In the United States alone, there are over 50,000 advertising agencies, most offering a range of services and products; all proclaiming they alone possess the solution to even your most daunting challenges. Visit with an agency and, unfortunately, you will often find that how they handle you as a potential client is much like they built their own website: Void of valuable insight into your actual needs. Rather, it is often a regurgitation of agency jargon, unrealistic expectations for success, and my personal favorite, a one-size fits all approach. Sound familiar?
Beware of The Pitch
You've, undoubtedly, received the dreaded cold-call from an agency sales rep with his or her quick tongue and catchy phrases like "we'll work shoulder-to-shoulder with you" to find the right solution. Unfortunately and all too often, those that are selling for an agency have spent their career in sales, and may not really be equipped to provide you with the answers you need to make the best decision. You cannot fault the sales people for doing their job, after all, they are given their marching orders from the top. So how do you make the right choices? Consider the following before signing with any agency, and you are more likely to find the right fit for your business.
1. Do they understand the difference between Advertising and Marketing?
One thing needs to be very clear. Marketing is not a synonym for advertising. Despite many agencies efforts to confuse the potential client that they are one in the same, being clear on the definitions will be a big asset when making your investment decision.
According to the AMA (American Marketing Association) marketing is defined as "the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large."
The AMA defines advertising as "the placement of announcements and persuasive messages in time or space purchased in any of the mass media...to inform and/ or persuade members of a particular target market or audience about their products, services, organizations, or ideas."
Marketing is not a website, an ad or a cool technology. Rather it is a process...a process that encompasses far more than just the development of external elements that may sway customer perception of your business.
Definitions matter when selecting an agency. If an agency professes their 'marketing' prowess (as opposed to 'advertising') then the services and advice they offer should reflect a clear understanding of the difference. If the services they offer or the language sets they use don’t and they continually refer to advertising as marketing, move on to the next candidate.
2. Are they prepared to offer services based on the kind of relationship you are seeking?
Before you begin the process of selecting an agency (whether your new to the process or looking to make a switch) a decision about the kind of relationship you are seeking has to be made. There are a number of considerations that go into this decision and it should never be taken lightly. Its important to keep in mind that this is an investment in the business. The relationship definition is of equal, if not greater, value to the financial investment itself.
When selecting an agency, think of it as if you were selecting a physician for your own family. Do you want a leader in the field providing lasting solutions or a follower that is pushing the latest fad? Do you want a clear and concise strategy for achieving your goals or is it a simple matter of execution? Do you want discussion about options and ideas or should they just do what you want? In knowing and stating what you want up front will you be better equipped to judge the candidates. Once your decision for the kind of relationship you want to have is made, be sure they understand and are prepared to reciprocate in kind.
3. Are they interested in understanding your needs or pitching the latest fad?
Of all the key elements to consider, this is crucial. Many agencies will, without a clear understanding of your company goals and objectives, industry, challenges and history, immediately pitch something that may (and often may not) be something that will lead to achieving your goals. Use caution when silver bullets are laid out on the table...the reality is...they are too often duds when it comes to practical application. Only in asking questions and learning as much as possible about your company and industry will an agency be able to decipher what will actually help you in achieving your goals. Ideally, seek an agency that takes a consultative approach. If the agency is pitching at the first meeting, instead of asking questions, move on to the next candidate.
4. Does the agency team have any real-world business experience?
This will tell you a great deal about the kind of agency you will be working with. Too often, those who work in agencies have done so from the time they stepped out of college. They may lack the perspective (and possibly the professionalism) that is required to truly understand your business challenges and thus are slaves to their own industry jargon and belief systems. More likely than not, you are looking for more than just cool ideas (which agency lifers usually are great at coming up with). Your business is in need of a solution...a comprehensive solution to what is likely a business challenge. Those with a practical understanding of how businesses truly operate and succeed (or fail) are more likely to provide you with credible solutions. Ask questions about their experience outside of the agency world and be sure the team you are selecting is well-rounded in its business experience.
5. Are they prepared to provide you measurable data that reflects the success or failure rates of their work?
Trust. That is essentially what this all boils down to. Will the agency you select own up to failures and celebrate its successes with you? Of all company-partner-vendor relationships, the agency relationship can be the most celebrated or the most unfulfilling. Realistically, your agency relationship will fall somewhere in the middle. One key element to ensuring it leans towards celebrated is accountability. Up front establishment of goals, milestones, measurement and accountability will make for a far more productive relationship. If the agency you are meeting with makes no effort to ensure that the relationship is built on a foundation of trust and accountability...move on.
In the interest of full disclosure, I myself am working in an agency and have done so in the past. However, I also have many years of experience working in, with and consulting business large and small and have seen the mistakes time and time again. These five key ingredients are not a silver bullet (remember - beware of silver bullets)...but they will certainly help when the time comes to select the right agency for you.