When it Comes to Ad Agencies, It’s Me, Not You…Or Could it Be You?

Over the course of 15 years, I have hired and fired a number of ad agencies, marketing firms and freelancers. Some have been excellent, have asked the right questions and exceeded not just our execution goals, but the underlying expectations of a great partnership—these are the companies I still refer marketers to when when I hear they need assistance. Others have not performed up to my standards, whether it be due to a lack of skill or will. Call it personal hang-ups if you like, but I tend to have high expectations of agencies when I make the effort to bring them into my marketing departments.

With high expectations, though, comes great responsibility. I have learned that not all providers can perform to the level of my expectations, and in some cases it could have been my fault when some relationships have failed. Am I man enough to admit that now? Absolutely.

There were definitely some of those, “Man, I wished I would have asked those questions…” moments where I realized I should have inquired more in order to save everyone time, headaches and, most importantly, money. Examples include:

  • Did I correctly communicate our project goals?
  • Did I do my due diligence to make sure the agency had enough experience with either the type of project work we needed or with our industry?
  • Did I ensure there was a culture fit with our marketing department? This is a huge one!
  • Did I bring in a one-trick pony?

There are three defining traits of an outsourced agency or firm that I, as a veteran marketer, believe separate the “order takers” from the high-performers who go above and beyond to be a true partner. If you are responsible for either securing agencies for projects or providing the initial list of potential agency partners, I would highly recommend that you make sure to seek out these traits:

  1. Listen, Listen, Listen – Whether you are initially speaking to agencies about a project to narrow down your list, you are listening to their pitch, or you are already in the middle of a project, ask yourself: “Are they truly listening to what I am saying?” Trust me, there are times I don’t know how a deliverable should look or what precise message it should convey, but I love when agencies are taking the time to listen to me and bring follow-up questions to the table concerning factors I may not have even considered to that point. It’s a delicate balance between agencies just giving you what you are asking for and them pushing their best practices your way, but without a willingness to listen, time is wasted in additional revision rounds, extra phone calls and complete re-dos.
  1. Go Beyond the Marketing Department – A smart marketer knows that any marketing campaign or program affects other departments, whether you’re working on brand awareness, direct marketing campaigns or customer communications. Sales is often connected via an obvious dotted line, but we must remember that our marketing campaign results—good or bad—affect every department in some way, from Operations to Human Resources. An intuitive agency understands this and either asks questions concerning the other departments or adjusts their campaign to account for possible ripple effects on other departments. There are agencies that go so far as to learn parts of the business they’ll never touch directly so they better understand how marketing is used or perceived…now that’s a top notch partner!
  1. Ask About Results – Please, please, please…think about results! This is a very rare trait in the many agencies, and in some instances, rightfully so. Many of us just need a flyer done or collateral created, and in that case, direct results are not of pressing concern. But, it would behoove the agency to inquire how that flyer performed internally or externally—or at the very least, to ask for feedback. As marketers, we should be judged on how we are spending our money and are ultimately creating results, whether direct or indirect. All outsourced marketing help should want to know past, current or future results. If you have an agency working on a social media campaign for you, they should be asking about past campaigns and how many Likes, followers or sales were tracked. They should also ask, “How does that fare compared to your goals for this iteration?” If your department is working on a full-scale campaign, the agency should want to know what campaign benchmarks have been set and what the metrics are for success. Even if you just hired a freelancer to create a flyer, they should ask how many calls, qualified leads or sales were generated. Results are our most important measurement points…we need our partners to think about these data, so judge them on their awareness and willingness to ask!

There are many agencies, firms and freelancers out there. Some are niche players. Some are digital marketing only. Some are full-service. I don’t have to tell you that there’s no perfect partner, and that you should ultimately choose the best one or ones for your company. At the end of the day, you may not always care how well the agency stacks up in these three areas—you may just need to get the work done. That said, I have spent countless hours in initial meetings, additional conversations and in “replace mode” because these factors were not top of mind. In some instances, the onus may be on us as marketers to make a relationship work, but I know that the agencies I have kept as long term partners have always had these three traits in common. Seek them out, and you’ll have the best shot at success.

Jeffrey M. Staats (@spinvista) is a passionate, Cleveland-based marketer for over 15 years working in a variety of roles and industries. He is currently Director of Direct Marketing for Hartville Pet Insurance Group. Jeff also provides strategy and consulting services through SpinVista Marketing for companies, small businesses and local startups. He is married with two boys and enjoys photography, running and Cleveland sports!

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