The Right Way to Choose a Marketing Agency


It should have been the moment the fast-growing shoe company made its breakthrough. Just for Feet had started in 1977 with a single shoe store in Birmingham, Alabama. By 1999, it had grown to 140 superstores in 25 states, was making $775 million of annual sales, and was ranked sixth in Fortune magazine’s list of “America’s Fastest Growing Companies.”

Now, as the new millennium came into view, it was set to go national. Just for Feet had secured an ad slot in the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Not surprisingly, CEO Harold Ruttenberg felt a little out of his league.

 “We specialize in selling shoes, not commercials,” Ruttenberg told Salon. “We had never before created hoopla.”

The company dug deep for its new hoopla. It spent $1.7 million on the media buy and paid another $2 million for print ads telling people to watch out for its Super Bowl slot. For the ad itself, Just for Feet took no chances. It chose Saatchi & Saatchi, one of the biggest ad companies in the industry, paying them $3 million for the content.

What the creative team at Saatchi & Saatchi came up with turned out to be one of the biggest clunkers in advertising history. The ad showed a group of White men in a Humvee tracking a barefooted runner in Kenya. The men catch up with the runner and offer him water laced with a knockout drug. As he lies on the ground, they force Nike trainers onto his feet. When the runner wakes up, he screams in protest and runs away, trying to shake the shoes off his feet.

The ad was supposed to show that Just for Feet is a fun place that will go out of its way to put shoes on its customers’ feet. What audiences saw was White men hunting a Black man in Africa. Critics suggested that the company change its name to “Just for Racists.”

Ruttenberg sued his advertising agency. He claimed that he had told Saatchi that he didn’t like the ad but they had insisted that it was good, and he had trusted them. He argued that the ad was so bad and so harmful to his business that it constituted malpractice.

The idea that an advertising agency can commit malpractice wasn’t tested in court. The case was dropped when Just for Feet went bankrupt before the end of the year, brought low by an accounting fraud.

Relationships between brands and marketing agencies are rarely that toxic but they aren’t always as smooth as the agencies themselves believe. According to one survey from Setup, an agency search consultant, 75 percent of agencies think that the main reason that clients leave them is because of cuts to the marketing budget. In fact, only 24 percent of clients say that budget cuts were the reason they ended their relationship with their agencies. The rest simply weren’t happy with the work that they were getting or no longer thought that the agency suited their brand.

That makes the match between a company and an agency key. Brands looking for agencies to create their ads and manage their communications, can’t simply choose from one of the many options available on Madison Avenue and beyond, and assume it will all work out. They have to find a company whose creative talents and particular experience match the message and the image they want to create.

Matching the Client to the Agency

According to Lisa Colantuono, President of AAR Partners, one of the world’s oldest agency search consultants, a good match between an agency and a brand consists of a number of elements, but a few are vital.

Client-agency compatibility is essential, of course, but that compatibility must extend beyond personal chemistry between the agency’s team and the brand’s executives.“Chemistry is fleeting,” says Colantuono.“Compatibility is commitment.”

The agency also needs to have the right experience. That doesn’t just mean long experience or even a history in the brand’s particular categories. The agency should also have relevant experience with the brand’s particular marketing challenges.

One company, for example, may be looking for a spectacular launch, while another might need to do a quiet re-brand, and a third might be hoping to raise flagging sales. The marketing agency needs to have staff who are capable of talking to the brand’s audience, who understand the product and its key sales points, but who also know how to meet the goals of that brand at that moment in its growth.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. Colantuono describes helping a large petroleum company to select the best agency from its own list of pre-determined finalists. AAR Partners found a conflict of interest with one agency and discovered that another didn’t have the right experience. The consultancy brought in a different agency that wasn’t listed, and which went on to win the business.  An international camera company went through a similar situation, and Colantuono describes recently learning of a vitamin company that is re-starting a search for an agency after discovering a year since making its selection that it had chosen an agency that wasn’t right for it.

Most important of all though, says Colantuono, is open and honest communication. “This is a working partnership and the most successful client-agency relationships are those that are friends first. They share everything and take equal responsibility for caring for that brand as if it were a child.”

Cupid in a Suit

If that makes finding a marketing agency sound similar to finding a life partner, the analogy isn’t accidental. Colantuono says that she sees her agency as “cupid in a suit.” The role of consultancies like hers is to understand the brand’s personality, its needs, and desires, and perhaps also its state of maturity and outlook, then match it with an agency that has a similar approach. Just as a dating site wouldn’t match a twenty-something student with middle-aged divorcee so a new, young digital agency would be a poor fit for a brand aimed at the elderly and wealthy. A venerable old agency with a good record in print ads would be a poor fit for a vibrant, digital start-up looking for new users and higher engagement figures to promote rapid growth.

Unlike dating, though, the match between a brand and a marketing agency can be measured in numbers. AAR Partners says that the relationships it has introduced have delivered ROI within 18 months and last two or three times longer than the industry tenure average. 

That average isn’t very long. An agency-client relationship typically lasts little more than three years, which might suggest that either agencies aren’t very good at pleasing their clients or clients aren’t very good at picking the right agencies. But if an agent-client relationship is like a romantic relationship, it’s a particularly promiscuous one. According to Startup’s survey, only 28 percent of clients described themselves as “loyal” to their primary agent partner. One in five said that they felt “stuck” in their relationship, and one in three brand respondents said that they were planning to review their agency partners over the next three months.

With those kinds of feelings, it’s surprising that agency-client relationships last as long as they do.

But the fickleness of agency-client relationships also affect the agencies themselves. Creative talents rarely stay at the same agency throughout their careers. An agency used to a particular art director or copywriter could find someone else working on their account for their next campaign.

“Agencies change constantly,” warns Colantuono. “People move, accounts shift, leadership changes… and all these changes change ‘an agency.’”

Clients, she says, can’t keep up with a constantly changing agency landscape and do their day jobs. Websites might provide an idea of an agency’s history, approach, and former clients but they can’t reveal the nuances of the agency team, leadership skills, work ethics, depth of talent, sense of camaraderie, or relevant experience at particular marketing challenges. “All are important for a successful client-agency relationship,” says Colantuono.

So what can a small business do to make sure that it picks the right agency for its brand and its marketing challenge? One option, of course, is to hire a consultancy to match them with the right creative team. The consultant will be able to figure out what the business really needs and select a talent that matches. They’ll know which established agencies have conflicts of interest and which new agencies are now breaking out and have something valuable to offer.

Referrals can also help but an agency that boosted a friend’s business might not be right for a different business, even one in the same field or at the same state of development. Start by understanding what exactly you want the agency to do. What’s the goal of the campaign? What metrics would you choose for success? Where do you want the marketing campaign to put the business in three months, six months, a year, and longer?

Set a budget and decide how you’d prefer to pay. Agencies can charge per project; take a retainer in return for a set number of monthly hours; arrange a time and materials cost structure; accept a performance-based fee; or tie their costs to the value of the media buy.

Once you know what you want your campaign to do, you’ll need to draw up a list of possible agencies and review them. Ask for case studies. Make sure that the agencies have experience not just in your industry and with your audience, but with the particular kind of campaign your business needs at its stage of growth.

And once you’ve made your selection, try to keep it. Setup notes that only 10 percent of agencies believe that it’s important to challenge the client; about 62 percent of clients want to be challenged. If the agency you’ve chosen isn’t pushing back on your assumptions and making you think twice, you’re not getting your money’s worth. Instead of immediately looking for a new agency, though, do what every smart partner does when a relationship starts to look troubled: improve the communications.

“Relationships take work, compatibility, commitment, consideration and more,” says Colantuono.

Choose the right partner, and communicate honestly and clearly, and you should find that the relationship lasts and doesn’t end a few months with surprisingly bad ad and a court case.

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