What makes a great ad agency

Posted on Posted in How to Guide for Marketers

It seems that clients are firing their ad agency very quickly these days. After 70 years of clients and agencies trying to work together, neither can really figure each other out. It seems pitches are always happening, and yet no one is really wanting to look themselves the mirror and say “Am I part of the problem?”

Let’s put this out here: the percent of great people on the client side is around equal to that of the agency side; neither is better. The percent of poor performers on both sides is also the same; neither is worse. As for any relationship not working, you both own 50% of the problem.ad agency

Before we even get started, I want to make sure every brand leader realizes they may have hired the agency, but until they can inspire the people who work on their brand, they have not yet officially hired the people at the agency. If you knew that being a better client would get you better work, would you show up differently? Would you show up as a better client?

Be a better client

Brand leaders need to take a step back and let the creativity of execution unfold. I always say that it is okay to know exactly what you want, but you should never know until the moment you see it. As the client, I like to think of marketing execution as the perfect gift that you never thought to buy yourself. How we engage our experts can either inspire greatness or crush the spirit of creativity. From my experience, experts would prefer to be pushed than held back. The last thing experts want is to be asked for their expertise and then told exactly what to do. There is a fine line between rolling up your sleeves to work alongside the experts and pushing the experts out of the way.

It is time to step back and assume your true role as a brand leader. Trust me, it is a unique skill to be able to inspire, challenge, question, direct and decide, without any expertise at all.

I come at this from the vantage of a client, having spent 20 years working as a brand leader. I am not an ad agency guy, but I have seen some great agencies and some not so good.

Here is my list what makes a great ad agency:

1. Understands my goals, issues, and strategies.

I want an agency who write briefs and creative work that expresses my brand strategy. In today’s world, people on both sides–client and agency–are more focused on making cool stuff than creating work that delivers the strategy. Not enough are trained in strategic thinking, brand planning, and creative briefs.

As margins are squeezed on both sides, we are losing the “strategic planner” who is the interruptive voice in the room to make sure the strategy lines up to the consumer. I’d prefer investing in a great strategic planner instead of five client service people show up at every meeting. Even the best brand leaders struggle to translate their brand plan, into a creative brief. We need those strategic planners to help set up better insights and creative strategy.

2. Make advertising that builds my brand, not work that just win awards

I get that awards are part of the agency world, to reward exceptional work. I wish more award choices would focus more on moving brands forward. The best in marketing, see it as a puzzle, where they start by understanding the consumer, then figure out what connects and moves the consumer, and finally, what will trigger our consumer to move in a way that fits our strategy.

Stop getting so excited about stuff. Get about excited about what stuff does.

Instead of coming into the room with the “we are so excited” line, I want an agency to come into a room and say “we have an ad for you that will creatively accomplish the goal you laid out in your brand plan.” Then show me how you did it.

3. Gives me creative options, not strategic options

Come on agencies, clients want options. Get over it.

The difference for me is that I want creative options, not strategic ones. Each option has to deliver the strategy, not just various parts of the creative brief. There is nothing worse than agencies who tear apart the brief and deliver options for each part of the brief. As a client, I want a brief with a tightly defined target, one objective, one main message. There can be no tearing apart a big wide creative brief. As clients, options give us comfort. But even more importantly, options treat us with respect that we can still make the right decision.

As an aside, it’s somewhat crazy that ten agency people in a room all agree on which option is the recommended. If the same ten ordered pizza, we’d likely end up with 7 pizzas. I want an agency who is comfortable enough to show their disagreement candidly.

4. Don’t be territorial

As a client, I want free and open access to planners and creative people. The best account people allow the client to communicate directly with the creative team. Most great creative teams I have worked with want direct access to the client, rather than have it be filtered through a series of carefully written contact reports.

5. Be fast and cheap when we need fast and cheap

Sometimes, I want the world’s most celebrated Michelin star chef to create a masterpiece. Other times, we need microwave pizza.

There is a reason why big agencies lost most of their client’s digital or social media: eight people in every meeting, 12-week timelines and need to hire the best photographer, director or writer for everything. We need it by 4pm today! If you were faster, cheaper and responsive, there would be no specialty agencies and no internal creative shops.

6. Be willing to teach

When I was a new brand manager, I was lucky enough that my client services person (Leslie Boscheratto) taught me more about advertising than any client should have to learn. In fact, I’m still embarrassed how little I knew, yet thrilled at how much I learned from that team at Bates back in the mid-90s.

The media world is ten times as complex today as it was in the mid-90s. Brand leaders are more confused than ever. Every day, marketers have to hear: “you should be doing…xyz” coming directly from those with a vested interest, who are trying to sell xyz (their specialty) as the only way to go.

  • “You should be doing more mobile.”
  • “You should do more paid search.”
  • “Hey, you should do more social media.”
  • “You should do more digital.”
  • “You should be doing content, not advertising.”
  • “But, you should keep TV.”
  • “You should use more influencers, not advertising.”

I was lucky to have one media agency back in the day, who would provide a holistic media recommendation. Where is that objective voice of reason, who has no dog in the race? Your client needs and wants your help. No one else is helping them.

7. Work for me, not my boss

While your boss pays them and has the final say, the best agencies still know you are the client. Nothing worse than a client service person continually trying to go above your head.

I am a big believer in bottom-up marketing. The person who knows the brand situation the best should be the brand manager. If the VP believes they don’t, then get a new brand manager, instead of stepping in to do their job. The brand manager should tell the VP what to do not the other way around.

Same with the agency. Stop thinking the brand manager is just a speed bump to get to the VP. The best way for an agency to earn the trust of the client is to demonstrate that they work for the brand manager. Once you have that trust, it will earn you a seat at the table of their boss.

Oh, by the way, if the brand manager is viewed as really, really good…who do you think is the first person we ask if the agency is any good: that’s right, the person you’ve viewed as a speed bump. Not smart on your part.


To learn more about this type of thinking, you should explore my new book, Beloved Brands.

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Beloved Brands: Who are we?

At Beloved Brands, our purpose is to help brands find a new pathway to growth. We believe that the more love your brand can generate with your most cherished consumers, the more power, growth, and profitability you will realize in the future.

We think the best solutions are likely inside you already, but struggle to come out. Our unique playbook tools are the backbone of our workshops. We bring our challenging voice to help you make decisions and refine every potential idea.

We start by defining a brand positioning statement, outlining the desired target, consumer benefits and support points the brand will stand behind. And then, we build a brand idea that is simple and unique enough to stand out in the clutter of the market, motivating enough to get consumers to engage, buy and build a loyal following with your brand.

We will help you write a strategic brand plan for the future, to get everyone in your organization to follow. It starts with an inspiring vision that pushes your team to imagine a brighter future. We use our strategic thinking tools to help you make strategic choices on where to allocate your brand’s limited resources.

Our brand playbook methodology will challenge you to unlock future growth for your brand

  1. Our deep-dive assessment process will give you the knowledge of the issues facing your brand, so you can build a smart plan to unleash future growth.
  2. Find a winning brand positioning statement that motivates consumers to buy, and gives you a competitive advantage to drive future growth.
  3. Create a brand idea to capture the minds and hearts of consumers, while inspiring and focusing your team to deliver greatness on the brand’s behalf.
  4. Build a brand plan to help you make smart focused decisions, so you can organize, steer, and inspire your team towards higher growth.
  5. Advise on advertising, to find creative that drives branded breakthrough and use a motivating messaging to set up long-term brand growth.
  6. Our brand training program will make your brand leaders smarter, so you have added confidence in their performance to drive brand growth.

To learn more about our coaching, click on this link: Beloved Brands Strategic Coaching

To learn more about our training programs, click on this link: Beloved Brands Training

If you need our help, email me at graham@beloved-brands.com or call me at 416 885 3911

You have my personal promise to help you solve your brand building challenges. I will give you new thinking, so you can unlock future growth for your brand.

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