How to Hire an Interactive Agency

In his seminal book, “Ogilvy on Advertising,” David Ogilvy offers advice on the best way to hire an advertising agency. He suggests some simple steps. First, make a list of the ad campaigns you admire, and find out who created them. Next, eliminate the agencies that have competitive conflicts. Finally, choose the agency you feel “chemistry” with, offer to pay it more than it asks for, and sign it to a multiyear contract.

Ogilvy’s process seems quaint now, if not a bit self-serving. If you are looking for an interactive agency, you realize that it is a lot more complicated than deciding whose creative you like best. At a time when there is enormous pressure to drive the bottom line, choosing an interactive agency can be a harrowing — and complicated — decision.

I have never hired an interactive agency, but I have worked for a couple of them. So every once in a while, someone who is in the process of selecting an agency asks me for some tips. I don’t think that I know all the answers, but having worked on the inside has given me a good perspective.

Different agencies have different strengths, so your objectives should drive the selection process. But no matter the objectives, if I were selecting an interactive agency today, these are some of the questions I would ask:

  • How is my investment going to be returned? Return on investment (ROI) should be more than a bullet point on a slide; it should be the core value in the planning and evaluation of online initiatives. If you are hiring an agency, make sure it understands your business and can quantify success based on your objective, whether it’s branding, sales, or traffic building. If the agency offers to base a significant part of its compensation on meeting your business objectives, take it as a good sign.

  • How much experience does the agency have in marketing integration? The Internet is not a parallel world; it is another point of contact through which you can reach your customer. And coordinated, integrated plans that leverage multiple contact points are always the most successful. Ask agencies how they integrate online marketing and advertising with offline channels. Ask them about the relative strengths and weaknesses of every medium and how they have coordinated and timed integrated campaigns in the past. No one has all the answers, but they should have solid, defensible points of view. And make sure they have the experience and partnerships in place to make integrated campaigns a reality.
  • What’s the agency’s process? The agency process (or lack of one) will make the difference between an efficient, profitable agency relationship and a barrel of headaches. Every agency will say it has a process, and most will have a fancy slide with a lot of connected boxes or a circle of arrows showing a perpetual cycle. But ask each to tell you how it would work through hypothetical scenarios. Ask the media director, project managers, and technical staff how they allocate resources in the planning, testing, and evaluation process. If they dont seem to be running an efficient business, its going to cost you money.
  • Who will I be working with? Most agency CEOs are great salespeople and very quick on their feet. But, unfortunately, they won’t be running your account. Make sure that you meet the people who will be assigned to your account, especially your day-to-day contact. (Interestingly enough, Ogilvy actually advises against this.) Get a commitment on how much time they will be devoting to your account. And try to find out what the agency’s retention rates are. High turnover is a bad sign and can seriously compromise service.
  • Does the agency know my customer? I was the research director at two agencies, so consider my point of view somewhat biased. But unless you have a complete and nuanced understanding of who your customers are, what motivates them, and what their relationships to the Internet are, your online marketing will be highly inefficient. And even if you think you know your customer, you might be wrong. For that reason, research is essential, and it should be one of your agency’s core competencies.

Decades have passed since Ogilvy published his book, and a lot has changed. Indeed, a lot has changed in the past year: Clients and agencies are more preoccupied with achieving quantifiable results. Starting off with the right questions and establishing solid objectives and precise accountability are crucial steps toward success for agencies and clients.

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