The Voice of the Underdog®
I once had a client tell me that choosing a new ad agency was like getting married after one date. She said the feeling was like “I’m attracted to you and the conversation was easy, but I really know nothing about who you are deep down.”
Finding the right partnership between client and ad agency can be tricky and difficult. Some clients rely on advertising consulting firms to serve as matchmaker, while others self-orchestrate a pitch doing the research, interviews, and selection themselves. Each scenario is expensive, stressful, and time consuming for both agencies and clients —and even then doesn’t guarantee an ideal match. Fortunately, there are other options.
Those of us who have worked in Dallas for 25 years have all heard the stories about ad legends like Liener Temerlin walking into meetings with prospective clients and leaving with the business without a pitch, or the blessing of a consultant. While Liener was certainly the exception to the rule, that certainly seems like a better way to go. (If you want to see what that looks like, go visit the Temerlin Advertising Institute at SMU and look at the notes from Temerlin’s American Airlines pitch in the 1980s. They’re fascinating!)
At LOOMIS, we’ve had the pleasure and privilege to work with some extraordinary clients over the years, and have won our share of big pitches. As one of our team leaders, I’ve fielded dozens of questions from the agency’s perspective every time we’ve gone through the pitch process. But after the fact — once we were hired and I worked with our clients for months, years, and even decades — I listened to what excited them, what worried them, and what inspired them. I noted where the pain points tended to surface between agency and client, and over time I developed a list of seven tough questions that I think every client should ask any agency they are considering for partnership. Knowing the answers won’t solve every issue, but, for us, at least having these discussions has been invaluable.
If you’re on the client side of things and looking for a communications partner, you probably have at least a general idea of what you’re looking for — say, a Top 10 advertising agency that can deliver smart, strategic direction, award-winning creative, strong digital, effective media buys, great client results, and meaningful purpose.
But once you decide which agencies to consider, I highly encourage you to take the time to dig deep and ask the hard questions that will help you better understand the people you’ll be working with. Ask as many questions as you want, but these seven are a good place to start.
Q: How will you take your greatest successes as an agency and apply them to us?
When you hire an agency that’s had great success for their clients, you’re doing so because you believe they can do the same for you. And most of them can. The question you need to ask them is how. An agency’s ability to replicate success comes not from the fact that they’ve achieved it before, but rather from the learning they gathered in getting there. Most agencies have things they are really good at, but your brand challenges require more than cookie cutter solutions. Don’t be afraid to ask an agency what they’ve learned from their successes and how they plan to put that knowledge to work for you.
Q: How will you get smart about my business?
One of our former creative directors once told me his favorite part of the business was the opportunity to learn something new every time we won a new piece of business. Any good agency can get up-to-speed on your brand and your business. Great agencies will immerse themselves in it and still ask for more. Ask your prospective agency about their onboarding process. Who participates from both the client and agency side? How long will it take to get up-to-speed? If their answers don’t include active learning opportunities, be cautious.
Over the years, we’ve secret shopped hundreds of client stores to experience them like real shoppers. We’ve worked the counter in fast food restaurants, gone on service calls with rug cleaners and mattress delivery teams, and tried every item on every client menu. At LOOMIS, we have an explicit, detailed plan for onboarding designed to get us up-to-speed quickly. But we never let our learning stop there. Active learning and understanding every sensory angle of your brand is where the strategic and creative magic happens.
Q: Who from the pitch team will be leading the business?
When it comes to pitching business, every agency has an A team made up of its most impressive presenters. As it’s said, you only get one chance to make a first impression. But with many agencies, the pitch is the last time you’ll ever see those people. In the moment, it’s easy to assume the people who just blew your doors off will be the ones leading your business. Don’t. While it’s entirely possible they will play some role in guiding your business, it’s just as likely you’ll have a whole other team. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as great agencies usually have plenty of depth. But ask the question.
Q: How important do you think it is that our value systems are aligned?
Like any great marriage, it’s not imperative that a client and their agency be completely alike and aligned on every little thing. But if your values, morals, and ethics are not aligned, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you take a tour of the agency, pay attention to the culture. How does the agency treat people? How do people treat each other? Does the culture feel like somewhere you’d enjoy spending time, and does it feel similar to your own office? What an agency values in their own company is a great indicator of what they’ll value in yours. If they run a tight ship highlighted by hard work, authenticity, strategic insight, and inspired creativity this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Q: What do you need from us to stay motivated to drive our business?
Great agencies shouldn’t HAVE to be motivated to drive your business. But since you’re asking… there are three things that help us stay pumped up and excited to work on your business:
CLEAR DIRECTION — Nothing is more frustrating and wastes more time on both sides of the relationship than direction that isn’t clear. If you have agencies pitching your business and they call to clarify direction, or to ask for more input, consider that an excellent sign of a future relationship. Without clarity, it’s nearly impossible for the agency to get where you want them to go.
HONESTY — Along those lines, be honest with us. We’ve done this for a long time and nothing you say will hurt our feelings. Yes, we may be disappointed by something you say, but only because we didn’t please you. If we can both be honest with each other across the board, our relationship will be far more meaningful and will last much longer.
INTERACTION – Don’t be a stranger. The best agency relationships we’ve ever had were the ones where there was genuine, personal interaction between our clients and our team. To this day, we have employees who regularly go out socially with past clients. When clients become friends, the work gets personal. And it also gets better. Check in. Drop a note. Come have a beverage with us on a Wednesday. Just interact with us and let us know you believe in what we’re doing.
Q: How will it affect you and your team when we disagree?
Believe it or not, we welcome disagreement with open arms. Sure, we’d love to wow you at every turn, but if we’re being honest and holding each other accountable (the best way to get the best work) we’re going to have disagreements. And that’s awesome! It shows we are communicating. The antithesis to that is having to wonder what you thought about the brief, or the work, or the media plan. That won’t move us forward at all. Great agencies exist to deliver for their clients and that can only happen on a foundation of honesty. Tell us when you don’t like something, or don’t agree. If you don’t, we won’t have the opportunity to fix it.
Q: Are you willing to be completely honest with us?
This tenet goes both ways and either way, if you ask it, you have to be okay if the answer is “yes.” It takes a special relationship for agency and client to have the freedom to be completely honest. It seems simple enough, but emotionally it’s complicated. Agencies worry honesty may offend their clients. “We think the direction is flawed.” “What you’re asking for simply cannot be done in the time, or with the budget allotted.” “This really is a big idea and we want you to trust us.” On the other side, clients pull their punches for the same reasons, or because it’s easier. “I don’t love the creative, but don’t want to hurt feelings.” “I’m not getting the strategic insight I think we need.” “I’m struggling, but it’s more complicated to lean on my agency so I’ll just do it myself.” Like any great relationship, honesty can hurt sometimes. But it’s also the foundation for strength and longevity. And when agencies can be completely open with their clients, it only makes the work — and the results — better.
JULIE ONDRUSEK is chief operating officer at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, read other posts from our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog
We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.