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.

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 #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 #2


Day 2 in a 10-day series on reasons to hire an agency.

So yesterday, we examined perhaps the most-often cited reason for hiring an agency, which was to have access to great, talented people.  See Yesterday’s Post >

Today, we’ll look at perhaps the second most popular reason, and perhaps the most dangerous (for both parties.)

Reason #2:  The agency has experience in my vertical.

This is another very popular reason that small and midsize companies choose an agency.  And also a very typical path for b-to-b companies.  These marketers are looking for some assurances that they’ll be in the hands of experts – and previous experience in a particular vertical (like steam pipe fittings, or enterprise servers, or mattresses,) provides them on some level.

Why is vertical knowledge so valuable?  There are many reasons, but the main one is definitely money/investment.  When a company wants to market itself in a particular industry – again, especially in b-to-b – it needs to speak to a specific audience through specific channels and create differentiation and memorability.  And quickly.  They last thing they can afford is to pay some agency to navigate a learning curve.  Plus, in these specialized industries, it’s easy to slip up, even innocently, and ruin a campaign, or an entire marketing plan with a wrong word here or a mis-usage there. That’s way too risky and expensive a proposition for any company to make, so you may hear a lot of the “let’s just find a shop who knows our business” being whispered between decision-makers as they sign off on the marketing budget.

Is it possible that an agency full of talented and intelligent people could do some research, and learn about your vertical?  Absolutely.  And in some ways (not all,) it may provide better, cleaner marketing expressions as a result.  It’s something I call “creative curiosity.” But it almost never happens.

But be warned.  Choosing an agency for vertical experience can also be dangerous for both you and the agency.  When an agency has been doing, let’s say, automotive retail for the better part of the last 15 years, it’s not likely to try anything remarkably new or daring…it’ll go to what works, it’ll run your ads in the media it knows, it’ll do what it thinks will generate results.  And chances are, if they’ve been successful for the last decade and a half, it probably will generate your requisite ROI.  And you’ll like the results, and you’ll be content that your message is out there.

But it may end up being boring.  Or just mildly effective.  Or worst of all, it’ll just look like everything else in your space.  This is why marketers have to learn to ask themselves hard questions.  Questions like “do I want to be safe and effective, or do I want to be different and daring?”  Both are valuable, depending on what kind of marketer you are, and what you instruct your agency to do. Remember, even if you hire an agency that has loads of experience in your vertical, you’re still going to want something new, something fresh.  So why not give that same charge to an agency who doesn’t have experience in that vertical, too, and see what comes out?

Tomorrow:  Reason #3:  They’re great in this medium.