How to Choose an Advertising Agency
...and why bigger is not always better

It is important to find an advertising agency that understands your company’s objectives. Choosing the right agency can make the difference between success and failure. The wrong agency can cost you a lot of money but more importantly it could damage your brand reputation and cause you to lose sales. Remember, the right agency for one company may not be right for another.

Asking colleagues, searching the Internet and checking online catalogues are ways of finding potential advertising agencies to work with. Compile a list of 15–20 agencies that you would like to investigate further. Take a look at their websites to see who they are, what kind of work they have done for their customers and the type of customers they have. If the agency is working with one of your competitors – eliminate them from the list. Drop the ones that you don’t feel right about or that focus on strategies that don’t fit your company. At the end of this exercise you should hopefully have around 5–10 advertising agencies left on your list.

Here is a shortlist of things to check out and keep in mind:

• How big is the agency? Bigger isn’t always better. If you are a small company, ask if they have references from other small companies. If you can, contact one or two of the companies to ask how they’ve been treated. With a smaller marketing budget you could end up getting lost in the shuffle at a big agency. However, the advantage of a large, reputable agency is that they often have lots of experience in a variety of media. At a boutique agency hungry for success, you might get a lot of attention but may be dealing with less experienced personnel.

• Ask for an initial meeting with the agencies you have on your list, something most agencies offer for free. Explain what you need help with and ask them to show similar work they’ve done for existing clients.

• Ask about costs and how the agency will charge you: fixed fee, ad hoc fee or a commission fee?

• How do they measure effectiveness? Early 20th century marketing pioneer John Wannamaker once famously quipped, “I know about half of my advertising money is wasted – I just don’t know what half.” With the sophisticated metrics available today – particularly related to Internet advertising – this no longer needs to be the case. Ask about what tools an agency will use to gauge the success or failure of marketing campaigns so you know if your money is working for you.

• Does the agency listen to what you say? Do they provide valuable feedback? Does their portfolio impress you? If it does, chances are that your customers will be impressed as well.

• Does the agency understand and respect your target group, the message you want to put across and the objectives you want to achieve? This is where it sometimes helps to go with agencies that have experience working with clients in your industry.

• Can the agency work within your budget? Knockout creative can help boost your brand, but it will likely cost you. Be sure you are honest with an agency about your budget and expect them to reciprocate when spec’ing out a project.

• Do you like them and want to work with them? Coming up with a successful advertising initiative will be a highly interactive process and there may be disagreements, revisions, changes of direction. Even in the best of circumstances, you will spend a lot of time engaging with your agency. Things tend to go a lot smoother if they’re likeable people who are easy to work with.

By now you should be able to narrow the field of candidates down to three. Ask these three to give you a pitch. Note that you may be charged for this work.

For an agency to create a pitch for you they will need:

• A clear and detail creative brief: what kind of marketing you want, your goals, your target audience, what you perceive to be your brands strengths and weaknesses, etc. Typically this will be something you prepare based on a document or process the agency provides.

• Your budget.

At the presentation make sure you understand the concept and ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You are the customer -- it’s your money and your business at risk.

If you liked the pitch ideas and the people creating them, be sure to double check that they are the people who will be working on your account – often an agency will put their best pitchers in front of new business but assign the actual accounts to more junior members. If you are planning a long-term relationship with an agency it is vital that you get along with and trust them. Remember that the advertising agency is there to guide you to the media choice best suited to your needs.

Good luck!