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How to choose an Advertising Agency (no, not the “give-back-commission” method)


Last week I was chatting with the CEO of a brand new company in the entertainment business. And as we talked about his business strategy and marketing plans, the conversation naturally veered towards advertising. It turned out he was on the verge of signing on an agency, which he admitted gave him the second best ideas during the pitch!

It turned out, he chose the ad agency which gave him the second best ideas, because it was a small local agency, and he felt that they’d give him more importance and better service than the large multi-national agencies!

This conversation brought up a subject that always got me thinking. It made me wonder about the decision making process when I was in an agency myself. And it still confuses me, when I help some of my clients choose an agency for themselves.

What is the right way of choosing an advertising agency?

Admittedly, like everything else in this business, there are no right answers; only calculated risks, based on some experience, some gut-feel, and mostly relationships.

Whether it is hiring people for the agency, the marketing department, or choosing the agency many of us follow this basic thought-flow:

  1. Are their ideas good?
  2. Is their idea for my business their first good idea, or are they consistently good with other brands?
  3. Do they have the bandwidth to handle my business?
  4. Do I like these people?
  5. Are we culturally similar, and will we be able to get along if the business gets tough?

Note, I said “many of us” before I started the list, because I believe that while many of us go all the way down
to point 5, most of the people/brands I know stop at Point 3.

And most people stop at Point 3 because of two reasons:

  1. They think liking people and getting along with them is irrelevant if the work is good, and you get good results. They’re here to do work, not make friends.
  2. They are ignorant of the fact that cultural mis-matches and not getting along with people is the biggest cause of strife in the world today, and it is very relevant in the workplace, and in business as well.

But putting these two points aside, let me just address points 1 to 3, and share some thoughts with a list of questions you as client must ask during the pitch process. Forget “Pitch consultants” because, as experience tells us, pitch consultants are a complete waste of time and money (But more on that later!).

Here’s 20 questions for which you must get answers:

  1. Do I like their Credentials?
  2. Are their Credentials relevant to my business and category?
  3. Do I like the case studies they used to showcase their capabilities?
  4. Will the teams that worked on the case-study brands work on my business, or will I get some other team? If its the latter, what have they done?
  5. Are the people who led the teams that did the showcase work, still with the agency? Will they be leading my business as well?
  6. Will I get dedicated resources? If shared, whom am I sharing my resources with?
  7. Are the teams in place, or will they take a while to get going on my work?
  8. Does the agency have a clear structure, or is it ambigious? Is leadership clear, are roles clear within their setup?
  9. Is there a clear line of contact? Is there a clear process for escalation of issues/problems?
  10. Do I like the ideas they presented for my business?
  11. Are the ideas long-term and sustainable?
  12. Do these ideas give my brand a differentiator, relevant to my value proposition?
  13. Do they look like they can implement these ideas?
  14. Am I willing to implement these ideas?
  15. Do I have the money to implement these ideas?
  16. Do I like these people, or am I going by reputation?
  17. Do they like me, or are they just here for the business?
  18. Do our organisations cultures and aspirations match?
  19. Can I imagine a long term association with this agency?
  20. Am I willing to trust them with my business, and will I give them the respect due to them, especially since “yes” seems to be the dominant response to all my questions above?

If you get the answer “yes” to the questions above, go for it!

And after you go for it, don’t ask these questions again for at least 2-3 months. Because it takes that much time for an agency to settle in. Quite like it took time for your brand to settle in with your customers.

Finally, here’s a bit of advice for both agency and client, on maintaining boundaries of mutual respect.

For the agency: When you get full of yourself, you don’t leave any space for improvement.

For the client: You don’t keep a dog, and then try to do the barking yourself.

For both agency and client: Perhaps the other guy is right…

Note: You can apply the same principles to:
How to choose a PR Agency (no, not the “they’ve got nice babes” method)
How to choose a Website Design company (no, not “the lowest quote” method)
How to choose a Media Buying house (no, not the “they’ve got the best cricket deals” method)

At work, I tend to Brands and nurture ideas that help people and businesses bloom. I am a writer of all things that catch my eye. I travel to discover myself, as much as I do to discover the world. I am a foodie at heart, and am open to tasting anything that's edible!


  1. Fantastic article noshtradamus! …loved it..shud defntly be published in an industry publication 🙂

  2. Nice post! But I quibble a bit with points 10 – 15.

    In most cases, the agency should not be giving you ideas before you hire them. Agencies get paid for (1) coming up with ideas and (2) executing them. Good ideas are probably more valuable and they shouldn’t be given away freely.

    If by “ideas” you meant their approach to solving problems… that’s more like it.


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