It doesn’t seem possible to me now, but it wasn’t all that long ago that I was based in Auckland, working for New Zealand’s largest (and only real) business newspaper. My role? Advertising Agency Account Manager, which basically meant that I spent most of my time convincing ad agencies to spend their client’s hard-earned loot in our paper.

While I had clients all around the country, the majority of my business came from agencies around Auckland, specifically those dotted around the city fringe and CBD, which is where the big players tend to be based.

To say I learned a lot in that high-pressure role is an understatement.

Working with agencies has been described by a more poetic individual than myself as “Trying to herd cats with a piece of wet spaghetti”. That’s about right. Navigating the egos, agendas and occasional not so subtle crazy streaks isn’t always easy, but there are some great people out there, and I have to admit that I had a lot of fun, wining, dining, and drinking endless coffees from the bottom of Quay Street to the top of Mount Eden, and through Ponsonby and into the great ad hub of Parnell.

As in any industry, mixed in among the good folk, there was a smattering of serious no-hopers, and of course, the usual 80% of people just doing their jobs with no particular zeal or inspiration. As I saw often enough, and continue to observe from my LinkedIn feed, unless you founded the agency, or are very senior indeed, a job is just a job, and a client is just a client.

Picture this: a young media buyer might be pushing me to the limits on Monday to get the best deal for her client (Luxury Car Company A). But she could be pushing me just as hard on Friday that same week in her new role at a new agency that holds the directly competing Luxury Car Company B account.

And of course, a creative who lives and breathes what he does on a certain account can transfer that passion and loyalty to another account at another agency at the drop of a hat combined with the chance to put another $10K on his paycheck.

I’m not entirely sure how this endless game of musical chairs can be good for the client, but then again, the clients themselves chop and change their agencies a lot.

They’re looking for a fresh perspective, more innovation or just a new broom sweeping clean. In some cases, the change is motivated by nothing more than a new marketing face at the C-Suite level who wants to stamp their vision on the company (and to bring their agency buddies along with them).

I’ve also worked on the fringes of the consumer electronics game since 2006, and I’ve not only seen advertising and PR agency representation change repeatedly in this space over the last ten years, I’ve also seen any number of supplier/distributor changes. Brands that have been represented by a certain local distributor for decades have suddenly switched allegiance to a new distributor, which can sometimes trigger a domino effect as other brands and suppliers shuffle around to fill gaps and create equilibrium again.

At the end of the day, it’s usually more or less transparent to the consumer. After all, the ads out there are pretty much “same same” as they say in Thailand, as are the products and services themselves. 

As long as punters can buy what they need and want, when they need and want to, they simply don’t care. So what does it matter which agency handles which account, or which distributor handles which brand?

Generally, it doesn’t, but I’ve seen some casualties and collateral damage along the way.

I’ve seen agencies lose accounts from sheer complacency, and I’ve seen clients fire great agencies and take on total muppets, which had to hurt them in the long run. I’ve seen technology companies lose key agencies and get hammered in the process, and I’ve seen brands lose out big time by switching from an established agent to one who promised much and delivered little.

Again, the consumer didn’t really notice or care but you’d better believe that the people at those companies did.

Which brings me to the moral of the tale. If you’re thinking of change, whether you work at an ad agency and are looking to move, or you’re a senior agency suit thinking of firing a client, or even a bigwig at a client thinking of firing an agency, you need to be sure that you understand what you’re doing.

Raw emotion plays no part in these choices, and change for change’s sake is a truly awful way to run a career or a business. Logic and reason have to be your base, along with a keen sense of your long-term industry relationships. Run the numbers, think through the options, and do your due diligence as deeply as possible because if you don’t, if you’re just going with your gut, you might just end up regretting it somewhere down the track.

Playing a game of musical chairs and relocating your agency suits and creatives into different seats in different suburbs of the big smoky city just because everyone else is doing it is infantile. Think 10 years down the track, not next year and make decisions that’ll serve you, not your ego.

Which brings me to the actual moral of the tale and the whole point of this post. How do you go about finding and hiring an advertising agency? Well, you apply exactly the same approach as mentioned above. There has to be a genuine synergy between your company and the agency, which is admittedly an emotional thing but it’s also all about people. Have you met all the people who’ll be handling your account in a major way? Wait, you’ve only met the senior team and your suit? How does that make any sense?

Meet the people. This is critical even if it’s a small agency and the staff complement is limited. Ask the questions that need answering – like where is your account on the totem pole in terms of revenue generation? Because that’ll tell you a lot about how much care and attention you’ll get.

Challenge the agency people to surprise you. After all, you don’t want more of the same ideas do you?

Then put the people aside and look at the work. See what the agency is doing out in ad land, and not just their big high profile accounts. Who else do they represent? What aren’t they showing you?

Speak to their current and former clients. Find out the secrets and see what the skeletons in the closet look like.

Yes, this all sounds like a lot of work but think about it like this: you’re entrusting these guys with the colossal responsibility of making your company a lot more money, and of differentiating your brands in a market where the consumer is at saturation point. You need a long-term relationship, not a ships meeting in the night routine. If you’re not 100% confident, don’t go there.

And while you’re contemplating this, check out our in-depth articles on choosing an ad agency right here.