Tips for Choosing an Ad Agency

There comes a point in the life cycle of many businesses when advertising needs outgrow the “homespun” and it’s time to call upon the services of a professional agency. When you’ve reached this point, whether you’re looking for a partner to help you implement a major campaign, or a “boutique” agency to focus on just one marketing niche, you want to make sure that the choice you make is a sound one.

Why do you need an ad agency?

Just because a business is small does not mean it cannot afford an agency. There’s a bad misconception that ad agencies are too expensive for small companies. But, that’s not true. Working with an outside agency provides a number of advantages:

  • Access to solid marketing experience and background that probably doesn’t exist in your small company.
  • An “outsider’s” perspective.
  • An extensive network of industry contacts – i.e. for production of materials, buying media, etc.
  • Freeing up your time to focus on your business.

Selecting an Agency

Following are some practical considerations that you should take into account when selecting an agency to help you with your advertising and marketing needs.

Know what you want

You need to know what you’re looking for, before you can tell if you’ve found it! Identify your objectives in working with an agency. What do you want to accomplish? Are you looking for one-time development of image materials (i.e. logo, letterhead, web site/blog templates, etc.), help in generating media exposure, the development of a campaign, an ongoing relationship? Do you have specific response or sales targets you want to reach?

What you want is integrally tied to what you can afford to spend. Establish your budget before developing your list of potential agencies. Depending on the industry you’re in you may be able to obtain information from trade associations about the average advertising/marketing budget (as a percentage of revenue) for your industry.

Know where to look

Referrals can be the best source of information about qualified agencies to work with. Ask colleagues or business contacts about the experiences they’ve had with various vendors and who they would recommend. This can provide you with a list of “first contact” vendors to start your search. Beyond referrals, there are a number of sources of information about advertising or marketing agencies:

  • The Internet
  • Competitors
  • Companies whose advertising you’ve admired
  • Colleagues
  • Associations
  • Trade publications (i.e. Advertising Age)

Another good source of information is your local media representatives. They work with agencies regularly and may be willing to tell you which agencies have good reputations both in terms of creative ability and administration (i.e. submitting materials on time, paying bills on time, etc.).

Evaluate carefully

Knowing at the outset exactly what you’re looking for is critical. Just as when you’re selecting an employee, you should outline specifically the traits, characteristics and skills that an agency must have to meet your unique needs.

Use the criteria you develop to prescreen the list of potential agencies you’ve developed. Then, once your list is narrowed down, select two or three candidates to interview on a formal basis. When doing your final evaluation use a formalized evaluation form, comparing each agency against the same criteria, in much the same way you would evaluate candidates for employment with your company. This process helps you to maintain objectivity in the evaluation process and helps to ensure that you don’t overlook a key factor. Some factors to consider:

1) Industry experience. Select an agency that has experience working with businesses in your industry. You’ll benefit from the knowledge they’ve gained working with other industry players and learning from their successes and failures.

2) Size. Do you want to be a “big fish in a small pond” or a “small fish in a big pond.” There are advantages of working with a large agency – experience, reputation, broad range of expertise and resources. There are also drawbacks. With a smaller budget you may not get as much attention as the larger clients. You may be working with “junior” staff members who are “cutting their teeth” on your account.

3) Cost. The size of the agency is often directly related to the cost of the agency’s services. Larger agencies have higher overheads and, consequently, may be priced out of your ability to pay. On the other hand, these higher costs are also associated with access to a broad variety of high-level skills and resources.

4) Capabilities. Ask each agency you evaluate to provide you with work samples (keeping in mind that simply “looking good” is not good enough – it’s results that count!). If possible, visit each agency to see, firsthand, the facilities, staff and resources the agency has to offer. In addition, you’ll want to ask each agency to provide you with information about their capabilities – what can they do for you? You will want the agency to give you specific information on how they will handle your account including, creative, media and production services provided, clients served, what they would do for you and why they’re particularly qualified to assist you.

5) References. Ask each agency to provide you with a list of current and former clients. Contact each client and ask for additional referrals. Find out if these clients have been satisfied with the work produced for them. Do clients feel the work done for them was a good value and investment? Did they experience any problems working with the agency?

6) “Fit.” You have to “like” the people you will be working with. It’s important to know whether the people you’re meeting with are the people who will actually be assigned to your account. If not, ask to meet these people. Consider how well the people you will be working with understand your industry and your company. Do they ask good questions? Do they listen carefully to your responses?

Advertising and marketing agencies can provide a real boost to your small business by providing you with the expertise and assistance you need to more professionally – and successfully – promote your products and services. But evaluate and select your advertising partner carefully. There are literally thousands of agencies to choose one. Not all are right for you.

Recommended Reading:

The Everything Guide to Customer Engagement

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