The impress guide to choosing an agency

Impress Guide To: Choosing an Agency

An intricate dance commences as client and agency size each other up, place hands on each other's shoulder and (in the good relationships) begin gazing longingly into each other’s eyes as they waltz off into the future.  

However, it often surprises us that sometimes clients and partners are confused by the different types of agencies out there and how they can add value to their business. 

But, we get it. 

Trying to distinguish one agency from the next is often complicated by the liberal use of labels by agencies. Especially in the growing digital space, often the label of ‘Digital Agency’ doesn’t bring with it the guarantee of an ability to execute. Like Prince Philip fighting his way through the forest of thorns in Sleeping Beauty (this is unapologetic Disney reference 1 of 1), trying to know if an agency is the right fit for your business needs can be a real battle. 

There’s always going to be a little crossover on the fringes of these descriptions, but for your clarity and reading pleasure, this is our handy guide to deciding what agency you might need. 

Advertising/Marketing Agency 

An advertising agency sometimes referred to as a creative agency, is dedicated to creating, planning, delivering and handling advertising for its clients. It’s often a one-stop-shop for advertising products or businesses. Depending on the agency, they often also identify and purchase advertising slots and assist in publishing the materials across various media platforms.

Before we carry on, let’s just be clear on something. “Advertising” in this context is messaging and artwork that will see the cold light of day, outside the walls of your business. This could take the form of new promotional materials, print ads, radio scripts, television commercials and digital assets for social. Got it? Let’s surge on!  

The Benefits: Strategy and creative tend to work hand-in-hand (or at least they jolly well should) and relations with Media companies also tend to be superb, helping with rates of media buys. Ad agencies often have long tentacles that allow them to tap into an enormous network and even if they aren’t part of a Global collective, most smaller agencies have people working in them with extensive skills and connections.      

Limitations: Whilst Ad agencies do their best work above-the-line, crafting the right messages to reach the masses,  much of a business’ communication takes place below it. This doesn’t reduce the importance of what an Ad agency delivers, far from it, but it’s important to recognise that working in the detail of more direct and short-term efforts, the greater the need for accuracy, efficiency and practicality.  In other words, not the “sexy” or award-winning work with which Ad agencies can flex their creative might. They can also be expensive and out of your budget range and the queue for the studio can be long, so consider impacts of small copy tweaks and version changes to your overall spend.

Design Agency

There’s no doubt about it, creativity breeds engagement. It is at the core of a Design agency and they are focused on content and bringing ideas to life through strong visual aesthetics. Agencies in this sector will work on specific projects, an event, a presentation or video production, for example, adding value to businesses by providing specialist knowledge and – of course – tonnes of imagination. Quite often the strategic direction will have been established and agreed before the brief is provided to the design agency to bring that vision to life visually.

Benefits: The development of content across all forms of media, including videography, photography and design for print or social. More often than not, you can tap into loads of experience and knowledge, collaborate with solution-orientated individuals and there’s the opportunity to access niche skill sets e.g. live event production, animation and video production. In addition, you also get to take your pick from an enormous selection of talent and it’s not unusual to find event producers, designers, animators, film producers and project managers all working together on your project.  They also tend to be smaller in size, and more responsive. So if you know what you are trying to deliver, have the strategy and audience insights in your grasp already, dealing with tighter, focused skills may make the project delivery more efficient.

Limitations: Some agencies don’t have, nor do they seek, the relationships for media buys and therefore don’t carry the campaign from design to execution. They also take more of a backseat when it comes to running and monitoring your advertising campaigns. Similarly, if you need formal research completed, you will need to engage another service provider before a briefing in your creative arm.

Digital Agency 

The clue is in the title! Digital agencies focus their efforts on the use of digital screens to communicate with their audiences. Using social, web, eDM (to name three) they often offer strategy, creative, and technical development for digital media. 

Benefits: Usually on the cutting edge of the technology they are specialising in, agencies like this can often point you in the right direction in terms of platform capabilities and trends. They will either advise on where to put your money or have partnerships in place to help guide those decisions. Digital is an ever-evolving beast and your agency should be as flexible as an Olympic gymnast, to deal with any eventuality or seasonality. For example, many annual marketing plans focus on social media and SEO at the start of the year, and shift more focus towards eDMs and paid advertising towards Christmas and high volume sales periods (or vice-versa).  

Limitations: You saw this one coming. If you’re looking for a holistic plan of attack, you may want to broaden your horizons to ensure a comprehensive approach is taken. Digital screens are great, but are they enough to get your message across? Importantly, very few businesses are in the position to leverage the true ‘cutting-edge’ of a particular technology or media type, as most don’t have the budget to experiment or take risks. So be careful eyeing off being more innovative than everyone for a short span of time. If a more practical option covers a greater spread and will serve you better, do that.   

Public Relations (PR) Agency 

How your product or business is perceived when it hits the public domain can make or break you. Having a well-versed PR company on board will help to manage and influence opinion. 

Benefits: They provide planning and executing a strategy to gain better unpaid news coverage and develop press kits and crisis management plans to manage your public image when things go wrong. Significant improvements can be made to a brand’s credibility, attracting the right audience (not just an audience), gaining added value to a campaign’s budget and, in certain instances, support and enhancement of the overall brand image. 

Limitations: The focus is on public perception and most PR agencies will not be responsible for brand development i.e. language, logos, colours etc. PR does not offer control over the messages you present to the media or guarantee results. There is also no gold standard when it comes to evaluation. How do you assess the value of a stack of articles and social media posts about your brand? Sales? Web traffic? It’s not an easy solution and often (and sometimes rightly) will shy away from committing to concrete pillars of success. In PR, much like the clients, they work for, the agency that laughs longest, laughs loudest.  A watchful eye on the industry publications will give you a good idea of who you should be working with and why. 

Where to from here? 

Every type of agency has its pros and cons, and there is no definitive right and wrong. Just like the dating world, there is a Mr and Mrs Right out there for everyone, so consider what matters to your business. All the options listed above want to help increase visibility and - at the end of the day - have an impact on your bottom line. However, not all budgets are created equal, so be considerate about what will work best for you in the long run. 

Consider what people/skills you have in-house. If you have the capabilities to tick off lots of the thinking, a more specialised, execution-focused option may be a better use of your budget. And, on the flip side, if you need some concrete poured into the foundations of your brand, product or service, an investment in a more holistic approach will serve you well. 

The final consideration will be how often will you ‘go to the well?’ And, how much of the hard-work do you want to ‘take to the well’ each time you visit? Specialist agencies will serve you less effectively if you communicate across a range of mediums and platforms, as you will work with them less often, and also be the conduit between the range of service providers you are managing to deliver one project. If you want to brief one contact and see your vision come to life across a range of platforms, then multi-disciplinary agencies are going to be a huge time-saver!

Before the golden handshake

Asking questions should help extract any nasty little niggles. Ask as much as you possibly can before you’re heading down the path of an agreement. It might be a little awkward to have the difficult conversations before you know the people involved, but it will save you bags of time and money in the future if you’ve done your due diligence. 

Here are just a few thought starters to get you to the information you need to know: 

  • What types of companies does the agency currently serve? 
  • Tell me about the longest customer relationship you have?
  • What are the core capabilities of the agency? Where do you shine?  
  • Where are you based vs your customers? How do you communicate with your clients?  
  • How quickly could I get [a job example] into the studio to commence if I briefed you today??
  • What is your mix of employees and contractors? How many of the skillsets are in-house vs contracted out? 
  • How is your pricing structured and, most importantly, how do revisions work?
  • How would we interact with your agency during projects? Describe a typical account team and how many customers they look after.
  • What is your “adverse event” procedure? 
  • What are your measures for success? 

Responses to trip you up

Please be sure to remember, it’s not only about the questions you ask, be mindful of how an agency responds, especially if they potter down these avenues: 

We’re full service

There is a difference between agencies being generalists by employing a team of individual specialists in various creative disciplines, and the individuals themselves being generalists. Most smaller agencies don’t have the man-power to employ specialists in every area and are often spinning a million metaphorical plates. Whilst that is perfectly acceptable for many clients needs, it’s imperative to ask probing questions to establish expectations, understand what they are truly good at, and where you (or they) may need to firm up their offering with specialist help.

We guarantee results

RED FLAG, RED FLAG, RED FLAG! This agency will need a legal team at some stage. There are many things you can guarantee in a service business, but results is not one of them. This is a warning sign that the agency is not strategically focused, likely looking to weave and wander into laneways that aren’t aligned with your brand, rather than build an authentic creative or content strategy that yields quality, long-term results. No one should be guaranteeing results and if they are, interview them with the same rigour you would a new hire within the walls of your business.  

We charge by the hour

There’s nothing nefarious about charging by the hour, but the transparency of costs is paramount for both parties with this approach. If you feel your agency is providing a very hazy understanding of whether your project is on track, on budget and is going to achieve the results you desire, then it might be time to reconsider. If an agency is using hourly rates to quote your projects, behave like the African Tumbu fly (don’t google that) and get deep under the skin of their costings to understand the duration of tasks, how they plan to manage your budget and who will be the custodians of your brand to ensure it’s smooth sailing from start to finish. 

Still confused?

Speak to us! We cover lots of bases, but on the off-chance, we can’t satisfy your urges, we work with some excellent partners and even if we can’t facilitate, we inevitably know someone that can help.