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How to Choose the Right Ad Agency: A Marriage That Will Last

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Hiring an ad agency or marketing firm is a big deal. Some larger companies churn through agencies like butter, while others have agency relationships that go back decades. So what makes for a successful client-agency relationship, and how can you know if you’re making the right choice or dooming yourself to a dysfunctional marriage?

That’s right, I said “marriage.” A client-agency relationship is a lot like marriage. Both are built on lots of trust, compromise, a willingness to see the other’s point of view and value their opinion, and that hard-to-define spark that keeps us coming back for more.

Anyone in the service business is taught the old adage and repeats the mantra that the client or customer is always right.  But deep down, do we really believe it or act as though we believe it?

Years ago, I had a boss who used to repeatedly tell me that our biggest job was to save clients from themselves. In fact, this kind of attitude is still very prevalent in many agencies today, where hubris is de rigueur.

Advertising and marketing is part science and part art. There are a number of factors that come into play when developing advertising strategies, and they vary as widely as the channels and industries we serve. People hire ad agencies or marketing firms for their experience and expertise in crafting messages that define brands, tell stories, and utilize multiple ways to reach audiences, ultimately resulting in increased sales, exposure, or both.

Strategies are developed, demographics are analyzed, consumers are surveyed, and messages are crafted and implemented at multiple levels of the sales funnel to affect consumer purchasing decisions and perceptions. While an agency can possess huge amounts of data and insight into how to leverage consumer action and perception, these insights pale in comparison to the knowledge a company has about its own brand and its interaction with its customers. When these perceptions and customer interactions aren’t working or helping to drive sales or other company objectives, a fresh set of eyes and ideas are needed to challenge standard operation procedures. Enter the ad agency.

So, if you’ve decided you need an agency or marketing consultant to help you, how do you decide which one is the right fit? How to choose the right ad agency? Some companies hold an agency review in which multiple agencies are invited to present their best and brightest ideas on how they view a company’s particular product or idea. Thousands and thousands of dollars and countless hours are spent by the agencies trying to demonstrate to the client that their creative work and their understanding of the challenge is in sync with the company’s and that they have the best ideas to help solve this particular challenge. 

This is not a bad way to test drive the creative, analytical, or problem-solving skills of an agency, but it falls far short of addressing some of the most overlooked and underrated elements of a successful agency-client relationship: respect, ability to listen well, and recognition that the client knows their business far better than you ever will.

These are much harder skills to “test” for, but when interviewing an agency or marketing firm, try to take a step back, lean back in your chair, and ask yourself if the person or team sitting across from you will be there when the going gets tough. Are they going to challenge you and push you to see things differently, while respecting you and your knowledge of your business? Will they be willing to compromise? Is the marriage going to be a solid one?

May you live happily ever after.

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