How to Choose the Right Ad Agency

1. Results

To see how business focused an agency is, ask them about their results. What did it do? How much did it accomplish? You’ll learn a lot about what an agency thinks is important by what they measure.

2. “Funny” Does Not Always Mean “Money”

Don’t fall in love with an ad agency just because they show you a bunch of funny spots. Just because a campaign is funny doesn’t mean it got any results. It’s always easier to make funny ads than ads that really work. An agency’s portfolio could be full of humor without ever having one piece that was on-strategy and achieved the intended results.

3. The Portfolio Isn’t Everything

Beware of agencies who believe blindly in the “power of creativity,” especially their power of creativity. There are many agencies who expect to be hired on the strength of their portfolio alone. But you need to remember that their creative output is only one component in creating a healthy, productive partnership.

4. Meet the Head Honcho

Ask to meet the owner, president or chief principal of the agency. If they won’t meet you, then you’ll know you won’t be an important client.

5. No Financial Experience

You don’t want to hire an agency that will be cutting their teeth in the financial industry with your account. Yes, you’ll likely get a lot of fresh creative energy, and perhaps some smart moves from another industry they’ve worked with. But you’ll also spend a lot of time teaching them the financial marketing basics (think: disclosures, compliance, FDIC, HELOC vs. home equity, etc.).

Agencies with little financial experience may come up with a lot of the same ideas every other agency has already thought of when starting work on their first financial account (think: piggy banks). Often, these agencies think the bank’s mission or core values or tagline sounds pretty good, so they run with it. They just haven’t executed those ideas 100 times already for other clients, so they aren’t bored of the same-old yet. That leads to a lot of familiar-sounding, me-too campaigns that many other financial institutions have run before (or are running now).

It’s the same thing with credit unions. An agency that hasn’t ever done any work with credit unions before will fall in love with the spirit of the “credit union movement” — not-for-profit, member-owned, lower fees, better rates, etc. Unfortunately, these are common elements shared by every credit union and do very little to help differentiate one from another.

6. Prior Financial Experience

You will probably benefit most by working with an agency that has at least some prior experience with financial institutions. More than one prior financial client is better. Ask if you can talk to these (and other) clients. If the agency has too much financial experience — or spends too much time in any single, vertical market — there is a very real risk of burnout. Make sure the agency has a real creative passion for financial marketing, because it can be a pretty dull, dry subject at times.

7. Local vs. Long Distance Relationships

The right combination of things you’re looking for in an agency partner might not always be available in your back yard. In fact, to find a well-balanced, integrated marketing agency with any significant experience in the financial industry, you’ll probably have to open your search up and look nationwide. But if you’d rather keep your business local and/or prefer more interpersonal, face-to-face interaction with your agency, you’ll most likely have to make some compromises.

8. The Creative Brief

If you really want to know how an agency approaches their work, ask to see their “Creative Brief” (or similar). This document typically outlines the specifics and parameters of a project — the objectives, due dates, budget, metrics, message, tone, style, disclosures, etc. Assuming they have a creative brief, look carefully at the questions they ask. It will give you a good sense of their strategic acumen. If they don’t have one, you’ll have to find out about their process and approach some other way.

9. Proof of Process

Ask the agency to show you a completed creative brief they feel was useful/helpful. Ask to see concepts they came up with for another client. How many do they typically come up with? Have them explain which concept was picked and why. See how they feel about revisions. You want to get a sense of their process, and how adept they are at translating strategies into ideas with results.

10. Evaluate Your Account Exec

Who will be your primary point of contact at the agency? Are they a detail-oriented person? How do they manage budgets? Schedules? How will they keep you updated? And the personalities have to mesh. If you don’t like your account exec (or vice versa), the relationship is doomed from the start. And do what you can to sniff out whether the account exec will really be handing your projects off to a junior account coordinator fresh out of school. Sometimes, account execs only have time for the really important clients and act merely as a figurehead while subordinates actually manage the relationship.

11. Integrated Marketing Capabilities

If you have a dynamite in-house team, you may not need a full-service agency for everything — creative, online/interactive, point-of-purchase, media planning/buying and public relations. But you definitely want an agency that — at the very least — thinks about all this stuff. Offline media is not dead. In fact, it is very much still a central part of most successful campaigns.

12. Balance

Make sure the agency doesn’t favor one approach or communications channel too heavily. If you deal with a vendor who is strong at online marketing, you may, for instance, find that all their solutions include a microsite. But what about traditional media? Will they know how to promote their microsite through offline channels?

13. Green

If being (or going) green is one of your strategic priorities, then you’ll want to know how green your agency is.

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