Want the Best Out of Your Agency? Ask the Tough Questions

It's Good for Your Brand and Good for You

By Published on .

Dave Holloway
Dave Holloway
During my 17 years of experience as a creative director -- 12 of them in New York -- I've worked on many of the world's biggest brands.

Like you, I'm aware that CMOs' days are filled with the pressures of ROI and innovation. And that their tenures are incredibly brief. One factor that contributes to this brevity is that CMOs are only getting a small fraction of the value their agencies can provide. The blame is on both sides. Even the best relationships can be better. Here are a few questions and thoughts for CMOs that can greatly enhance the partnership between agency and client. They aren't bad for the agency to be thinking about either.

Have a vision. And share it. Where do you want to take your company? Can you articulate it? What do you consider great marketing? Have you shared this with your agency? And if the agency presents creative along these lines, will you approve it? Make it a priority to give a "state of the union" address to your agency every year. Go there. Speak to everyone who buys food, pays rent or puts a child through college thanks to your marketing budget. Tell them your goals, hopes, dreams, fears. Be honest. If they know where you're hoping to go, they'll help you get there.

Hold meetings at your agency. The agency usually travels to the client. We're the vendor, after all. It saves the client time. Luckily for the agency, it also prevents the client from seeing behind the curtain. If I were a client, I'd want to see how my money is being spent. I'd visit my agency regularly. And sometimes, I'd drop in unannounced. I'd check the vibe. Ask to see, or meet, everyone who's working on my business. I'd hope to see many familiar faces. And I'd demand (nicely) to see what they're doing –- from the highest levels to, most important, the lowest.

How much freelance is the agency using on your business? Freelance can provide a fresh perspective and help in a crunch, but it comes with many pitfalls. It could be a sign your agency isn't staffing your business right. In addition, freelance isn't familiar with the intricacies and day-to-day needs of your company, as well as the tonality and aesthetics of your brand. They also don't know the client personalities that will be approving the work. And don't forget, freelance talent can walk out of one agency and into another, to work on one of your competitors.

What does your agency bring you besides the ads you've asked for? As in a romantic relationship, pleasant surprises mean engagement and passion. Is your agency presenting ideas, in whatever shape or form, which will help build your business? Do they keep you abreast of trends? Competitive ads? Offer you information you'd never be able to discover on your own? And instead of dumping it on you, present it –- executive summary style, so you can digest it? Spend a few moments and ask yourself, what's your agency done pro-actively for you this year?

Ask about agency turnover. And ask for proof. You're always going to see your C-suite counterparts at the big meetings. They've got to justify their salaries. However, they certainly didn't do the work. And some may have only reviewed it in passing. So ask how many of the people that were working on your account 12 months ago are still are around. As well as what they've produced. They're vital for continuity. And since they're the workers, they're the voice of your brand.

Bad news happens. When, and how, does the agency deliver it? The photo shoot didn't yield anything usable. Or it cost an extra $75,000 to add fake snow to the commercial production. It happens. Is your agency upfront about it? Calling you the moment it happens? Or do they wait? It's always better for the agency to tell the truth, and tell it fast. It sets them free. And the candor is disarming. It's what you want in a partnership. And it's rare. Do you have this sort of relationship?

Are you compatible technology-wise? Probably not as much as you should be. Clients are generally PC. Agencies are almost always Mac. If you don't bridge the gap, it'll cost you time and money. At my last agency, we were a 20-minute drive from our main client. We always presented in their building. And we had a dedicated presentation room, or Media Room, there. Sad to say, it was poorly outfitted. I pushed hard to outfit it with the latest Mac products including a widescreen monitor and color printer –- calibrated to the agency's specifications and the latest PDF-reading software. It never came to pass. How much would it have cost? $5,000? How much would it have saved? Well, normally we presented in hour blocks of time. And in every meeting I can remember, we wasted 10 minutes at the start and five minutes at the end on technology problems, or roughly a quarter of the time we were there. Over the course of the year, that time adds really up.

Knowledge is power. How many people enjoy the power? The client's CEO and CMO take the agency CEO and CCO on a tour. Show off a new innovation. Talk about strategic developments. Or list upcoming projects. Do the agency leaders keep this information to themselves? (After all, knowledge is job security in a recession.) Or do they return to the agency, debrief folks on what they've seen and heard, and empower the employees to think pro-actively?

Boo! (Or figuring out the dominant and submissive roles in your agency relationship.) Is your agency afraid of you? If so, do you like it that way? Where the agency knows it's merely a vendor? And that it's always on notice? Or is your agency secure enough to offer dissenting opinions (backed by support)? If so, do you appreciate that? Does your agency push back in terms of strategy, creative and scheduling? When they do, how valid are the arguments? How much, and how often, does your agency challenge you? And does your agency ask you to step outside your comfort zone? And are these challenges in your best interest?

So ask the tough questions. With the answers you get, you'll begin to develop a true partnership with your agency. You'll get much more out of them than you expected. That's good for you and great for your brand and will help you avoid the tough times that have befallen many a CMO.

Dave Holloway is the co-exec creative director at McGarrah Jessee in Austin, Texas.
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