How Well Do You Know Your Agency Team?

They say that choosing an agency partner is a lot like getting married after the first date. It can be awfully difficult to “date” an agency without getting serious right away.

So how do you make sure you’re not going to wake up one morning and realize you don’t recognize the person on the other side of the bed?

When you’re choosing a marketing agency of any type (advertising, PR, digital, etc.), don’t you want to know exactly whom you will be working with? The most important single factor for success is the quality of the people on your team. At large agencies you get pitched by top creative people and everything seems great. You hire the firm. You’re excited.

Most small agencies only have an “A” team.

Then your actual project team is assembled. It’s often not the same people who pitched you.

Frequently at large agencies, the senior people spend the bulk of their time pitching new business, and not necessarily doing real client work. “Some agencies tend to over-promise the everyday services of their top executives,” states Leonard Saffir in his article Big Agency versus Small: Bigger is Not Always Better.

“In fact, I left the big-agency world because more and more of my time was spent pitching new business and less on the day-to-day creative side… The clients who knew me wanted to see me regularly. However, as I was a member of the management team, more and more of my time was devoted to bringing in new business and controlling our expenses, and less was spent on creative work.”

Brian Cross, a former global practice group leader of digital communications at mega-PR firm Fleishman-Hillard, concurs:

“I’ve spoken with everyone from account leads, to creative directors, to technology in at least 4 of the major holding companies’ portfolios [the holding companies are these huge mega-firms, most of them public, that own the majority of marketing, advertising, PR and digital agencies, and include companies like Omnicom, WPP, MDC, IPG, Havas, and Publicis] and all have said the same thing… ‘I spend more time looking at spreadsheets, WIP reports, forecasts, justifying revenue targets, and then double and triple checking these things, than actually working on the client’s work. And when I do have the time (which ironically, is the thing all those tools are meant to measure), we can’t simply concentrate on good work, but rather how quickly, and how cheaply can we achieve the goal?’”

Agencies, like any service organization, survive by optimizing billable hours at the highest rates possible. When your project comes along, who will be assigned to your team? Will it be the best people within the organization who are likely already busy, working 60 and 70 hours weeks (and risking creative burnout, but that’s a subject for another post)? Or will it be the people who happen to not be booked at that time – the people sitting “on the bench”? Unless you’re an advertising behemoth like Budweiser, Apple or Toyota, good luck. You’re lucky if you get the “B” team. You’re certainly not going to get the “A” team.

Hiring an agency is hiring an extension of your internal team.

Most small agencies only have an “A” team.

Even if a large agency has 800 employees (or more), only a very small handful of them will ever be involved with your account. Hiring an agency is hiring an extension of your internal team.  Who works on your account is truly critical.

One of the best complements I ever remember our agency receiving was from a marketing VP at our client Clairol, who told us she felt like we worked “right down the hall” from her. She considered us a part of her team, and she knew she could count on us.

How well do you know your agency team?

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  • Marco Fiori

    Great article! It’s very true and it’s something we try to use to our advantage!

  • No BS please

    Have any of you ever worked for a top ten agency? let alone have worked for a top 50 client, I think not. show me the money because you are three people working from home, please please be honest when creating these articles.

    Bless you for your small minds and may your clients forgive you for your BS…..

  • Jason Heller

    Hey Scott – just playing a bit of devil’s advocate for a moment…

    It’s easy to bash the big agencies. There are sometimes when they deserve it. However, for big clients who need scale in their programs, often it is the big agencies that can deliver it when the smaller agencies cannot.

    I come from both sides, having run a small and independent digital agency and selling it to a big agency and then running the digital group that represented less than 5% of the big agency and dealing with all the culture shock and trying to be an agent of change. It definitely took a David to make the Goliath change and adapt, but I think today a lot of big agencies have those experienced and passionate people on board. Granted – big agencies mean big overhead and a need to fill their teams with work. But blanket statements dissing the big agencies are as untrue as blanket statements about every small agency having only A teams who can kick ass by default. Sure many smaller agencies are founded and run by smart, experienced, nimble people, and I am a huge advocate of these shops – but there are just as many that aren’t that great. Additionally, even the good shops sometimes lack the resources to provide a level of service that the bigger agencies can. As everything in the marketing industry – there exists a big “it depends” statement after the question of “Should I work with a Big or Small Agency?”

  • Scott Paley

    Hi Jason,

    Thank you so much for your reasoned and respectful response (unlike an earlier comment on this post.)

    I think you make a couple of smart points, and I’m sorry if the post came across overly absolutist. I wasn’t trying to make blanket statements, but re-reading the post I can see how you might interpret otherwise. Of course there are large agencies doing fantastic work and some small agencies that produce crap. It was not my intention to suggest otherwise.

    I would say the important takeaway is that in the business development cycle, both large *and* small agencies will tout their prowess by pointing to prior work, as well they should. But it’s critical to know if *your* team did any of that work, and in smaller agencies the answer is *usually* more likely to be “yes.”

    I also agree that *in most cases* smaller agencies might not be able to handle truly huge assignments. In those cases it’s *usually* best to go with a large agency. That said, if you really have a huge account you’re also more likely to get the large agency’s “A” team.

    We’ve certainly pitched against large agencies many, many times and I’ve seen many cases where I truly believe the client would have been served better by being a bigger fish in a smaller pond than the other way around. But as you essentially say, there are other things besides size that set the quality of a pond.

  • Cathybishop

    Yes,  over-promising–that’s the word. Some agencies do that. But not all. For sure there are also good ones who live up to their promises. So as with anything, taking time to really get to know the people behind your prospective agency partner really helps. Especially the workers since the employees are the company’s biggest asset.

About Us

Abstract Edge is a creative boutique online marketing agency that has launched new brands for Clairol and Vera Wang, inspired a million moms to march on Washington, assisted American Idol’s fight against malaria, and helped increase web traffic so successfully for Discover Magazine that it was recently acquired.

Our primary offices are in New York and Baltimore and we have clients throughout the US. You can read more about us here.

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