flexible are their payment options and how do you want to manage accountability for the work? There are plenty of ways to get paid, the most popular:
a.   Hourly
b.   Project Bid
c.    Commissions (percentage of media placement)
d.   Retainers
e.   New: Pay for performance – I love this version. The agency gets paid when you make money from their efforts!

Talk to their clients. Talk to their past clients.
Look for variety and be sure the samples looks like the company the material is created for, not like the agency
Talk to vendors and suppliers that work for the agency (ultimately for you) – how are they treated?

Look for components that indicate they are thought leaders: white papers, credentials, blogs, etc.
It is difficult to demonstrate strategy and management in a portfolio – get that through a presentation.

Too many organizations fall victim to the razzle-dazzle of a presentation and fail to discuss results.
Beware of an agency that leads by telling you about its awards, rather than the accomplishments of its business partners.
Put simply: awards don’t pay bills. Never let creativity get in the way of impact. Advertising is simply a fancy word that means selling.

Measure what matters. Be sure they have a history of measuring marketing response and return on investment. My mantra: we only work (have jobs) because we work (get results).

Along with a presentation to you, consider visiting the agencies location.

Agencies aren’t a “thing,” they are a collection of people and their skills.
Have you ever passed on hiring someone because you knew they would simply “get on your nerves?” Just like employee selection, your agency needs to have a balance of TECHNICAL (ability) and INTERPERSONAL skill.

Know who will be the people you will work with on a daily basis. Get to know them. Well.

Don’t underestimate human chemistry.

Class dismissed.


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