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August 23, 2010
The Absolute Best Way to Get More Value From Your Ad Agency
How can marketers get more value from their ad agencies? This perennial topic took on renewed vigor with the economic downturn and has continued to preoccupy industry pundits throughout the recovery. Too much of the advice being dispensed (e.g. "How to manage your advertising agency for maximum success") centers around ways to keep your agency on a shorter leash, squeeze their timelines and margins even further, or micromanage their every decision. Think about that as a management style. Would it work on your employees? Would it work on you? Why do so many marketing managers think it will work on their ad agency?

But that’s not why I take issue with these articles. The problem I have with all these well-intentioned advice givers is that almost without exception they overlook the simplest, most effective, most foolproof way to boost the value you get from your ad agency. It boils down to this: Be a better client.

Few ad agencies will tell a client this, even though it would benefit many clients to hear it. Agencies hesitate to speak plainly on this matter because part of being a poor client is being petty, and that means punishing the agency financially for speaking their mind.

Having spent my entire adult life inside ad agencies, I know for a fact that the biggest asset any advertiser has is the enthusiasm of their ad agency. Teams who feel trusted, respected, and supported by their client put in the extra effort and hours needed to ensure the best outcome for that client’s brand. They usually succeed to the benefit of all parties.

What may surprise some clients is that this level of enthusiasm cannot be bought. I’ve seen teams working on well-budgeted multinational brands that approach their projects with the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old who has been asked to take out the trash. I’ve seen the same teams work weekends and vacations to ensure that their unknown pro bono client’s campaign is perfect.

All agency-client relationships start with both parties expecting the best outcome of the relationship, but like all relationships, it takes more than optimism to make things work. The ad agency’s enthusiasm, or lack thereof, is earned over time by the client's behavior (and visa versa). I’m not talking about clients blindly accepting whatever their ad agency produces. Far from it. It comes down to a matter of mutual respect. That means challenges are made, but they are well-motivated, clearly explained, and their resolution is a matter of logic, not a battle of egos.

As an insider, here are five pieces of advice I would give to any marketer looking to get more value from his or her ad agency:

1.) Establish the rules of engagement at the outset. Ask your agency outright what they require to deliver greater value. Chances are, they will explain to you the timelines and processes they required to do an excellent job for you. This discussion is your agency telling you how to get more value from them, so why not listen? Bear those timelines and processes in mind when doing your planning. Give your agency what they need to succeed.

2.) Respect their expertise. Clients hire ad agencies because of their expertise. Yet here is the No. 1 complaint I hear from ad agencies:"Clients hire us for our expertise, then tie our hands, micro-manage, and do not let us do our job." Ad agencies are comprised of people with deep expertise in the many disciplines required for a successful campaign. Use this to your favor. When in doubt, defer to their expertise. If they are wrong, call them on it. If you make it a habit of recognizing your agencies' expertise, you will benefit more from it, and they will be devoted to your brand.

3.) Understand the brief. The creative brief is based on a considerable amount of research and deep thinking by one or more brainy planners.  Once this brief is approved it will motivate every decision your ad agency makes on the project. It is the blue print. Make it your mission to completely understand the brief when you approve it then keep referring to is as the project progresses. It will help you avoid the majority of agency-client disconnects. If you want to change the brief after it has been approved, OK, but understand that the agency will need to start over and you will need to compensate them for the extra work.

4.) Read Mahan Khalsa's "Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play." This is the best book I’ve encountered for preventing dysfunctional business relationships. The title pretty much says it all. It’s about calling a spade a spade and cutting out the BS that seems to have become part of today’s business landscape. It provides some very practical hands-on advice. After you have read it, ask your agency to do the same.

5.) Don’t be a jerk. This should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Have you ever seen someone in a restaurant who gets his or her jollies from mistreating a waiter or waitress? Some clients behave the same way toward agencies. They throw their weight around under the misguided notion that paying the bill can justify any quantity of rudeness or mistreatment. It doesn’t.  In many agencies, the team will do the equivalent of spitting in your soup. In my shop, it is more likely that the chef will come into the dining room and ask you to leave. No one respects a bully mostly because they see the behavior for what it is: a vain attempt to compensate for lack of competence. Play nice.

Of course, this assumes that you had the good sense to hire a decent ad agency in the first place. If you did that and really want better value from your agency maybe one place to look is the mirror.

What are your best practices for getting the most from your ad agency?

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Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of  TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, bloggerTwittererand is on LinkedInWith offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.

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