8 Practical Questions To Ask A Prospective Ad Agency
First off, I don’t work for an advertising agency. You can rest assured that I’m not going to try and convince you that you should rush out and forge a relationship with an “agency of record.” That said, I have spent more than a few years knocking around the ad agency world as a creative staffer. I have also spent plenty of time on the other side of the table working with agencies as a client. In short, I have experienced the day-to-day pros (e.g. the nearly endless well of marketing knowledge) and cons (e.g. the cost) of working with an ad agency from the perspective of the agency itself as well as from the perspective of the client.
The keyword here is practical. What I’m going to write about today are simple questions you can ask while interviewing a prospective advertising agency. These are the type of questions that address your day-to-day relationship with the agency, rather than inquiries about high-level strategic thinking or questions about how the agency can fulfill company objectives.
# Q1: Does the agency see itself as a vendor or as a partner?
This is something of a loaded question for an agency because they do not know what exactly you are looking for in regards to their services. Nobody knows your specific business situation better than you, so it’s not uncommon to want a more vendor-like relationship with an advertising agency. You call the shots and the agency gives its input and ultimately makes it happen. However, if you are looking for a true long-term agency partnership, you may shy away from agencies that describe themselves as vendors, service providers, or project shops.
In truth, despite how they answer this sticky question, most agencies end up walking a line between “thought leader” and “order taker.” It’s up to you to decide whether you want more of the former or more of the latter.
# Q2: Will we have direct access to all agency staff assigned to our account?
Some agencies have a very hierarchical process structure that requires a single point of contact between the client and the agency itself. It makes life easier on the agency’s end. From the client perspective, you would ideally have direct access (phone, email, meeting, etc.) to all individuals working on your account. This includes everybody from the Production Artist up to the person ultimately responsible for your business (usually an Account Executive or agency principal). This questions leads directly into the next…
# Q3: Do all agency staffers have the authority to act on client requests?
As mentioned, some ad agencies have a rigid lock-step workflow process. Nothing gets done without it going to the Account Executive who then sends it to the Traffic Manger who sends it to the Creative Director who sends it to the Art Director who sends it to the Production Artist who passes it on to the Copywriter who then sends it to the Proofreader who sends it back to the Traffic Manager and who finally sends it back to the Account Executive.
I wish I was kidding, but that “two word change” you sent in via email just turned into a process that causes no less than seven different staffers to bill time to your account. I have seen it happen exactly as played out above. If the agency bills in 10 minute increments, that’s 90 minutes of billing (the AE and the TM touched it twice) for something that would take the Production Artist quite literally 10 minutes to fix and send back over to you for approval.
# Q4: What is the minimum billable time?
This question builds on the scenario I laid out above. Most agencies bill in 10 or 15 minute increments. For years, I tracked my time in 15 minute blocks, 8+ hours a day. Ideally, the agency will have a short minimum billable time and some will have real-time billing systems in place so there is no minimum.
Because it’s easier to track, many agency staffers will group small tasks throughout the day into a single billable entry on their time sheet. If you “ping” the same staffer three times for trivial tasks or questions, you will be billed 15 or 30 minutes instead of 45. Unfortunately, this is not something you can count on.
# Q5: Can we choose which agency staffers we want to include in meetings?
Large full-service ad agencies are notorious for not being able to hold a meeting without costing the client $500+. Over the years I’ve sat in on dozens of them, if not hundreds. If left to their own devices, agencies (at least the ones I have worked for) have a tendency to invite everybody except the janitor to meetings. On one hand, this keeps everybody on the team up-to-date with what is happening. On the other, you will be paying for people to sit and listen to topics that may have no relevance to their actual role on the account.
# Q6: What is the billing rate for each position at the agency?
Chances are the Production Artist will not be billed at the same rate as the Creative Director. You can use this to your advantage by selectively bypassing the higher-tiered employees if one with a lower billing rate can answer your question or address your problem just as efficiently. Now, I wouldn’t be asking a Production Artist about overall marketing strategy, but nor would I bother having the Director of Account Services spend time scrounging up a high-resolution logo.
# Q7: Is there a contract we have to sign?
This one is pretty self-explanatory, but one of the the main things you want to take away is the cancellation policy. You don’t want to get stuck on an agency contract with a long cancellation period.
# Q8: What services does the agency outsource?
No agency does everything. Well, no typical agency that services SMBs does everything. Many will outsource tasks such as video production, photography, social media management, SEO, SMS marketing, content production, media buying, etc. These services are usually passed through the agency with a markup (but not always), so you will want to know this before hiring the agency. For example, if you’re primarily looking toward an agency for text message marketing, you probably don’t want to choose one that outsources that task.
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