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5 things to ask an agency

Agencies are very good at convincing you of their credentials and promising the world, but it is the minority that actually go on to deliver really good work.

So how do you find a good agency?  The trick is to ask questions that really get to the crux of their experience and capabilities:

1. Do you know how to reach my target market? 

Many businesses make the mistake of thinking that sector-specific experience is essential.  However, it is target-market experience that is the key.  In the last 5 years, Smarts has worked in 28 different industry sectors.  At least half of those represent our first foray into a new industry and yet activity for clients in new sectors was just as successful as activity for clients in sectors where we had previous experience. 

It is surprisingly quick and easy for an agency to get to grips with a new industry, but learning what makes a specific audience tick takes much longer.  For example, knowing and understanding that using traditional online communication to reach jobbing builders and farmers is pointless as they are not desk based, but that mobile communications are on the rise, can mean the difference between success and failure of a campaign. Similarly, understanding that an average consumer is a fickle beast and needs to be targeted using multiple channels to have any chance of a key message sticking is vital.

2. What experience do you have of delivering integrated campaigns?

A good agency will treat every new brief as if it is the first it has ever seen, analysing the task and thinking strategically about how best to achieve the client’s business objectives using a range of communications channels and techniques.  For this reason a good agency will have a wealth of experience in delivering integrated campaigns.  They should be able to show examples of where they have integrated communications techniques to maximise the chances of message uptake and where they have integrated a communications programme with the sales and marketing process, to maximise return on investment.

A good agency should, in its response, challenge your ideas but be able to show the rationale for its proposals and how they will benefit you clearly and succinctly.

A bad agency will be formulaic in its approach, possibly sticking to traditional media relations and definitely not push the boundaries of your thinking.

3. Will you guarantee delivery?

All agencies should be able to guarantee delivery as every idea and approach recommended to you should have been developed with implementation in mind.  If they won’t guarantee delivery, how can you be sure they know what they are talking about?  Chances are they will let you down.

4. Will it cost me more if I need a senior team working on my business?

Senior team at pitch, junior team delivering work…  It is a common scenario.  Ask potential agencies up front how much senior involvement there will be on your account and what the implications are if you request or need senior involvement – will it cost you more?

Smarts works on the basis that in order to guarantee delivery (see point 3…) you need to service an account with the skills and experience it needs.  That generally means a nice mix of experience and personalities, but almost always means at least some senior involvement.  Sometimes, for example with professional services clients, that might mean a team made up entirely of senior individuals.  A flat rate fee for all clients also means no one ever gets penalised if they need to up the level of senior consultancy on their account.

Finally, make sure that you have a sensible level of Director or Managing Director time built into the consultancy you receive.  I am involved (perhaps slightly more than my account directors would like) on all accounts at Smarts.  It is incredibly valuable.  It means I can offer support to clients in their own roles and also spot and solve problems before the client even realises they exist.

5. Give me examples of where you have successfully tackled a communications objective similar to mine

This is perhaps the most important of all of the questions and will help you get to grips with how an agency might actually be able to assist you.  What is it that you actually need to do?  Increase sales of a product?  Engage a certain audience group?  Inform the masses?  By asking this question, and asking for evidence that the examples given delivered tangible results, you will get a very good idea about the effectiveness of the communications delivered by an agency and how well their proposed activity will address your business objectives.