No Snakes Need Apply

How to find, hire and work with an advertising agency

Jim was up to his eyeballs. The printer had a problem with the annual report, sales numbers were due, he was trying to finish that press release, and lo and behold, his boss wanted a meeting to discuss a new ad campaign. “That’s it!” he thought. “I’ve been riding my bike in the lake for too long! I’ve got to have an assistant!”

Jane was looking over the sales numbers. For a while now, she’s had a gnawing thought about hiring a marketing person. She really needs to get her numbers up, and her marketing efforts have been disorganized and sporadic. Obviously, a marketing professional would have to pay for herself and even if they tripled sales, her company could barely support it. What a quandary.

Do either of these scenarios sound familiar? For many businesses, hiring staff to handle marketing and advertising can be cost-prohibitive. (It may seem counterintuitive, but hiring an agency costs less than hiring employees with benefits.) Some businesses might not advertise enough to justify hiring an employee dedicated only to marketing, even if they could afford it.

Hiring an advertising/marketing agency seems like a good choice as it allows you to pay a professional only when you need one. But there’s the rub: Many people panic at the thought of hiring an advertising/marketing agency. Maybe you’ve heard horror stories about Slick Willies in BMW’s selling you up the river. Maybe it’s even happened to you. But there is hope. Using an organized approach will help you separate the splendid from the snakes in the grass.

Why and When to Hire an Agency
Consider hiring an agency if you have no marketing staff, if your marketing staff is overtaxed or if they lack specific expertise. Your people may be terrific at churning out newsletters and press releases, but less confident producing catalogs or Web sites, or handling trade shows and events. An agency fills the gaps in your talent. By necessity, the role (and the image) of the advertising agency has changed of late. Many firms are now consultants, handling all manner of communications, media and events, from strategy to execution.

How to Prepare
First, determine your objectives, and be specific. For example, you may want to sell more products to existing customers, launch a new product or line, find and penetrate new market niches, improve your company’s image, etc. Then, put a number on it: Figure out what meeting these goals will mean to your bottom line. Finally, determine what percentage you’re willing to invest to reach these goals. Set a range for your budget, which gives agencies the latitude for creativity and you a better basis for comparison. Think short-term and long-term. Many clients have two sets of objectives. First, they may want to “pick the low-hanging fruit,” while in the long run, they may need to find and penetrate new markets.

How to Find Competent Agencies
Referrals are far and away your best bet. Start by asking non-competing businesses whose campaigns you like who they use. Your trade associations may have recommendations, and the Chamber of Commerce in the nearest metro area may also be of help. Once you have at least three agencies, call each to see if they can accept a new client in your field. (Generally, agencies cannot take on a new client in direct competition with a current one.) You’ll need to ask if the agency handles clients with budgets in your range. Also, if you’re looking for help one time or sporadically, be sure the agency works on a project-only basis.

How to Hire
Hiring an agency is essentially a three-step process. First, you’ll meet with each agency to discuss the project. (Do yourself a favor: Bring an outline of your objectives, expectations and budget.) Next, you’ll ask each to submit a written proposal outlining their project approach, specific tasks to be accomplished and the item-by-item cost. After reviewing the proposals, you’ll conduct final interviews.

INITIAL MEETING — The objective of the initial meeting is to educate the agency so that they can provide you with a written proposal. (And tell them that they are competing with others. They’ll appreciate your honesty, which will set the tone for the relationship. They also may sharpen their pencils a bit.) Discuss your company and your objectives, using your outline as a guide.

Ask about the agency’s experience handling accounts of a similar type, size and budget. Review samples of their work and discuss the scope and effectiveness of each project. Get the names and telephone numbers of the agency’s three most recent clients; call them to ensure that they are satisfied.

Finally – and this is important – ask to see the company’s mission/vision/values statement. If they don’t have one, run. If they do, read it carefully and make sure these are the kinds of people you’d want at a dinner party.

PROPOSALS — When you receive the proposals, carefully review and compare them on their approach, rationale and creativity. (Your written budget levels the playing field on cost and allows you to focus on quality.) The agency should have detailed a logical approach for getting to know your company, what you’ve already tried, what worked and what didn’t, who your customers and prospects are and who you are to them, and the competitive arena including industry and market conditions. The proposal should also highlight the agency’s process for project management – how your work will be trafficked through the agency.

FINAL INTERVIEW — Once you’ve reviewed the proposals, set up the final interviews. At this juncture, it is crucial to meet the agency personnel, especially your account executive, with whom you will be working directly. The agency’s staff will be an extension of your company; you will be communicating and working closely with these people. It’s fair to ask questions of the employees, particularly regarding values. Test their mission/vision/values. You should be able to see that the company doesn’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. But know that advertising people may be a bit quirky, funky and artsy. And that’s okay. You aren’t looking for a carbon copy of yourself. You’re looking for creativity – and results!

Bottom line: Listen to your instincts. If your alarm bells are going off – even if you can’t articulate why – it’s probably not a good fit. You should walk away feeling good about the energy, competence and integrity of the staff.

How Much?
Once you have selected an agency, it’s time to talk turkey. You all need to agree on how much you’ll be spending and what you’ll be getting for your money. Also, find out how you’ll be billed. Will it be a flat fee per project or a percentage of the annual budget as a retainer? Depending upon your budget, you can expect to pay from $1,000 to $10,000 for a retainer. On a per-project basis, you can expect to pay between $60 and $250 an hour. Also, find out what variable costs (such as printing, photography and media) could be involved. Details should be nailed down in writing.

How to Work with an Agency
As with any relationship, communication is key. The better organized you are, the more guidance you can provide to your agency. Plan every project in advance, and present it to the agency in advance. Ask for a written outline of each project so everyone understands what’s expected when, who’s doing what, and what it will cost.

If the agency staff is doing their job properly, you may find yourself outside your creative “comfort zone.” Remember, you are paying for expert advice, and occasionally, you may be required to take a leap of faith. However, if you are uncomfortable most of the time – either creatively or ethically – it’s clearly time to talk with senior management. Business owners shouldn’t blindly follow the advice of any consultant, be it an accountant, attorney or marketing professional. You will need to work hands-on, approving creative direction, and reviewing everything before it goes “live.”

If you want to have a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with anyone, you need to create ongoing, open and honest dialog. That’s your best bet for ultimate success.

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75a_paulcowley Meet the Author
Paul J. Cowley is president of Cowley Associates located in Syracuse, New York, and on the Web at