Getting married is exciting. There’s the nervous energy that comes from starting your new life together. The anticipation for what the uncharted future will bring. And, of course, there’s the popping of the champagne to celebrate! On the flip side, divorce sucks. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming and, emotionally, it can drain your life force. Fifty years ago, we mated for life, for better or worse. Now it seems, that’s rare. But all the more reason to pick your partner wisely.
I’m talking, of course, about the marriage of ad agencies and clients. It’s a thrilling, complicated dance and one that requires a lot of physical and emotional capital. All the more reason clients and agencies both need to ask themselves these seven questions before tying the knot.
- Historically, have they done good work that’s gotten results?
Ask agencies to describe themselves and most will tout their “award-winning” work. Many view that as a pejorative term, but they shouldn’t. Every client wants work that’s smart, fun, clever, strategic, moving, or some combination thereof, and there’s a lot to be said for work that’s judged to be among the best in the country. That said, the second half of the work equation is results. Has the agency’s work driven traffic? Driven sales? Built the brand? Does the agency show a history of helping their clients wildly succeed? 100, 200, 300 percent growth over time?
From the agency perspective, you have to look at the kind of work a client has done both recently and historically. If it’s consistently off-strategy, bland, and light years from the successful work you’ve done and want to do, proceed with caution. Every agency believes they can solve any problem, but if those problems are systemic within the client organization, odds are you’re in for a painful relationship that won’t end well.
- Are they collaborative?
You don’t have to look any further than Congress to see the results of a non-collaborative culture. Agencies have long considered themselves idea factories, but great marketing ideas don’t usually come from people sitting in silos. There needs to be interaction, conversation, steel sharpening steel. The best agencies are highly collaborative, embracing ideas not just from Creative, but from Digital, Account Service, Media and other great thinkers — a mix that should include clients. Are your prospective partners collaborative? Do they happily share their toys? Or, are they saddled with a we have all the answers/not made here attitude bordering on arrogance? If that’s the case, they’d better be the greatest marketing thinkers ever who can deliver in spades every time. If they aren’t, it’s going to be a long, frustrating relationship.
- Are they like you and do they share your values?
In every relationship, whether personal or professional, we’re drawn to people who are like us and who value the same things we do. In a pitch situation, the amount of time agency and client actually get to spend with each other is normally short so it’s imperative to do everything you can to find out as much as you can about the people you’re potentially partnering with. Read LinkedIn profiles. Call references. If you know people who have worked at that company, or with those people, talk to them. Inform your perspective and then have a direct, purposeful conversation with the people you’ll be working with to discuss what’s important to them. Incongruent values may not be the number one reason for an agency/client breakup, but it is the primary thing that will cause the relationship to turn toxic.
- Is senior leadership involved in your business?
When most agencies pitch business, especially larger ones, they often have a senior new business team that directs the pitch, presents the work, and closes the deal. Once married, the “pitch team” passes the new account to the team that will handle the brand, day-to-day. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. There are agencies of every size and shape stocked to the gills with talented people. What’s crucial to account stability is understanding which senior-level people will touch and lead the business on both sides—and what their roles will be. Without this knowledge, effective brand leadership and communication are impossible. Which brings us to number five.
- Are all the team members great communicators?
Even when clients and agencies are at their best, clear, concise, and effective communication can be tough. An email gets sent where a phone call would have been better. A phone call gets made, but there’s no one home, which leads to an incomplete voice message. Everyone’s moving at the speed of light and everything’s on a deadline. Oh, and everyone’s schedule makes meeting face-to-face nearly impossible.
On both sides of the pitch process there are numerous opportunities to gauge the quality of communication from the people with whom you’ll be working. On the agency side, is the RFP well put together? Is it clear and concise? Are your communications from the client well written? On the client side, how did the agency respond to the RFP? Did they ask a lot of great questions? Did they clearly answer what was asked? How was their correspondence? Was there correspondence? Did they send a follow-up letter or a thank you note for including the agency in the pitch? Look closely at the communication surrounding a pitch, and you can learn a lot about what you can expect from your new partners.
- What is the vibe in the client’s office and at the agency?
This may not seem that important considering you’re only going to spend a fraction of your time together in the other’s space. The thing is, your time together isn’t what you should be thinking about. It’s what kind of environment your partner is working in the 95% of the time you’re apart. When a client goes to an agency, what’s the vibe you pick up from the people? Are they happy? Cheerful? Energetic? Glad to see you? Or, are they stuck in dark corners looking stressed and unhappy? Do you hear music playing? Is there a dog or two running around? What kind of art is on the wall, and have people personalized their workspace? Agency people, ask the same questions when visiting client offices. Be observant. Note what you see and what you feel. Those are the environments the people you’re counting on have to work in 45–60 hours a week. Is it a space to inspire greatness, or one where you can’t wait to leave?
- Have they done for themselves what they say they can do for you?
Question seven is just for the clients and may be the most important question you can ask. Nothing is more exciting to an agency than a pitch and the chance to build or rebuild a brand. But as you seek out the agency to best help you develop your brand, ask yourself this—has that agency done the same for themselves? Do they have a clear point of differentiation? Are they unique in what they offer? Do they have a consistent look, tone, and feel, and have they been successful building their brand over time? It may seem obvious, but when you’re putting your brand into review, it’s the first and easiest place to look for results. It’s one thing for an agency to say they can deliver. It’s another for you to look and see they already have.
MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top ad agency in Dallas. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog
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