Selecting the Right Agency
Choosing the right marketing support to build your business For most companies who want to grow their client base, promote a specific product, or perhaps even launch a new initiative, there often comes a moment of truth, and a daunting question to tackle, specifically, “How do we market ourselves?” If your company has a marketing department, you may already feel like you have a handle on the situation. But if your marketing department is at maximum project capacity while supporting internal needs, or if the department is highly specialized and you’re seeking expertise outside of existing staff, it may be time to look for external support. And, if you don’t have an internal marketing department to speak of, perhaps it goes without saying: It’s time to look for a partner. But how? And, where to begin? The question of how to choose the right support for your marketing needs is anything but a small consideration. In fact, the process of choosing an agency can be incredibly involved, overwhelming and time-consuming. And much is at stake. In the blizzard of information and advertising we all live in today, it’s more important than ever to develop effective marketing techniques that speak to our target audiences; indeed the success of your business depends upon it. Thankfully, with the right preparation, there are some practical steps business leaders can take to ensure the process goes smoothly. Most importantly, by taking a measured approach to selecting the marketing support you need, you increase your chances of realizing the end results you seek. And, let’s face it, that’s why you’re looking for assistance from marketing experts in the first place. But first, you must ask yourself what kind of support you need. Consider first the scope of your project. Are you looking at a quick, short-term project, or a longerterm relationship for a full-fledged campaign or ongoing marketing efforts? Are your needs specific to Web? Are they primarily design focused? Or, do you just need writing support? The truth is, these needs differ widely from one another, and the level of partnership you need to help attain your goals differs widely as well, depending upon the scope of your project.
© 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
Typically, an organization is ready to explore marketing agency offerings when they’ve reached a high level of dissatisfaction with their existing agency, or when they have a specific marketing need, whether short- or long-term. If you feel as if your business isn’t growing as it should, if you know you have specific marketing support needs to build your business, or if you have initiatives without the internal marketing capacity or expertise to handle them, it’s time to consider your options. If it seems your business is not ready for a contract with a full service agency, there are other options for meeting your communications and marketing needs. For example, you may want to consider hiring an internal marketing manager, if you don’t already have one. This individual could have the broad-based experience to give you the support you need, for less than the cost of a contract with an agency. But chances are if you’re researching how to select the best agency for your company needs, you’ve determined your organization is big enough and has sufficient needs to support a contractual arrangement with an agency. Now, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to the work of selection.
Analyze your needs Experts say businesses which are considering hiring an agency must start by first taking a step back and examining what kind of agency is needed. This is dependent upon how much responsibility you can handle in-house as well as the weight of your project or overall need. This is also a good time to determine whether you need an agency at all, or if outsourcing the project to a freelance writer, designer or public relations and marketing professional would fulfill your needs sufficiently. Freelancers can have lower overhead and lower hourly fees, which can be an important consideration for those with tight budgets. They also have their drawbacks, mainly in the form of limited capacity and expertise. In addition, freelancers who cannot provide service in all areas you require may need to bring on their own subcontractors to get the job done. Agencies, meanwhile, may have a cohesive team at the ready to tackle your project or marketing plan. In fact, many agencies are flush with talented, experienced communicators who specialize in everything from media placement to marketing strategy, copy writing, design and Web development. When chosen well, they can become your right hand as far as sales and marketing go, too. Many companies depend upon them as part of their long-term business development strategy, which is a priceless result of the partnership. So before you even start researching what’s available as far as agencies go, you’ll want to ask yourself a few pointed questions.1 1 Levinson, Jay C. “What to Look for in an Ad Agency.” Inc.com. Inc., 13 Sept. 2000. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/09/20317.html>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
1. Do you really need an agency? Maybe you only need a freelancer. Create a list of things you require. Are you looking for assistance with planning, research, development of creative or selection of media? Is it all of these? Or something else? Here are some indicators that a freelancer is the right choice for you: • The size of your project is small with a specific start and end point. This could include brochure development, a small website or web updates, some client letters or a newsletter. • Your budget is limited. Freelancers often charge by the hour, though some do charge by the project. • You do not have a recurring variety of work. Newsletters are often outsourced to freelancers, but if you can see that your needs will blossom in the future to a wide variety of related projects, and freelancer may not be the right choice. • You do not need marketing strategy. Many freelancers focus on project output, rather than strategy development (though there are exceptions.) If you already have your strategic thinking cap on, if the path is well-defined, a freelancer can offer valuable support to your resulting projects. On the other hand, if you find that you need the support of one or more people to launch your marketing projects and initiatives, if you have a significant number of projects but don’t believe it’s cost effective to hire additional full-time staff, if you are looking to further develop your brand and want a long-term partnership, you will want to look into partnering with an agency. Industry insiders point out that the term “ad agency” is a misnomer in today’s business climate. In fact, the ideal agency knows that advertising is just one form of marketing, and there are many other opportunities and communications vehicles for reaching a chosen target audience. If the agencies you are considering focus just on advertising, that should be a red flag for you. You want your ad agency to become an essential part of your marketing team, not just an ad creator.2 More on the variety of agencies later. 2. Do you want to handle the media buying in-house, or hire the agency to handle it? You could save money by bringing it in-house, but if you
2 Inc. Staff. “How to Select an Ad Agency.” Inc.com. Inc., 13 Sept. 2000. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/09/20316.html>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
don’t have the resources to do so, bringing the right partner on board who has the expertise you need can save you a great deal of time, effort and frustration. Many companies explore this solution when they are at max capacity, choosing an agency to create and place media buys. Problem solved. 3. How will the agency be paid? Will it be paid for the commission it earns on media buys plus the commission it earns on production? Or, will you agree on a flat fee? If opting for the hourly route, you may want to request a monthly estimate of what those hourly fees will be, for planning purposes. Of course, agreeing on a flat fee can ensure there are no unwelcome surprises down the road. 4. Why are you leaning toward a specific agency? Is it because they offer a specific kind of expertise? Take care to choose an agency that will help you differentiate yourself from the competition. 5. Does the agency have measurable experience in direct marketing and the Internet? If not, and if this is an area you are interested in exploring for your marketing needs, you may want to consider other options. Experts say both direct marketing and Internet-based initiatives are essential components of a comprehensive marketing plan, and that they continue to grow in importance. 6. Can the agency handle all of your needs? This is where having a clear picture of what you want from your agency will be helpful. Are you looking for them to help launch new products, and if so, how much experience do they have in launches? Do they have access to comprehensive public relations services (if you determine you are looking for that)? Your project may have many components and deliverables; look for an agency that has a history of achieving goals like yours, and doing the job well. 7. Does location matter? Communication is so immediate these days, thanks to email, faxes, cell phones and other technology, for some, location doesn’t matter. But if you want regular face-to-face contact with members of the agency you hire (that is, not in a Google+® hang out or via Skype®), that limits your choices. If you choose someone outside your immediate area, are there aspects of the business relationship that will come up short for you? 8. Who will be in charge of advertising decisions—someone from the agency, or someone from your business? Do you respect that individual? 9. Do you love the work the agency has done in the past? Are you happy with the measurable results they’ve shown you? Do you like the people of the agency and trust them? Note whether they brag about awards they’ve won, or speak to profits their clients have realized. In the end, it’s about results. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
What kind of agencies are out there? There are a wide variety of agencies to choose from when it comes to selecting a partner in your marketing efforts and they vary in size from small shops to multi-agency conglomerates. Itâ€™s important to match your companyâ€™s specific needs with the agency that will best fulfill them. Here are a few types of agencies available to businesses. 1. Creative agencies. These specialize in designing the look and feel for your company or your ad campaign. They may pair with media agencies to offer full-service for ad buying. 2. Media agencies. These focus on buying and placing the advertising your company wants. They can assume responsibility for the overall planning of your campaign, alleviating a lot of the workload from your in-house staff. 3. Specialist advertising agencies. These agencies focus on a particular type of advertising, such as corporate, recruitment, health care, financial, retail, travel or other industries and niches. While they may be an attractive option because of their inherent knowledge of your given industry, it is important to also consider the benefits of working with agencies that offer new ideas and who can help differentiate your products and services from the competition. 4. Interactive agencies. These specialize in e-communications and marketing development. They may offer everything from Web design and website development, to SEO support, Internet marketing and e-commerce consulting. Overall, they specialize in marketing for these highly digital times. 5. Social media agencies. These agencies specialize in harnessing the power of the social media landscape, including marketing platforms such as social networking sites and blogs. 6. General marketing agencies and consultants. Wider and more inclusive in scope than any of the other agencies listed here, general marketing agencies may provide general marketing consultation while also offering support in any of the other niche areas described. If your organization is looking for broad-based support that may include social media, Web, writing, design and creative development, a general marketing agency may be for you. 7. Freelancers. Discussed earlier, freelancers can offer an alternative to agencies, and are suitable for initiatives with limited scope; for example, when you have in-house employees who require someone who can share the workload for a specific need. While they may be limited in capacity and specialized in expertise, they sometimes cost less than agencies and have the flexibility to take on smaller projects. ÂŠ 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
Keep in mind, even if you select a full service marketing agency, you may want to explore the possibility of hiring an agency that specializes in a specific area, to ensure your needs are met with the best possible quality outcomes.
Does the agency meet your needs? When you have done a comprehensive assessment of what you’re looking for, and you’ve determined that you do need an agency, it’s time to hunt for the right one. Experts say when choosing an agency, you may request they deliver a presentation, but request that they don’t spend a lot of money doing so. Some agencies will focus on putting on a good show, and try to razzle-dazzle you into signing them. Don’t be swayed by showmanship, but instead, think critically about that agency is offering and if it fits your requirements. Here’s a checklist of primary considerations, to get you started.3 1. Does the agency recognize that advertising is only a small piece of the marketing puzzle? Do they propose other methods of achieving your goals and growing your business? Do they resist when you propose other areas to explore? This would be a red flag that the capabilities of the agency are limited. 2. Determine whether the agency’s top talent will play a role in your marketing efforts. Meet with those who will lead the various initiatives outlined in your marketing plan: research, creative, design, copy. Do they have the credentials you want? How do you get along with them? You deserve the best for your business, make sure the agency will deliver nothing less. Some experts say the best way to approach this is to attempt to find agencies that are similar in size to the size of your company. If you are a small company contracting with a large ad agency, you may find that you do not have access to the agency’s top talent.4 3. Does the agency understand your company’s objectives? Do they believe they are reasonable? When they put together their marketing strategy, you should clearly see their understanding of this. 4. Do the people working on your account have knowledge of your industry and an interest in your company? Have they done their homework? Do they know the competitive market? These are essential to developing a good, productive relationship with your agency. If they don’t have an understanding of what you’re up against, they can’t effectively position you for success. If the industry seems too complex for them to grasp, or if they seem less than interested, these are
3 Op sit. 4 “How to Choose an Advertising Agency.” WikiHow. Ed. Juniper Night. 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wikihow.com/Choose-an-Advertising-Agency>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
indicators that they may not be a good fit. 5. What have they created to date? Take a close look at all of it. Do you like it? Does it resonate with you? Have they employed tactics and strategies in the past that might work well for you? Past performance of an agency is a good indicator of future success. 6. Have they grown from the growth of their clients? This is a far better indicator than companies that have grown from adding new clients. Agencies that depend upon the acquisition of new clients for their growth may be good at the big sell, and weaker on delivery. In addition, agencies that depend upon new clients may be more interested in selling themselves to other companies than they are in delivering on your expectations. Doing the research is time-consuming, but will pay off in the long run. Another important consideration is whether your business will have access to the agency’s top talent.5 Some agencies are very good at wowing companies with a presentation delivered by their best people. No matter the size of your business, you want to make sure the top talent is going to be working on your projects. How can you do that? First, request to meet with the people who will actually be doing the work for your company. Ask to see their portfolios. We’re not talking about leadership within the company, but the worker bees who will be your primary contacts, and who will be implementing what you request. And then, be sure the chemistry is right between you, so that you can maintain a productive, successful relationship throughout the duration of your marketing plan and perhaps beyond.
Budgeting Budget is also a major factor for many companies when considering partnering with an agency. As you establish your budget, experts say you should keep in mind two important matters. 1. Agencies typically charge by the hour or by the project for creative services. An hourly rate is dependent upon the market as well as the size and experience of the agency in addition to their reputation and client list. Expect that hourly rate to range from $40 to $200, or more.6 2. Agencies typically charge about 15% media commission above the production costs for printing or development of television and radio ads. Reputable advertising and marketing agencies will provide cost estimates for your projects. By establishing clearly the parameters of your projects and the 5 Levinson, Jay C. “What to Look for in an Ad Agency.” Inc.com. Inc., 13 Sept. 2000. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/09/20317.html>. 6 Gallup, Betsy. “How to Choose an Advertising Agency.” Love To Know Business. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://business.lovetoknow.com/wiki/How_to_Choose_an_Advertising_Agency>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
deliverables you need, you can get a clear handle on the anticipated expense of partnering with an ad agency.
Prepare to be impressed Even the most prepared marketing decision-makers can be enticed by a particularly flashy sell. So, it’s important to recognize that knowing the importance of these factors can fall to the wayside when a pitch is especially impressive. That’s why, experts say, it’s vital that you separate yourself from the agency’s showmanship in order to make the right decision. J. Scott Armstrong, of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania®, suggests a structured procedure for evaluating the agency proposals you get, including 11 criteria. 7 1. Examine the agency’s planning techniques. Do they present a realistic timeline for you to consider? Do they have a plan B in place? Research shows that formal planning techniques greatly improve the performance of an organization. Consider the meeting itself, as a microcosm of your larger initiative: Did they plan it well? If so, that is an indicator that they will be able to plan properly for your organization’s marketing or advertising needs. 2. Look at your primary objectives, and determine whether they made a proper assessment of your needs. Did they listen carefully? Did they sufficiently focus on your objectives? Will they be able to offer you measurable outcomes? Is their compensation tied to those initiatives? Did they think critically about whether the advertising they’re proposing will offer you the best return on investment? 3. Consider their use of research. Do they know how to get the research they need, and how to evaluate that research for your purposes? Are they already aware of research about your target markets? Experts point out that creativity in advertising and marketing requires knowledge. Effective agencies ask a lot of questions, are great listeners and are willing to engage in extensive research to ensure they’re on the right track. 4. Study their creativity. What techniques or tools do they use to put together creative campaigns? Do their creative sessions have structure that encourages productivity? Even if you are not creatively-minded, you should be able to examine their process to determine whether they are likely to reach the end point you want most. Research indicates the best way to predict success with a marketing partner is to look at whether the group has structured creativity techniques in place. 7 Armstrong, J. S. How to Select an Advertising Agency: A Structured Approach. How to Select an Advertising Agency: A Structured Approach. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. <http://www.advertisingprinciples.com/docs/structuredguide.pdf>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
5. Have they done research on persuasive principles? How will they bring this knowledge to your campaign? Even if they choose to disregard research, they should be able to show grounds for why they have made that decision. 6. Ask about alternative copy considerations. What ideas did they throw out, and why? Would they consider alternatives? Why did they choose what they chose? 7. Inquire about copy testing. Do they have any recommendations for testing the copy and the alternatives they considered? How would they approach that project? You want to make sure you team up with a group that is open to creative testing, and strives to create pieces that have a sense of timelessness.8 8. Look at the media alternatives. What alternative media buys would they consider, and why? Does the agency seem up to date on online advertising, but not too far ahead of your target market? 9. Examine their choice in media. What do they recommend as the most effective media, and why? How did they determine what they would spend? Do they have a plan in place for measuring return on investment for ad buys for the recommendations they make? 10. Study team member capability and skill sets. Do they bring to the table what you want from your agency? Do they have proof of performance? Would you be able to see a full list of clients so you can learn about their successes and opportunities for improvement? 11. Take a close look at the organization’s values and ethics. Do they have processes in place to ensure your company puts its best foot forward? Do they have a code of ethics? Do they have legal support who can think critically about potential downfalls and anticipate potential issues? Armstrong divides these criteria into three primary themes. First, it’s easier for company decision-makers (that’s you) to evaluate process and procedure rather than advertising itself. Industry experts advise anyone embarking on a search to find the right marketing partners to do everything in their power to recognize the difference between clever advertising and advertising that is effective. Jay Conrad Levinson writes, in an article for Inc. Magazine entitled, “What to Look for in an Ad Agency,”9 that it is important to carefully consider agencies that depend on humor in their advertising, as humor can lose its impact through repetition, while effective advertising gains impact the more frequently it runs. More, Levinson points out, humor may be okay for low-end purchases like candy, but may not be the best route to take if you’re marketing high-end offerings. 8 Levinson, Jay C. “What to Look for in an Ad Agency.” Inc.com. Inc., 13 Sept. 2000. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.inc.com/articles/2000/09/20317.html>. 9 Ibid. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
Second, Armstrong points out there is great value in hiring an agency that understands persuasive techniques. And third, performing a wide variety of research is vital in a proposed campaign. Aside from this recommended structured approach, there are some other factors that can reveal a lot about the culture of an agency you are considering for your project: namely, their office. Experts suggest you request a tour of the facilities of agencies you are considering, or ask for an informal visit to their office. Observe the agency on a typical workday. Do you like the atmosphere? Do you like how the employees work together? Are they nice? Does their style suit you?10 Levinson agrees that you can learn a lot about an agency simply by walking around their office. He suggests checking out the projects they are working on for other clients. Get a feel for their employees’ level of excitement for creating effective advertising. Tune in, especially, to campaigns the agency has been using for a long time, as that can be an indicator of that campaign’s success. When you have narrowed down the agencies in which you are interested, you will want to request references from them. Then, follow up with those references.
Navigating the big sell Up to now, we’ve looked at the nuts and bolts of marketing partners, you’ve analyzed your business marketing and advertising needs and you have looked at the steps you might take for a structured approach to choosing the right marketing partner for your project and your business. While some experts recommend you bypass the presentation entirely, or at least ask the agency not to spend too much time or money on development of it, it remains an industry standard, and a tool that most agencies utilize to demonstrate their expertise and professionalism. It is the agency’s one big shot at impressing you and your team, educating you about their capabilities and selling you their services. But before preparing their presentation, the agencies you ask to present to you will need some information from you to develop an approach that meets your needs. You will want to provide a written brief to them. As such, your organization should prepare to provide the following information to any agencies who’ve made the cut to this point and are in the running to be chosen as your marketing partner.11 • Any market data you have that will offer the agency insights into your industry 10 Gallup, Betsy. “How to Choose an Advertising Agency.” Love To Know Business. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://business.lovetoknow.com/wiki/How_to_Choose_an_Advertising_Agency>. 11 Finch, Martin. “How to Select an Advertising Agency.” Suite101.com. Suite 101, 19 Sept. 2008. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://martin-finch.suite101.com/how-to-select-an-advertising-agency-a69480>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
• Information about trends, upon which you rely • The company’s story, including its history • The organizational structure • The organization’s sales performance and market share information • Your company’s business plans for both long and short term • The businesses’ marketing history, and the results you have had in the past In addition to sharing this information with your prospective agencies, you will want to establish some parameters for the presentation. Martin Finch recommends some ground rules in “How to Select an Advertising Agency,” on the industry website: Suite101.com.12 First, he recommends you set a time limit for up to two hours for each agency to present their pitch, and schedule all pitches for the same day. Then, when you pull your team together, build a selection panel of more than three or four managers who will be involved with the project on a regular basis. Arm them with a score sheet with which they will evaluate the presentations objectively. That score sheet, according to Finch, should include: 1. Does the agency comprehensively answer the brief? 2. How would you rate the agency’s creativity? Did they present original ideas? Were their thoughts on how to execute the plan unique and fresh to the industry? 3. Was the agency mindful of your budget limitations? Did they propose an action plan that operated within that budget? 4. How was their presentation style? 5. What is the agency’s range of relevant services? Does it cover all the bases? Finch goes on to recommend some standards to follow during the presentation itself. You will want to ensure there are no external interruptions during the agency’s pitch, so that you can focus on the information presented. Ask all participants to hold their questions until the end of each individual presentation. When all presentations have concluded, Finch proposes that the selection team makes their final decision based on the scores earned by each agency.
Creating an effective partnership You’ve embraced a structured decision-making approach. You’ve toured the facilities, you’ve heard the pitches and you’ve chosen the right marketing partners
12 Ibid. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved
for the job at hand. Now what? Though it’s taken a good amount of legwork to get to this point, the exciting part is just beginning. The success of your marketing efforts is dependent upon this new, blossoming business partnership. For that reason, experts say it’s important to develop relationships with the team assigned to your project and establish some clear expectations to best pave the way to a successful partnership. First, you’ll want to be clear with the agency about what your budget is, if you haven’t done so already. Even if you have informed the agency of your budget limitations, you will want to reiterate your expectations for deliverables you receive within that budget. At this point if you have not established timelines and deadlines with your marketing partners, you will want to compare your established timelines with them, to ensure they match up and your new marketing partners can meet your deadlines.13 Taking these steps ensures that your expectations are met, because you clearly established what your organization needs, and your partners, in turn, communicate what they can accomplish to help you achieve your goals. Monitoring the agency’s or freelancer’s performance is also important. Whether you are pleased with their work or feel there’s room for improvement, your organization should offer that feedback in regular intervals. If issues arise, be sure to address them without delay.14 Enlisting the help of a structured approach to your selection of a partner in achieving your marketing goals and investing the necessary time and dollars into the process are essential to positive outcomes. No matter the size of your business or the scope of the project for which you are seeking a marketing partner, choose those partners carefully using this advice from industry experts, and you stand to reap the benefits that only a carefully-forged collaboration can provide: business growth, increased sales, growing market share and enduring success.
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13 “How to Compare Advertising Agency Services.” EHow. Demand Media, 11 Dec. 2007. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ehow.com/how_2156150_compare-advertising-agency-services.html>. 14 Dash, Julekha, and Chelsey Levingston. “How to Select an Ad Agency That’s Right for Your Company.” Dayton Business Journal. 05 July 2010. Web. 05 Apr. 2012. <http://www.bizjournals.com/dayton/stories/2010/07/05/story7.html?page=4>. © 2012 4imprint, Inc. All rights reserved