Let’s face it, if you’re involved in the marketing of your business, it’s highly likely that you’ll have to deal with an advertising agency. There are hordes of advertising agencies out there, and the truth is they’re all pretty much the same: clones with only the slightest imperfections differentiating one from the other. They all have access to the same computers, the same software, the same media info. They even all have the same swanky offices and fast cars. What really differentiates an agency is its people. So how do you know you’re getting the right people? Here’s some valuable insight to help you make what can be a difficult decision.

Ditch the “pitch”

If you spend large sums of your money on advertising, and if your profits are dependent on its efficiency, it is your duty to take great pains to find the best possible advertising agency. Amateurs do it by cajoling a group of advertising agencies into submitting free campaigns on speculation. This is called a "pitch", and it’s a complete waste of time.

Let’s put the “pitch” into another real world example. You decide to go out for dinner. You head to the nearest mall and choose a restaurant at random. Once seated you tell the waiter you’d like a glass of water and some meat. The waiter is stunned and replies “what kind of meat, sir? We have a number of different dishes, all of them equally delicious.” To which you respond, “bring me something that I’ll like and if I don’t like it I’m leaving and I refuse to pay for it.” Now that’s guaranteed to get you thrown out (and hopefully beaten to a pulp) and that’s why no one orders a meal like that. It’s rude and just plain stupid – how can you possibly get what you want? And that’s really the advertising agency “pitch” summed up quite nicely: a pack of hyenas chasing a slab of rotting meat.

A Hyena shows a real world example of the advertising "pitch"

A Hyena shows a real world example of the advertising "pitch"

The “pitch” is perhaps the biggest misrepresentation of the capabilities of any advertising agency. The advertising agencies that win these “pitches” are the ones that use their best brains for soliciting new accounts, which means they relegate their existing clients to their second-best brains. This is because everyone (and I really do mean everyone) in advertising knows it’s way easier to keep a client than it is to get a new one. It’s a guarantee that the genius intellects you see at the pitch will rarely be seen once the agency gets your signature.

David Ogilvy was in complete agreement, and he said, “If I were a client, I would look for an agency which had no new business department. The best agencies don’t need them; they get all the business they can handle without preparing speculative campaigns.”

The sensible way to pick an agency is to employ a marketing manager who knows enough about what is going on in the advertising world to make an informed decision. Ask him to show you the work from the three or four agencies he believes to be best qualified for your account. Once you have your shortlist it’s time to call some of their clients. This can be particularly revealing. Be completely honest when you call and see how these clients respond to your probing. Do they feel threatened that another (perhaps bigger) company might be coming onto the client roster? Ask them who they deal with on a daily basis, and what they’d change in the relationship if they could.

Go back to school.

Once you’ve done this, it’s time to break out some old school thinking. Invite the head honchos from each of the leading contenders to bring two of their key people to dinner at your house. Loosen their tongues. Find out if they’re discreet about the secrets of their present clients. Find out if they have the spine to disagree when you say something ridiculous. Observe their relationship with each other; are they professional colleagues or quarrelsome politicians? Do they promise you results that are obviously exaggerated? Do they sound like extinct volcanoes always harking back to their glory days, or are they alive with possibility and endeavor? Most importantly, are they good listeners and are they honest? The purpose of this exercise is to find out if you like them enough to give them your money to spend. The relationship between client and agency has to be an intimate one, and it can be hell if the personal chemistry is sour. So before you commit, ask any agencies that want your business to show you the five most surprising, challenging and innovative things they took to their existing clients over the past year. A blank look at this point is sufficient reason to usher them out of your home, but a fired up and enthusiastic response showing some really clever thinking – well, that’s a very strong reason to keep chatting.

Once you’re committed to an agency, and your expectations are clear to them, then they need to be delivering everything they promised right from the start. More importantly, they should be exceeding your expectations on a regular basis and they should be surprising you by pushing the boundaries and bringing you ideas that make you a little nervous, that break new ground, that you haven’t seen before. If you only ever see executions and campaigns that you expect, then the agency isn’t really looking to grow your business as much as they should be.