For a Client in Search of an Advertising Agency

Some thoughts for a client in search of a new agency and for companies that already have one …

“He that promises most will always perform least.” — Gaelic Proverb

If you are truly interested in choosing (or keeping) a great advertising agency, we have a few recommendations to help you do it fairly, to minimize the possibility of choosing the wrong agency (or getting rid of one that you should have kept), and to maximize your potential for choosing the right agency, and helping them to become the perfect agency for you.

1. Choose a short list of advertising agencies that have come to your attention as you have gone through the normal business cycle. It may be a persistent firm that has kept in touch. It may be a campaign that caught your eye. It could be another company’s advertising agency that they have spoken highly of. But, there should be something about them that made you remember their name and mentally file it away for when you might need them. If you don’t have any in mind, ask business owners whom you respect – and whose marketing you have admired – for some names for the list. But, make it a short list, two or three should do it.

2. Informally discuss the possibilities with the agency President and Creative Director, and include their top account executive. This is a chemistry check. Remember that agency people are often very different from other business people, and that’s a good thing. Agency people need a lot of varied experiences, expecially creative agency people. They will be very different from most business people. Absent minded, contemplative, seemingly irrelevant in their comments, they may not be on time, they will probably have an odd sense of humor, and they will be certainly be curious to a fault about everything. Remember what they do for a living: they take other people’s ideas and make them fly. Your agency will do exactly that for you, if you know how.

3. Don’t bother touring the agency’s offices. And certainly don’t bother meeting the other agency employees. They say laws and sausages are two things you never want to watch being made. Advertising is another one. Deal with the key people and look over the agency’s work and experience. That’s the only way. Everything else is just egos and preconceptions and these things have nothing to do with great advertising. Avoid making your agency jump through hoops that make you feel better.

4. Ask to see what they consider their strongest projects and then review them carefully with the agency. Limit this to just the top two or three. Each agency assignment, when the story is told honestly and heard with intelligence, is very interesting in and of itself. It won’t be, “They assigned it and we did it.” There’s always a lot more to a great campaign than that. Listen for their style of work, their ingenuity in action, and their resourcefulness. See if you like their style of attack and ways of communication. Watch for a commitment to success and evidence of putting their client’s interests ahead of their own. Then look carefully at the details. Attention to detail is a sign of professionalism.

5. Choose the agency whose creativity INTERESTS you the most. Being wowed and impressed is vastly different from finding the work creatively interesting and informative, and from being genuinely engaged by intelligent professionals who can do it over and over. Selling is just talk. Great advertising is true performance. Be the kind of client who likes and appreciates performance. It has been said that the first chapter of a book is the easiest to write, and a jazzy presentation in a “spec” campaign is the easiest thing to do in agency work as well. But serious campaigns and ingenius marketing go on and on. To be successful you are going to need an agency team that can perform over and over and over again. Razzle dazzle in a sales pitch (while fun to witness) may actually be more of a comment on the commitment to new business development of the agency management than on the sustained creative effort that you are going to need. There are two kinds of advertising agencies: ones with a working ethic and ones with a selling ethic. Both have their place, but which one is for you?

6. Once all of that is done, and one agency is singled out, talk about what and how the agency charges. Try to understand how they make their money and let them know that you want them to be profitable. David Ogilvy said it best, “Never haggle over the agency’s compensation.” It is a very damaging thing to do. Questions are always welcome. Clarifications and estimates ahead of time are great. Constant communication saves many a misunderstanding. But the most creative work always flows to the best clients. And that’s the truth. So, try to understand what is going on, and how they do it. Decide early on that you want to be the best client they ever had. And then really work at it. It may catch them by surprise, but if you’ve done a good job in making your decision, they will catch right on. Remember, the best work always goes to the best clients.

7. After your choice is made, let them do the job you hired them to do. Bad ads, bad advertising, bad commercials; these are everywhere. That should be a warning to you. Don’t establish a committee. Be positive and decisive; communicate your decisions quickly. Waiting to hear what you think has a bad effect on creative people. Remember, make the agency feel that what they are accomplishing is the most important thing your company is doing. The optimism that this culture conveys is a very important element of marketing success. Never say, “It does nothing for me.” If it does nothing for you, it is at least partly your responsibility, because the advertising agency was trying to make your idea fly based on discussions with you. So, if something is off base, encourage them and remind them that this is a process and each step forward is a step closer to success. Have a dependable system that works with dispatch. Don’t bicker about the bills, it’s too late by the time the invoice arrives. Establish pricing early in the project. Don’t nitpick the copy, that’s just stupid. Remember, you hired them so you are in it together. It should never be you vs. them. If it is, you should be fired, not the agency.

8. Behind all great advertising, there is always a great client. And it also true that behind bad advertising there is always a bad client. Resolve to be a great client. Because in reality your marketing is the most important thing your company does. Your approach to the advertising agency’s process and performance makes everything easier or it makes everything harder. And, the good news is: it is up to you.