Small Business

When to Fire Your Ad Agency


As a client, you're paying your agency to push you to keep your brand relevant in a shifting competitive landscape, not to simply take orders

Week after week, Adweek and Advertising Age chronicle the tawdry business of client/agency breakups. Like car accidents that nobody wants to see, yet everyone stares at, readers of the trades cringe at the carnage, knowing that next time—the names in those headlines could be theirs.

Occasionally, agencies pull the trigger, such as Crispin Porter Bogusky's recent rejection of Miller Brewing Co.. More often, however, advertisers are the ones making the decision that they would be better off with a different partner. Their published reasons are notoriously clichéd:

Virgin Atlantic: Commercial objectives require a new approach to strongly position our brand and service offerings in a competitive marketplace.

Porsche: We feel that in the spirit of continuous improvement that is part of everything we do here at Porsche, we had the responsibility to see how the market has changed since our last review cycle.

Staples (SPLS): As a part of Staples' normal course of business, we review agency relationships on a periodic basis to make sure we are best meeting our evolving business needs.

All About the Challenge

As you can see, there are many reasons companies let their agencies go—some valid, some spurious, and some just plain unfortunate. There are plenty of good reasons why a company would give its advertising agency its walking papers—lying, cheating, and disloyalty, to name a few. Sometimes an agency simply becomes the odd man out, as Publicis, creator of the wisecracking, trench coat-wearing Sprint (S) spokesguy, did when the wireless company merged with Nextel. Other times it gets acquired or has a change in ownership that fundamentally changes the equation. And sometimes an agency just isn't performing.

But how do you decide when its time is up? How do you distinguish between a rough patch (which all clients and agencies go through) and a ruined relationship? When do you make the decision to spend valuable time and money to transition to a new agency—time and money that are always more significant than you foresee?

I believe there is one overriding question you can ask yourself that will provide great insight into what you should do: Has my agency stopped challenging me?

Getting Paid to Think

You'll note that I said "stopped" challenging, not "started." I'm not suggesting that an agency should challenge your authority. It's your money and your brand, and no matter how strongly it feels about its own opinion it should never forget that. But the fact that you've got precious resources on the line is precisely why an agency should consider challenging your thinking part of its job description. After all, creativity requires thinking differently. Thinking differently requires risk-taking. And risk-taking is challenging.

If your ad agency isn't regularly making you feel uncomfortable, it's not doing its job. It may come to you with smart creative executions that nevertheless make you nervous because "I've never seen it done it this way before." They may push you to experiment with unproven tactics so that you don't get left behind in the frenetic world of new media. They may challenge you to reexamine your strategic approach altogether. Whatever the nature of the challenge, an agency that makes you think is taking the initiative to think on its own. And that's what you're paying it to do.

This doesn't mean that its ideas and opinions will always be right. But two heads are better than one and an external perspective is always worth considering. Such an approach will help ensure that you don't become complacent and that your brand doesn't grow stagnant.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Of course, the difficult thing about being challenged is that it's, well, challenging. Sometimes you just want the agency to do what you say, give you something familiar, or avoid rocking the boat. But you wouldn't want your attorney or accountant to be an order-taker, no matter how much he complicates your life. Once your agency loses its passion, you've lost a key strategic asset.

Think about the interactions you've had with your agency over the past year. Have you been challenged? Have you been pushed? Have you felt a little bit annoyed by the fact that the managers of your account always want you to go just one step beyond what you're comfortable with? If so, the relationship is probably worth saving and you can focus on fixing any bumps in the road you may be experiencing.

If not, consider turning the tables and giving them a challenge. Share with them something you're struggling with, give them an assignment, or simply give them a problem statement and tell them you want them to break new ground—strategically, creatively, whatever. And see how they respond.

If they've lost the fire or simply don't come through, then you're paying too many bucks for too little bang—and the opportunity cost of not moving forward is losing you forgone brand equity every day. If that's the case, it's time to move on.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some challenging work to do.

Steve McKee is president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, an agency that specializes in businesses with ad budgets under $10 million. He writes his sales and marketing column every month.

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