How to choose an advertising agency

Written by Geeta Rao | Updated: Nov 4 2004, 05:31am hrs
Choosing an ad agency has often been likened to choosing a spouse. The specifications as tough, the expectations as high. The honeymoon is terrific, but if the marriage is on the rocks, the emotional fallout can be traumatic and telling. Finding your soulmate agency may not be as easy as putting an ad in the matrimonial columns or getting good friends to set you up. But it is possible.

So, lets assume you are an expanding business with great plans and a bigger than the stars-and-sun vision for reaching your goals. You may need to find an ad agency for a number of reasons. You are ready for a full-fledged ad agency rather than sundry freelancers. You want to be with the big boys rather than operate as a mom-and-pop shop. You may have outgrown your current agency. You are not getting contemporary and value-based work from them. They have outgrown you and are only looking for bigger billings, which you cannot provide. They have sold out to a global partner and international alignments make it impossible to retain your business. You may have a great equation with the agency head but your people down the line complain they cannot get on with the agency. Or, you are just plain bored with your agency.

The first task is to identify why you need to change. If any of the above reasons apply, then change you must. To find the right partner:

Look for matching vision. If you are growing from a small to medium business, typically find an agency that can grow with you. Spot the hot and rising agency to hitch your wagon to, and vice-versa. If you are a big business shopping for a change, typically putting up the business for a pitch is the norm. But I am never sure that a review or pitch gets you the right agency. It usually creates a lot of negativity when the old agency is in on the review. And the ad business is a very networked business, so if you have a reputation for being difficult, rest assured the entire ad industry will know of it before the pitch.

Get in a pitch consultant or expert, but only one with great references. Pitch consultants help you select agencies and typically have enough advertising experience to know what is going on behind the scenes in the agency business. A good pitch/agency consultant will do all the background checks, provide an agency shortlist, sit in on credentials presentations, creative pitches, if any, and then recommend which agency best matches your vision and culture. A good pitch consultant may also be able to sell your business potential to an agency depending on how you want to hire an agency.

As in all good relationships, talk about expectations and compliment the teams lavishly when they do great work. Finally, remember, while it is your business when it comes to communication, you must be partners in equal measure, willing to shoulder success and failure together. Thats how great brands and great marriages are built
But finding the right pitch consultant is difficult. The person must have an advertising background and must have an ear to the ground on the business, especially with whats new and where new talents are. People get dated as fast as the next pitch in advertising, so choose one with care.

Look at the agencys work or reel across a broad spectrum of businesses. They must be consistent. If they only perform on one business, the story behind the scenes could be different.

Meet the head of the agency over a one-on-one, no-holds-barred drink. Most agency heads are nice people and even if they cannot take your business will help you informally in getting the right partner. But this will not happen in a public forum.

Invite the agency to make a credentials presentation. Most agencies are happy to do this. They are wary of creative and strategic pitches because many clients have used this as a way of getting a broad spectrum of ideas to help their own strategic thinking. A good credentials presentation can tell you most of what you need to know about the agency.

Ask questions at this stage. Dont just leave this to the corporate communication heads. Demonstrate you are serious about your business and meet everyone. It will be good to have some information on the agency that tells them you have done your homework too. Ask specifically how the agency team will be structured. If you are going to represent a big chunk of business, you could ask for a dedicated team. But usually this gets rebellious creative people or a high turnover of people on the team. Ideally, specify that if you are a high maintenance business, you cannot have the team on another high maintenance account.

Look for energy. More than anything, this is what spurs great creative work and great relationships. The business head from the agency must exude energy and passion. Dont worry about age or grey hair. The creative person must be interested in your business or youve lost the battle already.

Dont go by agency reputation alone. An agency with the great reputation may not be able to service your business the way you want it to. On the other hand, your business could build an agencys reputation if the chemistry is right.

Dont depend on social contacts alone. Choices are now more professional and democratic. Accept network contacts from any of your team. As in all good relationships, talk

about expectations and compliment the teams lavishly when they do great work. Finally, remember, while it is your business when it comes to communication, you must be partners in equal measure, willing to shoulder success and failure together. Thats how great brands and great marriages are built.

The writer is a Mumbai-based advertising professional