One of our new employees came to us from a large, national manufacturer with several consumer brands. In her role she worked with a well-respected national agency that had been hired to do both the digital and traditional advertising. (The shop, better known for its traditional work, had created some cutting-edge digital solutions for clients.) The manufacturer reasoned that by consolidating its communications with a single, well-known agency, it would gain better control of its brands across the increasing number of communication channels, as well as some efficiency.
The reality turned out to be quite different. Says our new employee: "There I was, 10 hours before our site was supposed to launch, talking to someone in India where the work was outsourced. It was someone who had no relationship to the agency whatsoever, someone I did not hire. There was not an agency person anywhere. It quickly became clear that it was going to be up to me to fix what needed fixing."
Clearly, that agency promised something it was not prepared to deliver.
Today, virtually every agency talks about its ability to do "integrated communications." But determining who really can do what is difficult. Here are five questions clients should ask before hiring an agency to manage digital and traditional communications:
1. Is the agency team that leads brand strategy as adept and knowledgeable about the digital space as it is the traditional space? (And vice versa.)
Your strategy, to be effective, must live in the digital as well as the traditional world. In many cases, the agency's senior talent responsible for strategy may not understand the digital environment well enough to be able to articulate or advocate one that will play well online. If a one-dimensional individual is leading your strategic planning, some really amazing potential digital ideas may be missed. Conversely, your strategy could be hopelessly skewed to the digital side of the ledger.
2. Where will the work be done?
Sounds simple, but it's probably the most obvious question that almost never gets asked. If the agency is not doing the work in-house, then where is it getting done? If it's being outsourced to another country, how much control does the agency really have? And how much will that affect your brand consistency and efficiency?
3. What percentage of the agency's business is online versus offline?
This is another very simple question that almost never gets asked directly. If an "integrated" agency's digital work is only 10 percent of its total, how good is it really going to be at it? What happens if the shop loses that 10 percent of its business? How much full-time staff does it have to do the digital work? Conversely, if 10 percent of an agency's work is traditional, does it have the strategic chops to really discern what your brand is about and to manage things like point-of-purchase, collateral and anything beyond the largest TV jobs? The appropriate agency should have a balanced revenue stream and therefore balanced resources.
4. What is the agency's process?
What you're asking your potential agency for is a single contact: one person, or small group of people, to create and manage the communication of your brands through a wide variety of channels, essentially managing the production of a promotional mini-site one day, TV the next and in-store point of sale the day after. Clearly, that's not an easy task, and the only way it happens is with a well-defined process, one simple to manage, but flexible enough to handle the various elements. When do the experts and specialists plug in? How are they involved and when? How are the handoffs managed?
5. How highly respected is technology within the agency organization?
By their very nature, Web developers tend to be quiet and unassuming. And yet, for any digital process, these folks are absolutely critical and are often the most knowledgeable about user behavior (and experience) of any group in the agency. One quick way to determine whether the agency believes that developers are an integral part of the team as opposed to just a "production function" is to find out what role the top developer has in the agency. If they/he/she reports to anyone other than the president or CEO, don't walk, run, because you're looking at a group for whom the folks charged with making everything work -- including your databases and digital communication -- are not a part of the strategic discussion.
If the answers to these questions are satisfactory, then you should be congratulated: You've found an agency uniquely prepared to help you develop sound, 21st-century strategies for your business and execute against them flawlessly in the digital and traditional realm. You've found the agency of the future.
Owen Hannay is chairman and CEO of Slingshot. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org