10 Reasons to Hire an Agency: Reason #10

Reason #10: The agency has a great reputation. Or buzz.

When a small or midsize marketer in any category realizes (or admits) they need to hire an agency, the first conception of the choice may hinge on a simple condition:  the type of buzz or reputation that agency has gained in recent weeks or months.  Whether it’s in that particular market, or in that particular vertical, or for a certain proficiency the agency has been noted for, some industry buzz may be enough attraction to consider hiring them.

As I mentioned in the reason #8 post, an agency can generate a fair amount of buzz for work it recently did for a client…either the client was very notable (read: large) or the work itself was effective enough to move the needle and grab some attention. [Of course, the agency may have itself a good PR department, and was smart about getting some clippings.]

An agency can also become known for a certain kind of reputation in the business. What kinds of reputations can an agency have?  Some are known for producing great creative product.  (Most want to be.)  Some are known to be social media leaders.  Some are known to be brand experts.  Some are known to be super proficient in direct marketing.  Some will save you lots of money on media buying by virtue of their processes.  Some have a notable executive.  Some are known to have a “folksy” attitude.  Some are known because they have the coolest office space.  Some because they’re just huge and can handle a global product launch in 26 languages.  Some focus on very specific niches, like challenger brands, or multi-channel retail.

Hiring an agency for any one of these reasons is a decent course of action for small to midsize marketers.  To borrow vernacular from Newton’s First Law of Motion, an agency that’s hot tends to stay hot.  So it’s likely that if you hire an agency because they have a great reputation that’s built on solid work, there’s a good chance they’ll do solid work for you and your brand. Hire an agency because they’re breaking new ground in social, there’s a good bet they’ll develop a cool social program for your brand, too.

Again – and you may have noticed a theme here throughout these 10 in 10 posts – most of how your relationship with an agency will evolve is dependent on you (the marketer) and what you bring to the relationship.  In some sense, it’s about how you choose an agency partner…we’ve recently explored a 10-pack of possible avenues.

In another sense, (once you have chosen an agency,) it’s a willingness to participate fully in the relationship – to allow your agency partner to take some chances and explore some uncharted territories.

In both instances, the key to unlocking all the potential in the world from your agency partner will always lie with an understanding of your customers, and anticipating their needs before they even begin to articulate them.  Make sure your agency gets THAT, and it won’t matter what the reason was that you hired them in the first place.

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10 Reasons to Hire an Agency. Reason #9

Reason #9 – The Agency is in a Good Location

In today’s globally connected world, the concept of “location” barely holds water as either a barrier against or a case for professional collaboration.  There are a thousand different incarnations of off-shore outsourcing for everything from web hosting to back office operations to customer service in regions sometimes tens of thousands of miles away. Skype has made video conferencing virtually free and instantaneous for all.  Yet, for many smaller and midsize marketers, hiring an agency tends to be a decision driven day after day by district.

It makes perfect sense.  The marketer who chooses to hire an agency that’s nearby gets numerous benefits out of the proximity victory.  Meetings can be held in person if the agency is just across town.  The marketer and the agency can virtually ensure a clear and consistent collaboration process that includes personal visits to each other’s businesses, or timely lunches or even social gatherings during cocktail hours.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are many cases in which a marketer will deliberately hire an agency OUT of their market for any number of reasons.  In some instances, the marketer might believe that an agency in New York or Los Angeles or Miami might be “better” or “more capable” than some in their own market.

This may or may not be true and it largely depends on what market we’re talking about here.  Some marketers just like the sexiness of having to travel to the coast for a big “agency meeting.”  Some executives just like a boondoggle.  (Why do you think there are so many “amazing” agencies in Hawaii?)

In a more benign example, it may be that an out-of-market shop has a particular expertise (say, direct response, or mobile, for examples) that might be necessary for the next effort.  Perfectly legit to look outside the area code.

But the truth of the location issue lies somewhere in the middle of all the excuse-making.  An agency that understands your business, your goals and your parameters is valuable as a partner, whether they’re a cab-ride away or a long-distance flight from home.

In my career, I’ve met – and sometimes collaborated with – a hundred agency owners in big markets (New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco,) and small (Tupelo, Greenville, Omaha,) and they pretty much all have talented people, proven processes, strong relationships and solid creative thinking across the board.

What really matters is what makes YOU comfortable.  If you place a high value on face-time, then hire an agency that you can drive to in less than an hour.  If not, then don’t be afraid to expand your search.

And remember, if you’re in a small market and you decide to look outside your region, you don’t necessarily have to hire an agency from a big market – there are incredible small and midsize agencies in smaller markets across the country that would love to pitch for your business.

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Next:  The agency is getting a lot of buzz right now.

10 Reasons to Hire an Agency: Reason #8

Reason #8: The agency did great previous work for Client X.

The hiring of agencies based on their historical success with another client goes beyond just the business world.  Indeed, in virtually every facet of modern life, we reward those who have performed well in the past, regardless of the circumstances that may have led to those successes or the outcomes that may have followed.

Professional athletes receive lucrative contracts based on a fairly small sample of exceedingly laudable accomplishments.  Songwriters have their contracts renewed (and often bloated) following the release of a hit.  Same for authors, actors, newscasters, and don’t forget CEOs, CMOs and a gaggle of other C-dash-Os.

And likely, those who have enjoyed success tend to continue to succeed, especially when they’re affirmed – and often funded – by those who are invested in their future output.  So when agency X gets a “hit” with a campaign, it’s likely that the client will quickly sign on for 23 more executions just like it.  It happens every day.

There a number of factors that make this seemingly obvious connection troublesome at best and downright unreliable at worst.  For one, there is often a blurriness of specifics about how or whom or what led to the admirable outcomes.  Very often, success is a collaborative process that requires creativity, compromise and multiple input sources.

For an agency to be successful for a previous client, a whole lot of things had to go remarkably right:  the idea (regardless of who seeded it,) had to be sound, the hypotheses had to be tested (or at least vetted,) the talents and the efforts of a lot of diverse people had to be leveraged, the client had to go along with the concept and then 17 other departments had to get on board with the vision and execute with excellence:  research, media, production, the talent at the recording studio where the radio spots were crafted, and on and on.  Even for smaller or local marketing efforts, this tends to be true, just maybe with less actual people involved.

Let me be clear, it’s never a bad idea to hire an agency because they had success with a previous client.  It’s quite likely they learned a lot in the process, thereby implying they’re more educated than when they started.  They may have won a bunch of awards for the work, implying they’re confident and have been buoyed by their accomplishments.  They may have even written some case studies or a trend paper on the process, indicating that they’ve derived some universal truths or best practices out of the experience.

So hiring an agency for work they’ve done in the past for another client will get you halfway down the road, but it’s not a guarantee of success for you or your brand.  A number of reasons abound for this, but it comes down to this: it starts with you.  You determine what the freedoms or the limitations will be.  You determine how daring you want the campaign to be.  You write the checks.

Beyond you, it’s something bigger, and far more elusive.  The creative process (even if you’re creating a strategy,) is capricious.  It’s improvisational.  It’s collaborative.  It’s subjective to environment and timing and weather and the kind of coffee you’re drinking at the meetings.  It’s a bloody mess, but it’s the only way we get from here to there.

As a creative director, I’ve often been asked to show previous work to prospective clients, so they can gauge my abilities to both create solutions and direct a creative team.  And I hate it.  It’s not that I’m not proud of the work – I often am.  But all this shows is that I had a series of deeply thoughtful and leading conversations with my client, (often a strong voice in the conversation,) and that we went through a series of revisions to get to the final executions.  Joy.

There are directives (check out “Make My Logo Bigger Cream” on YouTube…you’ll scream,) and imperatives and legal requirements and of course the objectives and the budget restrictions and the market limitations and the testing breakouts and a hundred other factors that should indicate that our agency wasn’t allowed to run free through the fields and put a tree here and a waterfall there.  I was a collaborator in a business process, that’s all. And yet, the portfolio or the reel is the only barometer of our future abilities.  Seems odd.

In any collaborative engagement, the final result is only as good as the least willing participant in the process will allow it to be.  In some cases, depending on your business, it’s only as good as the loudest voice in the room.  So if you’re hiring an agency based on work for a previous client, start asking yourself, “am I ready to collaborate to the fullest extent?”  If so, it may very well be the best reason of all.

Tomorrow – Reason #9:  Location

10 Reasons to Hire an Agency. Reason #7

Reason #7:  The agency has great processes.

Admittedly, this may be the least known or cited reason for hiring an agency.  In all probability, it would likely depend on the kind of marketer you are, (heavily regulated, say) or the kind of work you seek (like branding a startup.) But nonetheless, this reason is popping up with more regularity as agencies try to distinguish themselves in an increasingly cluttered field.

So what does it mean that an agency has great “processes?”  And why should a small to midsize marketer care?

Processes (academically referred to as proprietary business systems or categorically as operational business engineering,) are basically sets of plans or rules to tackle complex or long or large tasks.  Typically, a process starts with a mission (what should this process accomplish?) and includes any number of tasks or steps, usually in a very specific and very predicated order, will almost always include intersections (with other internal processes or core disciplines,) and ultimately ends with achieving the objective or completing the task.

In some companies, processes like these are cobbled together as a loosely grouped set of best practices that are informally but systematically passed along from management to the execution team in timed increments.  “Okay, before you release that ad to the newspaper, send it over to copy for one last proofread.”   Many times, agencies have dozens of processes, but don’t even know it.  You probably do in your own business.

In other cases, processes may be codified and embedded in the company’s core offering…fully invested by employees and management at the elemental level. And at agencies whose business it is to create stuff, you can imagine that some processes emerge as complex, creative and deeply thought out systems.  In many instances, you’ll find agencies that brand and even trademark their processes.

There are any number of possible agency processes, but the likely suspects would be:

  • Branding
  • Creative Development
  • Situational Analysis
  • Objective Formulation
  • Research
  • Media Planning
  • Project Management
  • New Business

And while we continue, let’s bear in mind that “Marketing” itself is just one giant process.  So all activities of an agency working on your behalf will be some sub-process of the big enchilada.

So.  Does it help to find an agency that has well thought-out processes? Absolutely.  Generally, a process is built on two important aims:  create VALUE for the customer, and create EFFICIENCY of internal resources.  Both of those are yummy if you’re the recipient of the effort.  Moreover, the most palpable benefit is that a process clearly suggests a constant and consistent FOCUS on a desired outcome. If that outcome leads to finding and testing the best expression of your product benefits (for instance,) then yay for you!

But beware an agency mired in process development, and obsessed with telling you about their processes as a lead story.  Sometimes you pay more for all that pre-investment.  Sometimes, in order to run a process, more people are required than if you executed a simpler or a more organic solution.  Sometimes, agencies even try their hands at automation (especially in the media placement/measurement arena) and fail. Sometimes, the agency processes (or some of the people executing them) are outsourced.  None of which are really good for your brand or your bottom line.

If you hire an agency because they have developed and they execute sound business processes, you’re probably in for an education in good business.  But don’t pay more for it, (unless it’s a proven process that will save you time or money going forward.) And remember, the process should be the way to a solution, not what stands in the way of one.

Next – Reason #8:  The agency did great work for another client.

10 Reasons to Hire An Agency: Reason #6

Reason #6:  I know someone at an agency.

One of the most oft-cited reasons for hiring an agency (and for entering into virtually any professional arrangement,) is a prior relationship between the two parties.  The marketer and the agency president may have once worked together, or sat on a board together, or something really important:  they play golf together.

Bear in mind, marketer-agency relationships are not always forged at the top, especially in the less-than-blockbuster marriages that don’t involve holding companies and gazillions of dollars, but rather between the folks in the trenches:  a marketing manager knows an account executive or a brand manager and a creative director once sat side-by-side on an industry panel, or (and this is becoming more popular,) a former agency pro makes the leap to the client side and then hires his or her old shop or vice versa.

Beginning a relationship with a former colleague or a professional acquaintance is generally good business, since the relationship tends to be built on a foundation of mutual respect and on an expectation level that the work will be executed at or to a certain level of quality. But with that expectation comes a certain amount of pressure.  There is an unspoken agreement between the marketer and the agency.  Something like “this better be good…I hired you because I know you, and I expect you to honor that choice and to (wait for it…) make me look good.”  Plus, if either party blows it, they still have to meet on the first tee next Saturday.  Yuck.

As you can see, that underlying (and usually unspoken) expectation can backfire.  In some cases, the marketer may put undue pressure on his or her colleague to go above and beyond the typical deliverable suite.  There may be a supposition that the marketer is deserving of special pricing, or a truncated timeline, or “special attention.”  Why?  Because I know you, dude.  You got the gig because I know you. The flipside is also true: in some cases, the agency may get complacent, or be prone to lollygagging on certain tasks, because there’s an assumption they won’t get fired by their “friend.”

So you can see that the alternative – hiring an agency where you DON’T know someone – is more than appealing.  The relationship is either built on a good vibe about the potential, or (as we read in an earlier post) on a great pitch, or on something that’s generally attractive about the agency and its abilities.  When an agency and a marketer get together for the first time, there tends to be a prolonged honeymoon period, where each side gets to reveal a little bit more about themselves…a sort of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” experience that evolves over time and forms out its own idioms and its own standards. Some of the best and most long-standing relationships are forged in this manner.

All in all, a marketer/agency relationship that’s built on a prior relationship is not the worst idea in the world.  But it’s no guarantee of success, and carries with it a steeper downside, since success is the baseline expectation.  On the other hand, the marketer/agency relationship that’s not built on previous history is a sort of professional courtship that tends to be more fully enjoyed and typically more participatory by both parties. The best course of action is to set the brand and your customers as your top two considerations, and then choose the best agency to serve them, whether you know that agency or not.

Next Post – Reason #7:  The Agency Has Great Processes

10 Reasons to Hire an Agency: Reason #5

Reason #5: We have no marketing department.

Admittedly, this reason is generally limited to smaller marketers, as marketing can get lost in the shuffle of so many other business activities.  This can be true of all types of companies, from single-offering entrepreneurs (bakers, candlestick makers,) to high tech or Internet startups.  These businesses are so focused on making a great product or offering a unique service, that marketing – capital M – is often relegated to “we’ll get to that when we have some sales.”

So they go out in search of an agency to basically “outsource” an array of singular marketing needs, usually focused on promotion activity like website development or advertising or packaging.  In some cases, the limited funds (that precluded the marketer from establishing a marketing department,) tend to produce difficult choices.  Should we build a website first, or run some ads?  Should we fix up our product line or invest in finding the right distributors?  Should we sell direct or through intermediaries?  All of these functions would typically have been scrutinized by a marketing team and then decided on and cross-referenced with company/brand objectives.

A troubling problem with this approach, of course, is that marketing is often misunderstood, even by fairly accomplished businesspeople.  More accurately, it’s often only partially understood, and tends to be limited to activities that sound a lot like “promotion.”   What most smaller companies don’t understand is that marketing is way more than promotion, and should be everyone’s business, at virtually every level of every company.

So an obvious pitfall of hiring an agency because you don’t have a marketing department is that not all agencies can provide end-to-end marketing advice.  As we saw in post #3 in this series, many agencies have chosen to specialize:  some are great at advertising.  Others at direct marketing.  Others at branding.  Some are very competent digital or social shops. Additionally, the relationship between a company without a marketing department tends to get started off on the wrong foot, since the charge from the marketer is usually very specific.  They start asking around, and saying something like, “I think I need an agency to help with PR.”  Naturally, they’ll find PR agencies vying for their business.  Further, it can get a little icky for senior executives when an outside party comes in and starts asking real marketing questions, like “how did we arrive at this pricing strategy?” or “What are the plans for line extension?” or “How are we planning on expanding operations as we grow?” That can get a little too close for comfort for an entrepreneur who’s poured his or her soul into something for the last six years.

Conversely, there are many advantages to hiring an agency if you don’t have a marketing department.  Generally, someone at an agency (a senior account executive, or management executive,) or an independent consultant is usually well versed in the marketing functions.  Also, if the agency or consultant is a specialist in your vertical, you’re more likely to get road-proven advice that will lead to effective executions.  And let’s face it, every larger company that HAS an internal marketing department hires an agency (or several) anyway.  They can’t be that far off-base, can they?

Internally, any good business worth its salt is going to have to vet every marketing challenge:  the product line, the features, the accessories (if applicable,) the service plan, the pricing plan, the distribution strategies, the operational infrastructure.  A lot of un-sexy, un-advertising stuff.  But these are the basic building blocks for a successful business and a clear grasp of them is absolutely critical to building a brand with any merit.  If an agency can help you explore these concepts, it’s probably the beginning of a very profitable partnership for both parties.

Tomorrow:  Reason #6:  I know someone at an agency.

10 Reasons to Hire an Agency. Reason #4

Reason #4:  The agency gave a great pitch.

We’ve all heard this one.  There were four agencies on the short list, and it was clear that agency X was the frontrunner.  Then agency Y comes in (from the Midwest, no less!) and knocks the client over and and knocks the incumbent out of a healthy set of billings.  They must have done one heck of a pitch!

“The Pitch” is the holy grail for some advertising and marketing practitioners.  It’s the closing argument of the prosecutor; the 2-minute wrap of the hopeful candidate; the coach’s impassioned locker room speech; heck, it’s the warbly proposal on bended knee.  It’s the one chance the agency has to articulate how it sees the problem, how it crafts the strategy and how it envisions and stylizes the solution.  It’s the only legitimized  method left in modern business to say “pick me!”

Remember Don Draper’s “carousel” speech on Mad Men?  In less than 3 minutes, he encapsulated the problem for Kodak’s slide projector, (that they didn’t have a “technology” sale to make,) added a healthy dose of personal passion, and created new terminology for the client to use as a go-to-market differentiator.  Perfectly presented.  And punctuated emphatically by the account director’s closing remarks:  “Good luck at your next meeting.”  Wow.

Marketers love getting pitched.  And why wouldn’t you?  Imagine you had a problem and you could ask 10 prominent psychoanalysts to give you their best recommendations – FOR FREE.  One by one, they march in, they flatter you and your personality accomplishments.  They ease into your shortcomings.  They postulate the provenance of your problems.  They offer a unique analysis and then lay out an expansive road map to a solution.  And then they thank you for the opportunity. How wonderfully indulgent!

On one hand, hiring an agency because they gave a great pitch is a bit like getting married after a first date.  Sure, it’s always fun and flirty in the beginning, and full of possibility.  But a long-term relationship is something different, and something that requires work, and patience, and more work and the ability to articulate what you WANT from the relationship.  Some agencies pitch well, and have a hard time delivering on all those lofty promises.  Or don’t see the implications of what they propose.  And be aware, small and midsize marketers:  some agencies stack the deck by hiring great pitchers.  There are professionals out there who know how to get into character and learn how to read a room, and learn what the CMO or marketing VP is dealing with, and craft a story so compelling, it’s hard to resist.

But, on the other hand, hiring an agency because they gave a great pitch is not always the worst move a marketer can make.  In some ways, the marketer gets to hear first-hand how the agency perceives your marketing problems.  And in this way, the marketer can sift through whether or not that agency “gets it” with the product offering, has the requisite knowledge of the vertical, of the client’s customer base, and many more subtle but important facets of going to market.  In many ways, marketers don’t always know what they want, but they know when someone is close, because they can hear it somewhere in the details.

You may not always know what you’re looking for when you’re hiring an agency, but you might want to collaborate with a team that’s stumbled onto something fresh and new in reviewing your business.  You might learn that an agency has discovered an insight about your business or your customers and has sound processes and systems to get that insight articulated into a message and then get that message into the hands of the people who matter most. And you might even learn something new in the process.  All in all, if you got any of THAT from an agency pitch, it’s not a terrible reason to hire an agency.

Tomorrow – Reason #5:  We don’t have a marketing department.