What Makes an Agency Great?

What Makes an Agency Great?

I was recently asked to speak at a creative agency offsite about what marketers look for in great agencies. It was a good opportunity to reflect on the hundreds of agencies I’ve worked with over the past three decades – from mega agencies offering everything under one roof, to specialty boutiques, to freelance consultants – and extract the characteristics that make them shine… or bomb.

When you hire a marketing agency you’re essentially hiring people – their expertise, experience and service. Like any good hiring decision, ensuring a strong cultural fit and alignment is crucial. Do they focus on winning awards and accolades, or winning mindshare and market share for their clients? Are they high-maintenance with inflated egos, or do they effectively collaborate and share ideas? Have they internalized your brand voice and tone, or do they focus more on the next “cooler than cool” creative execution. Will they deliver what you ask, or push you further?

If you view agency partners as an extension of yourself – as I do – you will take as much care in recruiting and managing agencies as you do your own internal staff.

The demands of being a CMO today make selecting the right agency partners more critical than ever before. Here are the three key criteria I look for in an agency: strategic partnership, integration and commitment.

Strategic Partnership

Agencies come in all shapes and sizes – from traditional brand and advertising agencies to online and social media shops. Some integrate all elements of the marketing mix under one roof (at least they claim to); others focus on providing a specialized expertise such as web design or event planning.

In marketing, the fewer agencies you deploy the better. Not only is it easier to manage a smaller cadre of agencies, but it can dramatically make your marketing more efficient and more effective. Engaging agencies as strategic partners – rather than as “vendors” or “suppliers” – improves brand consistency, quality standards and purchasing leverage. Rather than engage them in one-off deliverables, agency partners are most effective when they know how all the deliverables tie together.

I believe most mid-size companies are adequately served by engaging no more than six agencies with the following specialties:

  1. Branding / Creative / Media – to help you focus your brand and develop brilliant creative concepts and placements
  2. Public Relations / Analyst Relations – to help you quickly build external relationships and begin to establish thought leadership
  3. Digital Marketing / Web Design – to help you synthesize your story and offerings in an engaging manner online and through social channels
  4. Core Marcom Deliverables – to help you create the foundational marketing, sales and employee engagement materials – from collateral to presentations to posters
  5. Event Management – to help you create and deliver world-class experiences
  6. Video / Film Production – to help you develop multi-sensory, experiential assets that bring your brand to life for both your employees and your customers

In addition to these six, you may also want to engage a few freelance experts to fill a specific need such as a CEO speechwriter, or PowerPoint whiz.

[Note: If you find yourself with an overabundance of agency resources and looking to streamline, I can provide tips on where to start and how to best manage the process.]


There is no such thing as a one-stop-shop for marketing support (though many agencies claim they can do it all). The task of integrating all the elements of the marketing mix together into a consistent voice and story rests squarely on the shoulders of the CMO or marketing leader. It cannot be delegated to an outside firm. The good news is with a reduced set of agency partners, it is far easier to make integrated marketing a reality.

Make sure each of your agency partners are involved in key discussions and introduced to key decision makers throughout the company. Don’t keep them as silent suppliers behind the scenes. Having your agencies hear input and feedback from important internal stakeholders makes your job of marketing integration that much easier.

It’s also important to introduce your agency principles to one another and ask they work together on solving your most pressing marketing challenges. Author and trend curator Rohit Bhargava cites two kinds of collaboration: (1) the good kind that allows teams to come up with great ideas that could never be accomplished by a single team alone, and (2) the ugly kind of collaboration that asks you to lock yourself in a room together in something akin to an involuntary arranged marriage. Not all agencies perform well in this area, preferring to compete vs. cooperate. Those that don’t play well with your other agencies are ones you might consider eliminating.


Commitment works both ways – companies need to demonstrate commitment to their agency partners as highlighted above, and agencies need to show commitment to their clients. Do your agencies have a consistent team of A-players in place to support your account? Is the principal or president of the agency actively engaged in key meetings and providing unprompted strategic counsel? Most important, is your agency “walking the talk” when it comes to believing in your brand and your products?

A prior CEO at HP put this last one into practice. When this CEO was involved in an agency meeting and a member of the creative team pulled out a competitive product to give their pitch, the meeting would come to an abrupt halt. I saw this happen more than once. And the CEO was absolutely right. How can an agency truly believe in the benefits and features of your company’s product when they aren’t even using that very product to perform their work when given a choice? The lesson:  Don’t tell me you’re committed; show me you’re committed.

These three attributes – strategic partnership, integration and commitment – are what I look for in a great marketing agency. These are, of course, in addition to top-notch expertise, deep experience and unparalleled service. A shout-out to 1185 Design for being one of those great agencies, and for inviting me to speak at their agency offsite. The session ended before I could ask the agency members to tell me what they look for in a great client.

I trust many of you employed at agencies today could give great examples of the perfect client… and the client from hell. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!


Image credit: crtreasures – fotolia.com

Marketing Budget Planning: Ready, Set, Pull!Get Crystal Clear on your Marketing CharterHail to the Chief (Marketing Officer)