March 28, 2002

How a creative agency can work for you

  • What to look for when choosing an advertising, design or PR firm
    The Culligan Group

    Whether you’re looking for an agency that specializes in advertising, design or public relations, you’ve got some tough decisions ahead. However, if you take the right steps, ask the right questions and, ultimately, pick the right agency, you may never have to look again.


    You may be wondering why you need an agency in the first place. You are the expert when it comes to your business.

    However, an agency provides the expertise you need to present your company’s message in a professional and memorable way. An agency will determine the right outlets for your message, whether it’s advertising in an industry publication, mailing to potential customers, or communicating with the media. It is the agency’s job to ensure that any dollars allocated to marketing, advertising and public relations are spent efficiently and effectively.

    When hiring an agency, the first place to start is by understanding your needs. Determining what you want up front will lead to selecting the best agency. For example, what services will you require? If it’s public relations services, it is important to understand the benefits of communicating your company’s message to the media.

    What is public relations and why is it so important?

    Simply put, public relations is the art of influence. Through a variety of tactics, successful public relations campaigns influence the way your customers, employees, investors, business partners and the government perceive your company.

    The old adage “If you build it, they will come” just isn’t true anymore. The market we do business in is competitive and you must identify creative communications solutions to be heard over the constant barrage of messages.

    How do you get your message heard?

    Public relations’ primary function is to get you favorable coverage from the media. And, the sky’s the limit. If you have a story to tell, there is an audience, from online “zines” to special interest publications.

    Why public relations? Four reasons:

  • Cost savings. Through public relations, you gain exposure that may otherwise be too expensive through advertising.

  • Diverse media. The media is as diverse as people’s interests and affords a broad range of opportunities to tell your story such as trade publications, special interest magazines, radio and television.

  • Clutter of messages. Everyday, people are bombarded with advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, pop-up Internet ads, newspaper inserts, and the list goes on. Through editorial, you can communicate with your audience above all of the clutter.

  • Competition. Public relations can help you get noticed over the competition through positive media placement.

    Narrowing it down

    Whether it’s public relations, design or advertising, you will first need to determine the extent of services you require. When selecting an agency, be aware that they vary greatly and determining an appropriate match will require some research.

    To start your search, contact fellow professionals in your industry and ask for referrals. However, when doing your research, always keep in mind your situation. The scope of your job may be quite different in terms of scale and professional services required.

    Once you have your list, narrow it down to three agencies and set up your appointments. Prepare a detailed job brief that explains your goals, objectives, budget, audience, tone, key messages, brand guidelines — anything you deem important to the success of your project.

    Your job brief needs to be as clear as possible, so you understand what you’re looking for and the agency understands your needs. At this time, it is also important that the decision-makers within your organization support your creative brief and everyone agrees to the scope of the job. This includes internal management as well as board members and/or advisors.

    Review the portfolios

    Now that you’ve met the agencies and determined the process, it’s time to review the portfolios. If your project requires design, ask to see your proposed designer’s portfolio, not just the overall agency portfolio.

    Does the designer have the experience to suit your needs? You want senior people concerned with the success of your project and the success of your company. Is there a common look or theme to the agency’s work? If so, beware. This can be an indication that the agency is more concerned with their style than your brand.

    Also, beware of relying on reputation alone and focus more on the depth of experience. Does the agency specialize in an industry such as construction, financial or pharmaceutical? Or, a genre such as direct marketing? Finding an agency that understands the regulatory process and/or requirements in your industry can save you a lot of time.

    Finally, ask to see the agency’s current client list. First, you want to ensure there are no conflicts of interest, particularly if your job is confidential or deals with proprietary information. You also want to see if the clients they represent fit your company’s size, scope and personality. If the agency only represents clients such as Nike, Coca Cola or McDonald’s, they may not be a right fit for you or your budget and you may end up a lower priority or be assigned a junior team.

    Review the proposals

    You’ve met with the account management team, looked over the agency portfolios, checked out the client lists and have completed your first set of meetings. Now it’s time to meet again to review their proposals. At this point, you will want to meet the entire creative team to hear their thoughts regarding your project. This can save you valuable time in the long run and ensure that the people actively working on your account understand your brand and your needs.

    When reviewing the proposals compare the price, but more importantly, listen to the ideas and strategies behind the price. Basing your decision on price alone can result in a project or campaign that is not on strategy, costing you more money in the long run. You want to select an agency based on their creativity, experience, knowledge and clear understanding of your needs. The result will not only be a successful project, but also a long term and mutually beneficial relationship.

    Congratulations, you’ve picked the right agency. However, your job is not complete. In fact, it’s just beginning. How you manage your relationship with your agency is just as important as the selection process.

    Bridget Culligan is a principal at The Culligan Group. The firm’s focus is advertising and design emphasising targeted marketing through mail, advertisements and online marketing. To find out more visit

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