Begin by thoughtfully defining what is most important to you in an agency, and clarify where you need the most help. This will be an important touchstone throughout the remainder of the process.
Cut out your favorite magazine ads and tape your favorite television commercials. This site is a good place to find great ads, as are One Show and Communication Arts awards books. Also, most cities have ad clubs that judge and recognize the best ads from local agencies. Check with these clubs as well. Once you have selected several ads that you like, find out which agencies created them. Of those agencies, find out which are already working for your competitors. Rule them out. Talk with marketing peers at other companies about their perceptions of the agencies that are left. Ask about the agencies’ capabilities in each of the following areas: product, company and market place knowledge, creative, strategic insight, media planning, and production. (I have found that the two most important aspects of an effective agency are strategic insight and translating that insight to creative communication.) Contact the top three to four of those that are left.
When you meet, ask to see their best ads. Don't assume that the team that made the ads are still employed at the agency – ask that question. Have the agencies demonstrate how they would address your most pressing strategic issues. You might also ask each agency to create three campaigns to move your brand forward. (Be sure to pay each of the agencies for their work. This protects you if you use an agency’s ideas but do not end up hiring that agency.) You should also look for the agency that you can best work with based upon personal chemistry.
Some other notes:
• Don’t assume that going with the biggest well-known agency is best. Unless you have an enormous advertising budget, you are likely to be assigned to their “C team” and may not be happy with the “C team’s” work.
• There are significant advantages to choosing an agency that has strengths in multiple areas: strategy, creative, media planning and buying, direct marketing, online marketing, website design, trade shows, etc. It will make it easier to manage your overall marketing budget and, more importantly, all of your communication is more likely to be consistent and “on brand.” Unfortunately, very few agencies are tops in more than a few aspects of marketing. I prefer to work with a small number of “best in class” agencies. This requires a strong coordination effort including frequent (quarterly) “brand champion summits” (in which all agency partners are invited to remain informed and aligned with the strategy and key messages), well-thought out and accessible brand identity standards and an accessible brand image library. It is particularly important to coordinate the efforts of advertising strategy and creative with that of media planning and buying if performed by separate agencies. The two agencies should meet often and learn to work well together.
• I have found that some agencies are best at (and enjoy most) the development of new breakthrough campaigns. They are critical to your brand’s success but also tend to be more expensive. Other agencies don’t have a “strategic bone in their bodies” but provide on-spec collateral pieces at a fraction of the cost. I use both types of agencies. Some agencies try to address both needs at different hourly rates using different individuals and processes. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Stay tuned as I'm sure regular readers of Branding Strategy Insider will have more bullets to add.
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