Selecting An Ad Agency

Creativity and chemistry are the attributes most frequently mentioned when searching for a new advertising and marketing services firm. But in today’s rapidly changing business world, there are many other important considerations, especially when it comes to business-to-business products and services.

1. Message packaging

For my money, the most important skill of a B2B communicator is the ability to identify, prioritize and “package” messages for your various audiences. Many clients think they have the identification and prioritization aspects already figured out, but in my experience, they seldom do.

That’s because most B2B marketing managers come from technical backgrounds like engineering or science. Their left-brain dominant approach is largely skewed to logic, order and sequence. Often they will tell a product development story chronologically, instead of starting with the most significant conclusions.

You can pick up almost any technical trade magazine, scan the advertising, and find key points buried halfway through the body copy. If the objective of an ad is to lead with the most promising customer benefit, it’s mystifying to me why so many don’t.

2. Relevant creative

The second part of message packaging (after message identification and prioritization) is to format those messages in ways that break through the clutter and become instantly relevant and memorable. Too many agencies take the easy way out with borrowed interest or clichés. I used to laugh at stuff like this, but that was 20 years ago. It’s no longer funny.

If you take the time and effort to properly identify and understand the most significant attributes, you can then start developing creative concepts that bring those attributes alive. Anything short of this is wasting money.

3. Strategic thinking

In today’s hypercompetitive business environment, you need agency partners who are good at helping you think through the strategic issues. It’s no longer enough for them to be good tacticians. The best implementation is virtually worthless if you pick the wrong target or front the wrong message.

And timing is often an issue, too. I’ve seen too many initiatives limp out of the gate because the client felt pressure to respond quickly to a competitor’s campaign. They would have been better served to take their time, formulate a powerful response and schedule it to coincide with a major industry event so the competitor had no time for a counter-response.

Strategic-thinking agencies will also make an effort to understand how your competitors are positioned, and will help you avoid “me too” approaches that fall flat with customers and prospects.

4. Brand counselors

Which leads to the most misused word in marketing – branding. Everyone’s a branding expert these days, but so few B2B companies do branding well. Why is that? In evaluating potential agency partners, you should look for examples of brand development programs they have produced that ring true.

Take time to ask questions when they present branding case studies so you can understand the appropriateness of the recommended solution. Remember the key word “expectation.” Is the program geared to building a focused expectation for the advertiser? If there is an obvious brand promise, can the client be held to it? Will the branding program help employees know how to act and respond to customer needs?

Branding is not a magic black box. It should not be an overly complicated process. Don’t be fooled by process diagrams and mumbo-jumbo verbiage. Look for clearly articulated objectives and results.

5. Social media

It’s natural for older client-side managers to dismiss social media as being not relevant for their situation. (I’ve been experimenting with Twitter for almost two years now and still can’t see the value.)

But if you break communications down into its three basic components (my 3M’s — Messages sent to Markets via Media vehicles), then social media just becomes another possible delivery conduit.

A good agency partner will be considering this possibility for every client, and will probably come to you at one time or another with a social media program recommendation. You should want them to do this, but you should also want them to have some experience in applying the recommended approach for someone else first. Forward-thinking agencies will have one or several people who are wired to tinker with stuff like that, so factor it into your selection process.

6. Accountability

In my opinion, the number one failing of business-to-business marketing communications professionals (agency and client-side) is the inability to show cause and effect relationships between spending money and getting something back. We get so caught up in “doing good stuff” that we forget to measure what happens when the program has run for awhile

In our hearts, we know the campaign is good. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. But the hard evidence that will convince CEOs and CFOs to invest more is missing.

You should look for an agency partner that has already figured this out, and has taken one or more steps to fill the void with compelling data that replaces subjective judgments with objective ones.

Chemistry between agency and client managers is important, but nothing destroys chemistry faster than off-target creative efforts or missed strategic opportunities. When searching for the right ad agency partner, you should insist on the whole package.

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