Best Advice for hiring an agency

“Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry.

This week’s Best Advice, the first of a two-part series, is from Jack and Kevin themselves. It’s intended for marketers looking at how best to work with their agency. Next week, we’ll cover how agencies can work best with their client.

What to look for when choosing an agency

KS:  I’ve hired a few agencies in my time. Some worked out well and others… maybe not so well.

I have really strong opinions on this. First, all agencies can blow you away with fancy presentations and tables full of candies, but that’s just wallpaper. You’re buying brains, not M&Ms.

Trust your instincts. Most of the people I thought were prima donnas didn’t change over time, no matter how much I wanted them to. So much is based on how well you work together, so DO NOT assume that people will eventually just work out.

Look for people you trust, and people who listen well and ask smart questions based on what you tell them. Look for people who can do it, not just talk about doing it. And when they show you anything as part of a pitch, ask questions to the point it becomes uncomfortable. If they become fidgety, worry.

Make sure the people you trust are the people you will be working with, and that the people you will be working with are the authors of all those great case studies and portfolios they try to sell the agency with.

JN: I’ve really only been on the agency side trying to woo prospective clients, but I’ve been part of plenty of after-pitch post-mortems with clients who share what worked and what didn’t. In my experience, casting is everything. Who an agency puts forward as the team to service the business is crucial. It usually comes down to chemistry: Do you get a gut feeling that these are people I’d like to work with?

What should you expect from your agency?

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 1.30.52 PMAn agency is not, and was never intended to be, a miracle cure for your communication needs. If you think they are going to take any of the heavy lifting off your plate, think again.

But what the right agency can and should do is provide an honest outside perspective, with a skill-set that may not exist within your building.

At best, they help interpret what the outside world thinks about your brand or product, and in turn help you broker a relationship with your audience. They should be a partner with you, invested in what’s best for your company.

JN: I really agree. A lot of clients have told me they want to know and feel that their agency team lies awake at night worrying about the same things they do. You’ve got to believe that your agency people fundamentally care about how well your business is performing, not just their own.

A lot of agencies today will tie their remuneration to business results based on mutually agreed criteria. That’s a healthy thing, and should give you confidence your priorities are aligned. I think you should also expect your agency to be proactive in coming forward with business-building ideas, and not just react to challenges you give them.

Is there a best way to get the relationship started?

KS: Share as much as you can. Don’t assume that the brief you wrote is enough. Take as many agency people as you can on tours of your facilities, let them meet people from other departments. Pretend you’re on-boarding a new employee. Set goals and practices for meetings and reviews. Be as forward-thinking up front as you possibly can. Assume you are going to “win” as one team.

JN: I have found that the best relationships are fostered when goals and objectives are clearly defined, discussed and agreed. There’s nothing worse than investing all kinds of time and effort in a project, only to discover halfway through, “Oh, so that’s what you wanted!” Agree on the answer to this question: what does success look like?

How do you know when an agency really understands your needs?

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 1.31.21 PMIf you sense that the people servicing your business are not as passionate as you are, as dedicated to finding solutions to challenges, as committed to victory… say something as soon as you can and switch them out.

The agency may be right to help your business, but not everybody loves the accounts they are on, and relationships don’t always mesh. That’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It felt like the best agency people I worked with—creative or account-side—would have loved to work at our company. Those are the people who will get it first, and you will feel their passion.

How do you best give creative feedback?

JN: Be human. Does the work make you feel something? Before you dive into deep analysis, let your agency know what you’re feeling, because that comes closest to how the consumer will likely react.

KS: The single most important thing, in my opinion, is to be honest in the moment—no matter who is sitting around the table. Creative elicits an emotional response before a logical response.

There will always be time to pull apart creative presentations if they aren’t on strategy, but allowing yourself to respond emotionally to creative is really important. In the moment of the presentation, you become a proxy for the consumer. If it doesn’t move you, stir you or make you think or laugh, why would it move your audience?

Second, you need to let the creative team know you are more than a robotic lamb toeing corporate lines. Let them see you’re human and that you appreciate the creative energy they have put into the work.

Back to the first part of this answer: if you are afraid to offer an honest opinion because a higher-up is at the table, you are doomed before you begin. Presumably you were hired for your brain, so show that you know how to use it. And remember the old expression “If we both think the same way all the time, one of us is redundant.”

What do you do when—inevitably—things don’t go as expected?

Screen Shot 2019-09-20 at 1.31.08 PMTo begin with, make sure you aren’t alone in thinking things aren’t going well. Make sure your thinking is rational and not emotional. Take the time to think through causes and issues, so you really know the landscape around your issues. Then call a meeting to discuss the issue, as void of personality and emotion as you can.

Document everything. It is always important to CYA (cover your ass) in a business setting, but that’s not the only reason to be diligent with notes. In short, it’s about accountability versus fallibility. Everyone in business is accountable—that’s what a job is. But we are all humans, and in that respect, we are all fallible. Good notes are a great work aid when used properly. Finally, if this process doesn’t help you overcome challenges, elevate the issue to your boss. Share responsibility: it is not a sign of weakness, but one of confidence.

JN: I’ve always found it helpful for key client and agency people to meet for regular check-ups after each project is completed. A thorough, honest airing of what worked and what didn’t can help relationships from going sour and keep expectations aligned. And the learning can be applied on the next project. Think of it as an ounce of prevention.


David Brown