5 Questions to Guide You in Agency Selection


  • By John Foley
  • October 01, 2014
5 Questions to Guide You in Agency Selection

Why ad agencies, PR firms, digital content and social media providers can’t do everything well

What if your plumber told you that he was also an expert in architecture, interior design, carpentry and electrical? He may be offering new services, but in truth his strength is in plumbing.

Many companies face this challenge when trying to choose the right resource to address their complex marketing, brand or reputation challenges. Everyone claims they can do everything. Technology has reduced the barriers for expansion of services, but that does not always mean you’re getting the experience and expertise necessary to achieve your business goals.

Ad agencies have traditionally worked on brand-related issues such as value propositions, positioning, market segmentation, creative development and media. All of these brand activities, along with cost, promotion, placement and messaging, are areas that you as a marketer can control.

PR agencies have traditionally focused on media relations, investor relations, employee communications, corporate social responsibility and promotions. Much of this work is related to reputation management. Unlike brand work, you can typically only influence reputation management--you can't control what the media, shareholders, opinion leaders, employees and other key stakeholders say about your organization. However, through corporate governance and strong corporate values, it's possible to shape and manage your company's reputation.

Brand management and reputation management require different disciplines and different skill sets. As a result, the cultures of advertising and PR agencies typically differ from one another.

Branded content is all about stories. The best content providers are steeped in the world of journalism. They are by nature storytellers. Their role is to take a brand strategy and bring it to life. They are not typically expected to develop brand strategies and wouldn’t have the background to offer in-depth brand management. However strong brands depend on great stories.

More recently, digital and social media firms have taken on the role of providing compelling content or creating buzz in the marketplace. Unlike traditional advertising or PR, these organizations specialize in more direct relationships with consumers and key stakeholders. These activities are easier to measure and require a higher degree of accountability. While ad agencies and PR firms are building these competencies, some are finding some serious shortcomings in their services due to long-standing industry biases, as well as a lack of depth and breath.

Knowing how to use all of the tools at hand is key to making right decisions when choosing outside resources, and achieving measurable business results. Here are five questions to ask potential agencies to help you sort through choosing the right resource to fit the task:

  1. What is the company’s core business? In order to understand a firm’s true competencies, it's imperative to look at its history. The one-stop shop may not be the right fit if it lacks the depth and breadth necessary to deliver consistent quality across all disciplines.
  2. How much experience does a firm have in a particular service? Real-world experience is key to ensuring that you have a partner that understands the nuances of your industry as well as the services being offered. Carefully check the credentials of the team that will be working on your business.
  3. What was the size and scope of the assignments? Headcount does not necessarily equate to the ability to bring an assignment in on target and on budget. What's most important is the level of resource and sophistication that a firm can bring to bear on meeting your specific goals. The key here is to have the right size team to maximize effectiveness and efficiency.
  4. What work examples does the agency have to prove their expertise? While many firms claim to be experts, the best way to judge is by carefully examining the work shown. And, what’s most important is knowing who within the agency did the work, and confirming their continued affiliation with the agency. This may be your most accurate guide in evaluating true capabilities.
  5. What tangible results can the company demonstrate? The proof is in the numbers. Does the agency have the analytics and tangible results necessary to demonstrate efficacy? The challenge here is that many clients don't want the share information or are unwilling to pay for the level of measurement necessary to gather tangible results.
By asking these questions you should be able to get a clear picture of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the agencies you're considering for your next assignment.

About John Foley

John Foley is the founder and CEO of LEVEL, an advertising and brand strategy firm. His focus is helping organizations align business practices to develop brand architecture, positioning and reputation platforms, and more effective marketing strategies. His experience in this area led him to write a book, Balanced Brand, which - no small coincidence - explains how to do it.

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