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                      By Don Kobes

One of the most difficult decisions a business can make is selecting a "business partner" the advertising agency. A wrong choice can be expensive. It can set your marketing program back to the stone age. A right choice could propel you to field leadership. Here is a procedure and some practical tips and basic criteria to help you choose the "best" advertising agency for your needs and budget. From start to finish of this exercise allow at least six to eight weeks to run this program. Try to avoid any deadlines that may compromise your decision making.

Philosophy Agency people often speak of the client-agency relationship as a "marriage". The relationship, like marriage calls for communication between partners, similar goals and no surprises. Additionally, each partner must be concerned about the needs, wishes and in this case the business success of the other.

Successful marriage usually calls for mutual commitment. Without mutual commitment, success is unlikely. This means when you do find your "partner" you should be prepared to pay professional rates for professional services. Be prepared to negotiate a mutually beneficial client-agency contract.


One note of caution. If you now have an advertising manager, be certain he or she is directly involved in all steps of this process. Agencies will work best with those who can influence their future. If you don't handle it this way, expect a problematic situation.

Getting Started To find the right advertising agency for your company you need to start with two important pieces of information: The first is the size of your advertising budget. The second is who wants the job? In other words, identify all possible candidate agencies in your geographical region.

Keep It Confidential Surveying available agencies is best done confidentially, without revealing your hand. This is because agencies are in the business of selling their services and they're very good at it. You need remain in control of this decision-making process and not lose it to "personality games" of agency new business representatives.

If, for example, you spoke of the need for an advertising agency to a media representative on Monday, you'd be swamped with phone calls and proposals by Friday. New business people at agencies get paid for aggressive pursuit of leads. Just what you want your own sales people to do. Many of these solicitations would be premature possibly irrelevant and time-wasting. Discretion is the better way to go.


Where do you look? The phone book is helpful. It will provide a local listing, but little else. Another source is identify those companies in and out of your field doing advertising you feel is effective. For example, look at the advertising in this publication. Then, find out who's doing this good work.

Another source for agency names is a professional directory. A number of these exist, one is : "The Standard Directory Of Advertising Agencies", published by The National Register Publishing Company, 5201 Old Orchard Road, Skokie, IL 60076. You can write for more information or you may find this directory in your local library.

The Standard Directory lists agencies both geographically and alphabetically and provides you with the size of the agency, names of the principals and a listing of current clients. Once you have a fairly comprehensive list, you begin narrowing down the candidates. All this can be done without leaving your office or running up your phone bill.

A Big Fish In a Small Pond Remember, the size of your budget is a key governing factor. The size of your account must represent an important piece of business to an agency in order for you to get the attention you need to make the partnership successful. For example, if your business is ranked fourth in a shop, phone calls will be returned. If your business is ranked 400th in the shop–good luck–you'll need it.


Use this simple "size" approach to narrow your list to six or eight agency candidates. Hopefully, this will include some of the agencies whose work you noticed. Don't be to concerned with finding an agency who works in your field. You can bring that experience to the table. Creativity will come from fresh viewpoints, not stale ones. Agencies working in your field, if they are available at all, may give you advertising that looks and sounds like all the other work being done in the field.

Assuming you have narrowed the list as much as you can, it's time to contact the candidates. The first contact should be

as brief as possible, with the object of collecting data about the candidates. The objective is to get them to mail you this information. With each call, pay attention to how and how quickly your response is handled. This information, when it is received will provide you with resources to narrow your search further. Hopefully, to about three or four candidates.

The next step is a round of mutual visits and discussions. Tell the agencies what you're looking for and learn from them how they work and even how they would like to be paid.

Chances are, when you talk to these agencies you'll be dealing with a someone who graduated first in the class at charm school. Don't be swayed. You may never see this person again.


Candidates you consider to be serious contenders, should be asked present the account team that will be doing the day to day work on your account. These are the people who represent an agency's abilities. Get to know them and get to know how long they have been with the agency. A group of short-timers may signal personnel changes and lots of re-training in your future. An inconvenience worth avoiding.

During these "client-agency" meetings, look carefully at the work they have done and find out, if you can, what it cost to produce this work. These meetings and the many discussions of advertising and advertising costs will let you narrow the list, hopefully to two candidates. Now, pick up the phone and speak to some of that agency's clients for a broader picture.

The final stage may be the awarding of test assignments. Try to have the list narrowed to two when you reach this stage. Give each agency a similar briefing and assignment. Remember both agencies must be paid for their time, win or lose. Now you get some assignments completed. You also get a preview of their approach to your problems. Sometimes this is the "tie-breaker".

Disclaimer This is not the whole story. It is a "schematic" that, if followed, will enhance your ability to make the right choices. Be certain the agency you select gets at least the same commitment from you as you expect from them. Finally, plan regular performance reviews to be certain all partners continue to share the same objectives. Based on what you have learned from your investigation and meetings you can now make a decision. (Nobody promised you it would be easy.)

For more information on this or related subjects, you may contact the author, a marketing and advertising consultant, Donald Kobes, 23-1B Bloomingdale Drive, Hillsborough, NJ 08876 Telephone or fax: (201) 281-7445.

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