Since I published my Directory of Building Materials Ad Agencies, it has become one of the most visited pages on my website. That tells me there are a lot of building materials companies interested in finding a new agency.
To make sure you select the right ad agency, there are several things you should consider.
If you don’t have the time to read this post now, you can download a copy of my complete Agency Selection Guide here. The downloadable version is even more detailed.
BEFORE YOU START YOUR SEARCH, CONSIDER THIS
How Agency Relationships Fail
The biggest mistake I see building materials companies make is selecting an agency with no experience in how building materials are sold. While sometimes this does lead to a successful relationship, most of the time it is a failure.
If you are considering a new agency, that means you’re unhappy with the one you’re currently using. It may be clear to you that you need a change.
Perhaps the relationship has just become tired and you can’t remember the last time they brought you a really creative breakthrough idea like they did at the beginning.
Could You Be the Problem?
It’s easy to blame the agency when often you, the client, are the problem. Even if you have already decided to find a new agency, it’s worth finding out whether and how you might be making it hard for an agency to do their best work. Knowing this will help you be more successful when you partner with your new agency.
Agencies Can Also Be in a Difficult Position
The client and the agency are frequently not in alignment over their roles, which puts the agency in a difficult position.
Clients are used to having relationships with vendors; they are not used to having a relationship with partners they respect. Vendors are not part of the team. They do what they are told. They never argue with the client. Many clients say they want an agency relationship, but then treat the agency like they treat a vendor.
Another Problem with Roles
Another problem agencies have with building materials clients is the delineation of roles between the agency and the company’s marketing department. It’s not the marketing department’s job to come with up with ideas—that is one of the agency’s roles.
START YOUR (SEARCH) ENGINES
The Hunt Is On
At this point, you’ve considered the pros and cons of finding a new agency and are mindful of your role in this relationship. Now you are ready to start looking for the right one.
Don’t Waste Time on Sham Agency Searches
A common reason for changing agencies is that a new marketing leader has stepped onto the scene and wants to change things up or to work with an agency they have successfully used in the past. Too often, this leads to a sham agency search to make the CEO or Sourcing think that there was an actual selection process.
In this case, the new marketing leader should spend a little of his “I’m the new guy, I’m going to make things better, I’m the expert” capital and just announce the change.
Start by Developing a List of What You Are Looking for in an Agency
Too often, the number one quality companies seek in an agency is simply “someone who is really creative.”
But creativity is only effective when it is part of a solid strategy and plan.
Develop a more comprehensive list of what you are looking for in an agency.
Other Elements to Consider
The background of the agency owner (which you can find on their LinkedIn profile) will tell you a lot about the agency’s strengths and weaknesses. What was their career path? If the owner was a corporate executive, the agency will probably not be very innovative, since innovation involves a degree of creativity, uncertainty, and risk.
Perhaps You Need More Than One Agency?
The days of the full-service agency is over. If I were a building materials company today, I would hire two or more agencies that are all experts in their own area.
If your current agency is really a good fit, you might only need to consider moving a portion of your business to another agency.
HOW DO YOU FIND AGENCIES TO CONSIDER?
Start with the list of experienced agencies in my directory. Review agency websites and talk to people who have experience with them, such as the clients they list on their websites. Contact a few of them and get their opinions. They’re a good source for finding out both what’s good and what’s bad about the agency.
Don’t Leave ‘em Hanging
You need to decide whether your current agency will be considered. If the odds are that your current agency won’t be chosen, you should let them know that they are not in the running.
Who Should Be on the Agency Selection Team?
The agency selection process should be led by the head of marketing as a large part of their success will be based on the agency’s performance. The head of marketing should have the final say over who is selected and everyone else, including the CEO or President, should merely be providing their opinions
THE SELECTION PROCESS
After you have done your homework, you should start by contacting the agency and letting them know that you are looking for a new agency. Ask them whether they have a minimum size of client they work with. If you fall below that minimum, take them off your list.
Stay Behind the Wheel
Don’t forget, you are the one driving your selection process. At every turn, the agencies will be trying to gain an advantage over their competition.
NARROWING IT DOWN
If the list is still too large, now is the time to get everyone’s opinions and discuss how to narrow it down. It should be decided by the head of marketing—everyone else gets a voice but not a vote.
Evaluating an Agency’s Work
Your decision process should not be a creative competition; you are looking to see how they solve problems. More specifically, you’re looking to see how they will solve your problems.
Ask yourself. “Do they understand our company, product, and customers?”
A Simpler, Faster Approach to Evaluating an Agency
In a meeting or on a call, give them a brief overview of a real or fictional challenge you are facing.
You can also simply ask them, “Based on what you know about us, what you think we should do?”
Their answers will be quite telling.
- Do they jump right to a tactic like, “You need a new website!”
- Or do they say, “We need to do some research to determine, x, y, and z before we could make a recommendation.”
- Or do they suggest a possible strategy that is based more on your needs and goals and less on a tactic or deliverable, such as a new website?
Which response are you most comfortable with? You should be trying to find out how they think.
Oft-missed Steps in Due Diligence
If choosing the right agency is important to you, then you should spend a little time to peel back the onion and see what’s under each layer. Agencies are very good at presenting themselves in their best light and glossing over or distracting you from seeing who they really are. What is the (true) character of the company you’re considering?
Are They Congruent?
If they say they are good at content marketing and social media, see whether they have a blog of their own. How often is it updated? Is their content any good? Would you read it?
What do they look like on LinkedIn or Twitter? How often do they post? What do they post? Is it meaningful content or more along the lines of “Here we are at our office party,” or “We let dogs in the office, we’re cool,” or “Meet our new creative director (but we’ll never tell you if someone leaves),” or “We won a lot of awards last night.” If they ran your social media, what kind of stuff would they share for you?
If they say they are experts at SEO, how does their site rank beyond someone typing in the name of the agency?
What Is Their History?
Look up the owner’s background on LinkedIn. What was the career path that led them to own an agency? That can tell you a lot about what kind of agency they are.
DOWN TO THE FINAL CANDIDATES
Now that you’ve done your due diligence, it’s time to visit the agencies you’re considering. Of course, they will try to really impress you, and they are used to client visits. I would leave it up to them to plan the agenda since you will learn something about them by seeing how they make use of this time.
I would simply say, “We are coming to tour your offices, meet your team and learn more about you” and then see what they do with this opportunity.
The Agency Visit
Look past the hospitality and creative touches so you can stay focused on the agency itself. Remember, you’re there to try to figure out who they really are.
When you walk into the agency’s office, you can immediately pick up on the energy in the room. Are these people really happy or have they told been told to smile? When the owner takes you on a tour, do the employees avoid making eye contact with them or with you? Does this feel like a creative space or have they merely decorated it to look creative?
Based on your due diligence, now is the time to ask the agency some tough questions and see how they handle them. I place a high value on honesty and integrity and you probably should, too.
Questions to Ask at the Meeting
Now you’re ready to get down to the tough questions. Ask questions to different people at the agency and see whether they first look at the owner or are confident enough to answer it themselves. If they are looking for the owner’s approval before answering, that’s not a good sign.
Make sure you leave the meeting understanding:
- How important your account will be to the agency.
- What their plans are for educating themselves about your company, products, and customers.
- Whether the agency attends building industry trade shows at their expense.
- How they charge.
Now, consider what kinds of questions they are asking you. Are they curious? Do they need to make you feel that they already know everything? Are they confident enough to ask, “I’ve always wondered this about your business? Why do you do that? It never made much sense to me.” or say, “I don’t know a lot about your type of products and how they are sold, but I am looking forward to learning more.”
Do they need to act like they are the smartest people in the room? You don’t want someone who thinks they have nothing to learn from you.
MAKING THE DECISION
By this point, you’ve seen the agencies that are out there. You’ve gathered telling information on these potential relationships. You should now be ready to make a decision.
Choosing the Best Working Relationship
No matter how much you try to quantify things and make the selection of your new agency an objective decision, it isn’t one. It’s a very subjective decision that should be made by the head of marketing.
In the end, it comes down to two things:
- Can I work with these people?
- Will our marketing be better with them?
It’s a judgment call that you have hopefully based on something more than who wowed you the most. A lot of agencies are better at impressing new clients than they are at delivering results. You’ve considered the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates, and you’ve weighed this against the needs of your company. In many ways, it boils down to what will be the most successful working relationship.
MAINTAINING THE RELATIONSHIP
As I mentioned earlier, your decision to hire an agency is investing in a relationship. Problems that arise aren’t always the fault of the agency (remember what I said earlier about switching agencies?) Sure, you’ll have to keep your agency on its toes, but there are some things you can do to contribute to the success of your working relationship in addition to what I said above.
How to Make the Honeymoon Last
Whenever a company has a new agency, there is a honeymoon period when both the client and the agency are in love with each other.
Sometimes the honeymoon lasts only until the first invoices arrive, and it seldom lasts longer than six months.
Clients frequently make the mistake of thinking, “We pay our agency a lot of money, so they better give us their best work.” That is not the case with creative people. As a client, you should actively put in an effort to get their best work. You want to be the client they can’t stop thinking about. You want to be the client for whom they put in extra hours.
There are books that have been written about how to select an agency and there are consultants that you can hire to help you. Based on my years working with building materials companies and agencies, this is the process that I recommend you follow. It will save you time, money and countless headaches. And now that you have an idea of the process, you are much better equipped to pick the best ad agency for your company.
How I Can Help
If you want to grow your business, your problem may not be your agency; it may be your strategy. That’s where I can help. Please contact me for a no-cost, no obligation mini-consultation where I will suggest some solutions to your challenges.
I also frequently have companies seek my insights about the agencies they are considering or about which agencies they should consider. I do this confidentially and impartially. I have no favorites and I do not let anyone know that you’re in the market for a new agency.
And maybe you’re not looking for a new agency. Half of the companies I work with are very happy with their agencies but they hire me for three reasons:
- To develop a solution to a problem they have not been able to successfully solve.
- They have an important initiative but want their agency to stay focused on other important projects.
- They want an outside perspective on their marketing and sales to point out the blind spots and weaknesses in their plan—basically an insurance policy on its success.
And, of course, I have a more detailed Agency Selection Guide available for you to download here if you want to learn more about finding the right agency.
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Thanks for the following comments. I’d like to hear your feedback and suggestions on how to sell architects.
“Beware of the absentee owner (present and future).”
Field General, Inc.