How to choose the “right” advertising agency

By Mike Fromowitz

These days, choosing an ad agency in the traditional manner is like looking for a spouse in a bar. An ad agency that makes the best presentation, or one that presents with all the bells and whistles, may not necessarily be the best long-term partner. What attracts you in the first place may not be the values that last. While the work may look good to the eye, it may fail strategically. Besides, what you see may not be what you get.

That being said, choosing an advertising agency is not something you can do with your eyes closed. Before zeroing in on the right one, here are a few parameters you should include in your evaluation.

Realise that not all agencies are very good at what they do: First, accept the fact that most agencies do not excel in all disciplines—even though they would have you believe they do. Most are staffed by ‘generalists’, and in large numbers. What you really need is an agency that will bring experts, specialists and entrepreneurs to your table—people capable of uniting strategic insight with endless imagination, to create ideas that drive more sales and to convince the competitors’ customers into becoming your customers.

Know that agencies view your needs through their own capabilities and fixed resources: No matter your set of complexities and challenges, their answer is always an ad, either an Internet video, a print ad, or a TV ad—the one thing that brings the ad agency the greatest profit. Fact is, you may not need an ad. The best ad agencies don’t push to sell you ads. You may not need any. You may need changes to your website, your packaging, or you may need event marketing or a social-networking idea. The ad world is changing. Business-as-usual advertising is becoming less and less effective. To compete, you may need to do some things differently than you have in the past.

Be certain that the agency knows marketing is more than advertising: The agency must demonstrate that it knows there are many other marketing weapons and that it is capable of using all the appropriate ones in your potential marketing arsenal. Don’t settle for less.

Know that media buying agencies are really ‘agents of the media’: The more media they get you to buy, the more they profit. What you need to make sure of is that they’re using the right resources for your specific needs. The object of your marketing efforts is not to buy more media, but to create ideas that sell more products. Your ad agency (and media buying agency, if they are separate), should follow a simple philosophy: Don’t outspend the competition. Outsmart them.

Be realistic: Do they have experience in your field? More important, are they really committed to doing great work for you? Be sure they have the desire and the ability to give you both the service and the work you need and do so profitably.

Be sure you are sincerely desired: If the focus of your business is in ‘high-tech’, there should be people in the agency who understand ‘high-tech’. To be honest, most agency people are, for the most part, quite reluctant to work on ‘high-tech’. In fact, most consumer-oriented ad agencies treat ‘high-tech’ as a disfavored stepchild. Be positive that the people you will work with have a knowledge of your business, an interest in your business, and a knowledge of the competitive situation. If they’ve done their homework by the time they present to you, they’ll have these things. If not, you’re not interested.

Know what it will be like working day-to-day: Many agencies employ new business teams whose sole purpose is to get into and win competitive “pitches”. They have no interest—and no involvement—in the day-to-day running of your business. Once your business is in the door, they just move on to the next courtship leaving you in the hands of ‘junior’ members of the agency. So always ask who will be working on your account.

Ask about leadership: Ascertain that your business will be considered special and deserving of the agency’s key people and top talent. Be sure that you meet and talk to the people who will be serving on the front line and will actually be doing the strategic planning and creative. Look for committed and expert leadership. Beware of layers of hierarchy. Ask to see what the agency has created for other clients. Ask about the results. Is the chemistry right between you? Don’t underestimate the immense power of good chemistry.

Focus on your needs: Be sure that your agency is focused and understands your company’s objectives and considers them reasonable. This understanding will be reflected in the marketing and advertising strategy that the agency creates for you. If it’s missing, look elsewhere.

Judge their work: Let their work speak for itself. Every advertising agency will talk about how creative it is, but does their work for other clients live up to the hype? Many agencies slag off the winning of awards—mostly because they’ve failed to win some themselves. Fact is, most ad agencies that are often successful have a creative spark, have high standards and expectations, and are award-winning. Most important however, is that you listen to how they talk about the way in which their work has helped build their clients’ businesses.

Do you like them? How do you feel about the people you’ve met with? Will they bring something new to the table? Are they entrepreneurial? Or are they the usual ad agency ‘generalists’? Could you trust them? Will you look forward to talking with them every day?

What’s their attitude? Do they have attitude? Check to see that the people who will be working on your business have the right credentials, experience, and attitude. See if they are good listeners. Make sure that they understand the critical relationship between profitability and creativity. Agency client relationships are precisely that: a relationship.

Don’t ask for premarital creative pitches: If the ad agency can solve your problems after just a few hours contemplation, it’s probably just luck. Or it’s not really a solution, just seductively flashy stuff. To understand a marketing problem requires in-depth understanding of the marketplace. From that comes a strategic positioning statement. Rather than asking for a “pitch” with creative work, ask the agency to propose a strategic positioning paper and judge them on that. Creating the right big idea comes from sound strategic thinking and targeted communications. Advertising that looks good but fails to sell is a waste of your dollars.

Be careful of smoke and mirrors: Big ‘creative’ presentations of clever, colourful ads presented by excellent salespeople are no guarantee the ads will work and sell your product. If your company hasn’t been doing the kind of advertising you would like to see, or if your advertising isn’t as good as it could be, don’t expect a simple change of ad agency to solve it. It takes teamwork to create bad advertising: if the problem is the work, and your organization changed the work, it really shares responsibility with the people who created it.

Mike Fromowitz is President and Chief Brand Officer of Mantra Partners, a full-service advertising and branding agency. The company works for clients in Asia, South America, USA and Canada. You can read more by Mike in his Campaign Asia-Pacific blog.

This article was first published on