Ad Agency
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Get the Most Out of Your Ad Agency // Bloomberg Businessweek

Sara Helmy
January 4, 2012

Instead of thinking of your advertising team as an outside vendor, treat it as a partner, argues columnist and advertising veteran Steve McKee.

by Steve McKee

Few relationships in the business world are as rewarding, or as rocky, as those between advertisers and advertising agencies. There are many reasons, from the inherent subjectivity of the business, to the stereotypes portrayed in shows such as Thirtysomething and Mad Men, to the generational gaps that often exist between clients and their ad firms. But one thing is certain—when the relationship goes awry, making a change can be an expensive proposition.


It’s far better to make the marriage work. And just like real marriage, it’s less important to find the right partner than it is to be the right partner. Over the course of more than two decades in the ad business I’ve observed a handful of client characteristics that seem to result in the best work and the happiest client-agency partnerships. I humbly offer a handful below.


To do great work, an advertising agency must be informed. It must know everything it can about a client’s business, from sales and margins to strategies and plans. It’s important to treat an agency as a strategic partner—an extension of your marketing department—and not just a vendor. This includes sharing results—nothing is more demoralizing than working hard on a project and not knowing how it turns out.

But sharing information is only half of the trust equation. The other half is having faith that your agency knows what it’s doing. You no doubt hired your agency because you were impressed with its good work for other clients. If you want the same you have to give it room to ply its craft.


If your company was facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit that could forever alter its ability to operate profitably, you’d make time for the lawyers. An ad campaign isn’t a lawsuit, but the stakes are the same in terms of potential impact. Don’t just hire an agency and expect it to perform magic. Be willing to do the heavy lifting from your end to ensure it’s informed, prepared, and set up for success. Be open and honest with your agency, communicating your needs and goals clearly. Make time for the agency, answer all of its questions, and allow it to immerse itself in your business.


For advertising to be attention-getting, it has to be different. And anything different is risky. In every other avenue of your business you know reward is associated with some level of measured risk. If you want advertising that looks like your competitors’, you don’t even need an ad agency. But if you want to lead the category, you’re going to have to do something that, at least from the outside, appears risky.

Good agencies aren’t reckless. They have a sense of what risks are appropriate and how to mitigate them. But they can only do it for clients who value the benefits of a little calculated risk-taking. Of course, the risks you and your agency take won’t pay off every time. If your agency knows as long as it’s acting in your best interests it’s O.K. to make a mistake, it will treat the responsibility you give it with great care.

Keep your eye on the big picture, not the small print. Some ads will be better than others, and others may downright flop. But if your focus remains on the overall trajectory of your brand you’ll learn that for every “one step back” there will be two or three steps forward. If your agency knows you’re committed to it and you’re in this together, it’ll do anything to make those risks pay off.


Remember what you thought the first time you saw a Ford (F) Taurus? I thought it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Its time has now come and gone, yet for several years it was America’s best-selling car. Sometimes ideas and designs that will one day be widely accepted are at first glance a shock. Reserving judgment may be the hardest part of the creative development process.

If you see something you like, say so. But if you see something you don’t like, pause for a moment and think about it. Take a step or two back, ask questions, and really consider how what you’re seeing may be a breakthrough. If every idea was adopted immediately, there would be no such thing as early adopters. Sleep on the idea and try to look at it from a different angle. Keep in mind that creative, intelligent people who have your best interests at heart believe it’s going to work. Let them help you see it through their eyes. You can always say no tomorrow.



The business of creating ideas is hard. Not every concept makes it, but every one leaves the nest with the hopes and dreams of its creator. When those ideas crash (for whatever reason), so do the egos of your partners at the agency. When you have to say no (and there will be times when you will), say it with kindness.

And don’t assume good work is its own reward, either. Thanking your agency for their efforts can do wonders for morale and creativity. People want to give their best to those who appreciate it the most.


After weeks and months of hard work and collaboration, tough calls and usually some tension, a campaign is finally ready to launch. Then someone in your organization who doesn’t understand the context or objectives catches a glimpse of it and says, “I don’t get it.” Or after the launch of a ground-breaking campaign, a consumer with an axe to grind calls and complains about the work.

The first time this happens, it can be nerve-wracking. But those of us who work at agencies have been through it often. Most of the time it’s a function of well-intentioned people making unreasonable rushes to judgment, and the biggest mistake you could make is reacting out of fear.


Better yet, seize the moment and take the campaign to your internal audiences, providing them the background and rationale for the campaign and raising their confidence that you (and your agency) know what you’re doing. Then stand by the work, responding to, but not reacting to, consumer complaints. If you’ve done your job right on the front end, the complaints will pass (see “reserve judgment”, above).


If great ideas were easy to come up with, everybody would come up with great ideas. Good advertising takes time and effort. And time and effort take money. Agencies have a (sometimes deserved) reputation for nickel-and-diming their clients, but the reverse can be true as well.

Pay your agency fairly and educate yourself about how much things cost. Remind yourself you get what you pay for. When your agency makes a mistake, it should pay for it—but it shouldn’t pay for mistakes, delays, or changes in direction that are out of its control.

The days of agencies making a killing on commissions are long gone, and the work they’re called on to perform—creating standout ideas that reach an increasingly sophisticated and cynical marketplace—is getting more difficult every day. No one gets into advertising for the money, but many talented agencies have folded for lack of it.

You’re the one writing the checks, and your agency should never forget that. But if you’re open to it, I encourage you to share this article with your agency team. Ask them to grade your performance, and do your best not to punish them for being honest. Clients that operate according to the above principles not only receive better work, they generate the kind of loyalty from their agency that makes it walk through fire.

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