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4 signs you're choosing the wrong agency

Susan Applegate
4 signs you're choosing the wrong agency Susan Applegate

I believe there is a disturbing pattern in the agency business: far too many client/agency relationships last a mere 18 months.

There is a sad adage that goes something like: the day you sign on your new client you are one day closer to losing them. Put another way, it takes nine months to secure a client, and nine minutes to lose one. Why? There appears to be a recurring theme that we are increasingly finding ourselves experiencing; it's at the point that I'm going to call it a plague on agencies and those charged with hiring them. We must both be smarter about the choices we make and with whom we choose to work.

Let's face it, agencies jumping through RFP hoops can be a nightmare, as they are often asked to provide speculative work with little to no knowledge of exactly what the real goals are or if the client is just sending out blind RFPs simply to procure free ideas. It's challenging enough just to secure new clientele, and the work involved in this can be, at times, overwhelming, particularly for a small- to mid-sized agency. Be sure the work involved in securing that client is well worth the effort.

Whether a search firm or corporate marketing executive, anyone charged with finding and selecting an agency needs to understand four simple yet key items in order to make better, more informed decisions when selecting an agency. And for agency executives, these simple rules should also apply to agreeing to work with a given client. All clients are not right for all agencies.

Author notes: Susan Applegate is president of the Applegate Media Group. Read full bio.

If your account value to an agency represents less than 30 percent of their current total billing, they are probably too large of any agency for you. My company, Applegate Media Group, for example, specializes in client media billing between $5 million and $10 million annually -- that is where we are best able to make a real difference for our clientele. Likewise, a client that has that level of budget should clearly understand the playground a given agency plays in based on its budgets.

If your annual media budget is $100,000, we may not be the best choice, ditto if it's a $100 million, and a good agency will recommend alternatives to clients that don't fit their budgetary sweet spot. Letting an agency play out of its league is an easy way to lose a client, and likewise, clients with relatively smaller budgets should work with an agency that specializes in that arena to ensure outstanding service. You don't want to be a small fish in a large pond. Be honest about budgets and work together to determine, right up front, if you are compatible.

Warning signs your agency might be too big for your budget:

  • The agency says, "I'm really busy right now," or, "as soon as I finish up with (insert client du jour here)."

  • Meetings are regularly cancelled and rescheduled or there is just a general feeling that you are not receiving the attention you want. You, as the client, should feel like a king (or queen) and be appreciated and counseled properly. All clients, regardless of budget, deserve to be valued and are important to the right agency.

Now that you know your budgets are in line with the budgets of your agency, the next important task is making sure you mesh with the personnel and their expertise.

Be sure to ask if the individuals in the review will be involved in the day-to-day operations of your account, and if not, who will be? Be sure to meet those who will be directly involved with handling your account, because again, no matter how large an agency is, your budget will dictate the account team -- that's who you want to meet because that is really who you're hiring.

For example, while I'm the president of AMG, we're a small agency, and I personally handle many of the daily tasks assigned to servicing a client, giving our clients the benefit of my, ahem, many years in the business and my expertise. Smaller agencies like ours tend to have the ability to be a bit more nimble, opportunistic and certainly hands on. If that is important to you, be sure the chosen agency fits within those guidelines. It is impractical for executive leadership to be involved in the day-to-day activities of every account -- and in some instances, you wouldn't want them to be -- so again, ask about personnel and ask about practical expertise of those assigned to your account.

Warning signs you have the wrong agency personnel:

  • You've never seen or met the owners or leadership of the agency or, worse, the only time you met them was during the review and sales process.

  • You are constantly having a new account executive assigned to your account.

  • Those assigned simply don't understand your organizational goals or your industry.

It may sound obvious, but don't select an agency because the account executive is your old drinking buddy from college. While personal relationships are indeed important, this is an important decision for an organization and should be based on sound principles of return-on-investment and achieving measurable objectives. If you do decide to go with your old drinking buddy from college, make sure he or she fits a few key criteria to make a good impression on both your target audience and your boss: Do they have the necessary tools? Do they have the staff and the expertise to achieve your core objectives? Do they have a measurable way to go about the process?

In the media strategy, planning and buying business, advertising and business marketing executives understand that no matter how great the creative of an advertisement is, if the right audience doesn't experience the ad, the tree has simply fallen silently in the woods. With ever increasing and complex media options competing for the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers, the need for media management expertise that efficiently and strategically connects businesses to their audiences throughout myriad choices has never been higher. Your friend can still be your friend, just make sure he or she can do the job. This is true regardless of the marketing discipline, be it creative, web development, branding or public relations.

Warning signs your pal isn't quite cutting the mustard:

  • They still ask you to go on Spring Break with them.

  • When you get together for cocktails you don't talk work.

  • You're afraid to hold this individual to the same standards you're being held to.

  • You are constantly the one being proactive and presenting fresh, new ideas.

Between all of our ears is this amazing organ called the brain; however, it seems to me that increasingly in the advertising, marketing and media industry, we're being ruled by emotion rather than logic -- or worse, we're not thinking things through to a logical conclusion. On the creative side, we are seeing increasingly, in my professional opinion, stranger, weirder and more outlandish advertisements trying to capture the attention of the viewer, listener and reader. Sad thing is, more and more (and I do this for a living so I'm paid to be hip), I don't even understand what is trying to be sold or how it helps me better my day or life or satisfies an impulse.

If your agency is touting how many awards it has won or showcases its marketing and graphics team as "creative," try to understand a bit more about what they mean by "creative." That term is a given in this business -- if you're not creative, you won't be in business very long. Marketing and media is designed to sell and increase market share, and somehow, somewhere that's being lost. Don't ask for catchy slogans and beautiful creative, ask how campaigns helped to increase market share by x percent, or to grow new leads by 50 percent from benchmark.

Good creative is important, but ultimately how that is used and properly placed within a strong marketing mix is going to make the difference between selling more and a "failed campaign." If you spent your budget on creating a blockbuster television campaign and you only have a few dollars left to place the ad on 2 a.m. horror movie classics -- well, you didn't use your head. The pieces and the programs work in harmony, so get the professionals involved upfront with your organization acting as the project manager, stating specifically: "Here's what we have, and here's what we want to achieve. What do we need to be put behind this, who are we reaching out to and what needs to be said?"

And, I cannot stress this enough, don't go into an agency meeting and say our budget is X. That's like taking a blank check to the government and saying, "Can you do something with this?" Budgets come about based on realities of the program, the targets, saturation, need frequency, reach, creative, other integrated strategies and so on. I guarantee that if you go to an agency and say we have $20 million to spend, they'll spend it, and will spend it based on budget as opposed to desired outcomes. Find a hands-on agency that understands how to work with a client to develop honest programs that are designed to achieve predictable outcomes based on level of push.

Also, if you just don't feel that the agency is using its brain and being smart about how it works with you, your target audiences, the way it proactively shares ideas and strategies and better alternatives (that may cost less), that's a good sign it may be time to move on. And, conversely, if you, the client, tend not to listen to what the senior advisors at the agency are counseling you toward and don't trust that this team is the expert, it's time to move on so you can let your strategic partners do their job, and make you look good.

Clients must be willing to do their upfront due diligence when selecting an agency, finding the right size, the right expertise and the right personnel for your program or project. I personally believe that RFPs are foolish and show a general lack of understanding of your own business. Find several agencies that fit these four simple rules and ask them -- four or five of them -- to come in for a formal presentation and make your selections from there. Trusted referrals are also a very good thing. If you don't use them, you'll simply find yourself unhappy and searching all over again. Be sure that your expectations are in line with reality, and again, a good agency will take the time to go through reasonable expectations based on budgets and your specific goals and objectives. 

In the end, we all want to impress. A good marketing executive needs their product, their service and their brand to make solid, lasting impressions, and changing agencies every 18 months is a surefire way to erode a brand. In sports analogies, think of it as changing your head coach or your quarterback every other season. It hurts continuity. Spend the upfront time asking the right questions. Being a good client and being a good agency is just like being in a good marriage -- you must have upfront communication and the desire to achieve a common goal together.


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