A Brand Leader’s view of what makes a Good Advertising Agency

It seems that clients are firing ad agencies very quickly these days.  

I’m half way old enough that I’m straddling the fence on whether agencies are as good as the old days.  But it seems that there are pitches going on constantly, and yet no one is really wanting to look themselves the mirror and say “Am I part of the problem?”

I’ve been brought in a few times to look at the situation.  The first thing I normally tell the Brand Leader is “you have to fire yourself first” and then see if the agency is still bad.  The best clients respect the process, the agency and their own judgment. slide1-1And yet, most Brand Leaders under-estimate the role the client plays in getting to great creative.  As a Brand Leader, if you knew that showing up better would get you better advertising, do you think you could?  If there are 100 steps in every advertising development stage and you show up OK at each step, how are you possibly thinking you’ll end up with a GREAT ad at the end?  

How do you fire Yourself?

When a relationship gets off the rails, what I do is an Advertising “Audit” where we look at the behaviors and processes in getting to the advertising.  

    • What’s your brief look like?  Is it fundamentally sound?   I’ve seen 8 page briefs that don’t even have a benefit or any consumer insights.  And I’ve seen other clients that say “we didn’t write a brief for that one, we just phoned it in”.  Even though the media has changed in this modern world, the fundamentals around writing briefs should not.  You need to distill your strategy, either from your brand plan or what’s in your head down to 1 page.  Here’s a story on how to write a better creative brief.  How to Write an Effective Creative Brief
    • What is your behavior like at advertising meetings?  My belief is that advertising is a balance of freedom and control and many clients I see give too much freedom in areas they should control and too much control in areas they should give more freedom.  You should control the strategy and decision-making, but you should give freedom to the creative expression and execution of the work.  I’ll observe tone to see how motivating you are, how you communicate and how you make decisions in the meeting that lead to the direction you give.  My view is that one person should do all the feedback and that the feedback should be motivating yet it really should be directive as to how to improve the work.  Too many clients try to be motivating but fear giving direction so they opt for vague.  The agency walks away not even knowing what’s next.  Here’s an article on how to Judge Advertising:  How to Judge AdvertisingSlide1
    • How do you make decisions?   As long as it’s consistent and transparent, there is room for latitude, but the agency just has to know so they can adjust.  Too many times, clients don’t want the agency to see how decisions get made.  If you have a consensus culture, what I recommend is that during the creative meeting, you take a 30 minute break where your team gathers its feedback and then assigns one person to take the agency through.   If your culture is top down, and potentially the real decision maker isn’t even in the room, I recommend that one senior agency person accompany you through the internal approval process.  They can listen and respond to the comments directly.  And usually, they are better at selling creative work than you are.  As long as they are aligned with what you want, the tag-team approach should be even better.  

The reason you want to “fire yourself first” is it allows you to now see clearly if it really is the agency or if it was just you.  The added benefit is that if you still see that the agency is not where you need them to be and you still want to fire them, then at least you will be showing up better to your new agency, rather than that dysfunctional client before the audit.  

What Makes for a Good Advertising Agency?

I come at this from the vantage of a client, having spent 20 years working as a Brand Leader.  I’m not an Ad Agency guy, never having worked a day at an agency in my life.  But I’ve seen some great agencies and some not so good.  Here’s my list of what makes a Great Agency:

  1. They work for you, not your boss. While your boss pays them and has the final say, they still know you are the client.  Nothing worse than a client services person constantly trying to go above your head.  The best way for an agency to earn your trust is to consistently demonstrate that they work for you.  That trust will earn them a seat, along side you, at the table of your boss.  You will know they have your back and will support your recommendation, not cave at the whim of your boss.    
  2. They understand your goals, your issues and your strategies.  They write briefs that are on your brand strategy and deliver work that expresses your brand strategy.  Yes,  The modern agency struggles to write advertising strategies that align to the Brand’s strategy.  Just as though clients are not trained enough in the areas of strategy and planning, I see the same thing on the Agency side.  As margins are squeezed, the first casualty is strategic planning.  Yet, that might be one of the most important.  I’d prefer to have a great strategic planner on the brand than have 5 client services people each show up taking notes at meetings.  
  3. They make work that drives demand and sells more widgets, not work that just wins awards.  Awards are part of the agency world–helping to motivate creative people and establishing the agency reputation in the market.  I once had an agency person say:  “we can’t write that strategy because it will make for boring work”.  The balance of winning awards and selling more widgets always has to side with selling more widgets.  I’m really tired of agencies starting off creative meetings with the “we are so excited” line.  You want an agency that comes into a room and says “we have an ad for you that will sell more of your product”.  
  4. They give options.  And they don’t always 100% agree.  Come on agencies.  We are in year 100 of making ads and you haven’t figured out yet that the clients like options.  Each option has to deliver the strategy.  Nothing worse than agencies who tear apart the brief and deliver options for each part of the brief.  (e.g. here’s one for the younger audience, here’s one that does fast really well and here’s one that does long-lasting) That’s not creative options, that’s now strategic options.  We collectively decide on the strategy before the creative process begins, not meander the strategy during the creative process.   As clients, options give us comfort.  But even more importantly, options treat us with respect that we can still make the right decision.  
  5. Agencies are not territorial.   They are transparent allowing you open and free access to their planners and creative people.  It’s really the account people here.  Good account people allow you to communicate directly with the creative team.   Most great creative teams that I have worked with want direct access to the client, rather than have it be filtered through a series of contact reports.  
  6. They adjust and easily take feedback.  Agencies serve at the pleasure of the client.  Every client is unique and the best agencies adjust to that style.  Not only the company but even the individual.  I used to sit with my Account leader every quarter and go through how we can each get better.  Some clients aren’t even doing annual agency performance reviews.  
  7. They are positive and already motivated to work on your brand.  While I do encourage clients to motivate their agencies, it’s much easier to motivate someone who is already motivated.  When I see a 25-year old account person openly complaining, I see that as a problem with the culture of the agency, not a problem for the client to have to figure out.  I’m now on the service side as a consultant, and we can never openly complain.  
  8. They teach.  When I was a new Brand Manager, my client services person (Leslie Boscheratto) taught me more about advertising than any client should have to learn.  In fact, I’m still embarrassed at how little I knew, yet thrilled at how much I learned from that team at Bates back in the mid 90s.  
  9. They act like you are their only client.  And you feel important to them, no matter what share your budget is of the overall agency.  Why sign you up as a client and then keep reminding you that they have Coke, Budweiser or Dove.  When you are with me, treat me as though I’m the most important client in the world.  
  10. Trusted Advisor:  They are a trusted advisor who will give you real advice, not just on advertising but on your performance and on the overall brand.  Most senior agency folks have seen plenty of clients come and go.  Never be afraid to find a quiet moment with your agency person and ask two simple questions:  “what can I do better”  and “what do your best clients do that I could learn from”.

Here’s the flip side to the story with an article I wrote a few months ago on “The worst type of Clients”.  To read that click on:  Ten Worst Types of Advertising Clients

You’ll notice the one thing missing from my list is “They Make Great Work”.  That’s a given because that’s the only reason you hire an agency.  Yes, some agencies make better work than others.  But even those agencies that make great work, also make bad work.  And if we were to look at why, it would likely start with the relationship, processes or interactions.  So if the client can fix what they are doing wrong and the agency can show up right, then you should be able to make good work together.  

Making great advertising is simple, but very hard to do. 


Here’s a presentation on How to Be a Better Client

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  1. How to Write a Creative Brief.  The creative brief really comes out of two sources, the brand positioning statement and the advertising strategy that should come from the brand plan.  To read how to write a Creative Brief, click on this hyperlink:  How to Write a Creative Brief
  2. How to Write a Brand Positioning Statement.  Before you even get into the creative brief, you should be looking at target, benefits and reason to believe.   To read how to write a Brand Positioning Statement, click on this hyperlink:  How to Write an Effective Brand Positioning Statement
  3. How to Write a Brand Plan:  The positioning statement helps frame what the brand is all about.  However, the brand plan starts to make choices on how you’re going to make the most of that promise.  Follow this hyperlink to read more on writing a Brand Plan:  How to Write a Brand Plan
  4. Turning Brand Love into Power and Profits:  The positioning statement sets up the promise that kick starts the connection between the brand and consumer.  There are four other factors that connect:  brand strategy, communication, innovation and experience.   The connectivity is a source of power that can be leveraged into deeper profitability.  To read more click on the hyper link:  Love = Power = Profits 

Brand LeadershipI run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center

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To reach out directly, email me at graham.robertson@beloved-brands.com

About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/grahamrobertson1 so we can stay connected.