How not to choose a creative agency

The popularity of Madmen, combined with a high breeding rate among creative types and a number of warm summers has resulted in an oversupply of creative agencies in New Zealand. When the cost of entry to the business is as low as a computer, a beer fridge and a selection of ironic tee-shirts, the result is a fog of confusion.

So, while the proliferation of agencies may have its upside for the owners of local Italian restaurants, it makes life tough for the poor marketing manager looking for the perfect partner to trust with their brands. For those fed up with the number of frogs they have to kiss to find their very own Sterling Cooper I thought it would be helpful to put the record straight on some myths that have grown up around the agency selection process.

Here are a few pitfalls to avoid:

‘We went with these guys because the others turned up in a Bentley.’

It’s always a problem for an agency to chose the right car to plonk in the client’s car park. If they turn up in a Rolls Royce they’ll be accused of being out of touch with the average Kiwi. However, if five of them turn up in a Suzuki Swift there’s always a nagging thought that they’re not very good at their job. My recommendation to clients would, therefore, be not to read too much into the agency’s choice of transport. The one exception is if it’s a well-equipped fishing boat, in which case sign them up immediately.

‘They have a great philosophy!’

Having spent some time studying lines from agencies around the world, I can report that the correlation between an agency having a great philosophy and producing great advertising is not strong.

For example, here are four agency claims:

  • ‘Famously effective.’
  • ‘Creatively led. Strategically Driven. Digitally Native. Humanity Obsessed.’
  • ‘We make ideas happen.’
  • ‘We exist to create a better future with you.’

On the basis of these statements, which of these agencies would you choose?

(Two of them are from New York, one from London, and one from Tasmania.)

‘Their presentation was fantastic. I just loved it when they brought out the flamethrower!’

While you would anticipate that any agency in a pitch would be capable of presenting themselves well, it’s worth remembering that the job you’re looking for them to do is to sell your products, not look clever in meetings. A slick presentation is not necessarily a good example of how well you will work together, particularly when you will never see half of the people in that meeting ever again. Unfortunately, most of the time that goes into preparing for that meeting will have been to the detriment of existing clients. Do you really want to be one of those clients that are shoved to the back burner every time new business turns up?

‘Their work is brilliant, so cutting edge!’

I know what you’re thinking. You’d think that any client would be right to pick an agency that produces great work. But be honest, if you don’t actually have any intention of running groundbreaking, provocative work then you’re just looking for trouble if you pick an agency that’s famous for doing exactly that. All that happens is that the agency gets frustrated by your disinclination to buy into their eclectic genius and you get frustrated by them continually pushing work with strong sadomasochistic overtones that may cause bleeding in the ears of small children. It really doesn’t help to have a Swedish director who can bring to life the decline of Western hegemony using animation when all you’re after is a minor celebrity and a packshot. Don’t go to a steakhouse if your family’s vegan.

‘We chose them because they were younger’

Would you choose a doctor because he was younger? Do you prefer your lawyers a little wet around the years? Would you fly with a pilot based on his lack of ability to grow a beard?

‘We chose them because they were older’

At the same time, you probably don’t want people whose finest moment of creativity was typesetting The Ten Commandments. A good mix is a good mix.

‘Their CEO is such fun!’

Unfortunately, the abilities of the CEO to keep the lunch table entertained with a good yarn has very little to do with the power of their company’s advertising. Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump were apparently great lunch company.

‘They won the Golden Cockerel of Kazakhstan!’

An agency with a lot of awards is generally an agency that has deliberately decided to dedicate time and its money towards that end. If awards are really important to your ego then go for it, but don’t be surprised when you struggle to make the board understand why a gold-painted cock was more important than long-term brand health.

‘They are so innovative their ads are done by robots!’

Bill Gates famously said that we completely overestimate how much the world will change in the next two years, and completely underestimate how much it will change in the next ten. It should be observed that when you are trying to sell something NOW it really is of little concern how best to sell it in two years time.

‘We weren’t convinced, but procurement loved them.’

Did your Mum choose your spouse? There are some smart procurement people, and the best ones would be the first to admit that their expertise rarely extends to that particular piece of magic that distinguishes one agency from another. They are quite handy with a calculator though and have nice chunky forms which take weeks to fill in before being thrown away.

‘They were the cheapest’.

The well-being of your brand, business, future employment, and immediate family, is all being placed in the hands of a company on the basis of it being cheap? Big call.

  • Paul Catmur is the chief executive of Barnes Catmur & Friends Dentsu.

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