When to Fire Your Ad Agency

By Steve McKee

Week after week, the advertising trades chronicle the tawdry business of client/agency breakups. Like car accidents that nobody wants to see yet everyone gawks at, readers cringe at the carnage, knowing that next time the names in those headlines could be theirs.

CMOs’ published reasons for making an agency switch are notoriously clichéd: “Commercial objectives require a new approach to strongly position our brand and service offerings in a competitive marketplace.” “We feel that in the spirit of continuous improvement we had the responsibility to see how the market has changed since our last review cycle.” “As a part of our normal course of business, we review agency relationships on a periodic basis to make sure we are best meeting our evolving business needs.”

Yes, there are many reasons brands let their agencies go—some valid, some spurious, and some just plain unfortunate. Sometimes an agency becomes the odd man out because of a client-side merger or acquisition. Other times the agency itself has a change in ownership that presents a conflict. And sometimes an agency just isn’t performing.

But how do you decide when your agency’s time is up? How do you distinguish between a rough patch (which all clients and agencies go through) and a ruined relationship? When do you make the decision to spend valuable time and money to transition to a new agency—time and money that are always more significant than you anticipate?

I believe there is one overriding question you can ask yourself that will provide great insight into what you should do: Has my agency stopped challenging me?

You’ll note that I said “stopped” challenging you, not “started.” I’m not suggesting that an agency should challenge your authority. It’s your money and your brand, and no matter how strongly an agency feels about its own opinion it should never forget that. But the fact that you’ve got precious resources on the line is precisely why your agency should consider challenging your thinking part of its job description. After all, creativity requires thinking differently. Thinking differently requires risk-taking. And risk-taking is challenging.

If your agency isn’t regularly making you feel uncomfortable, it’s not doing its job. It may come to you with smart creative executions that make you nervous because you’ve never seen it done it that way before. It may push you to experiment with unproven tactics so that you don’t get left behind in the frenetic world of new media. And it may challenge you to reexamine your strategic approach altogether. Whatever the nature of the challenge, an agency that makes you think is taking the initiative to think on its own. And that’s what you’re paying it to do.

This doesn’t mean that its ideas and opinions will always be right. But two heads are better than one and an external perspective is always worth considering. Such an approach will help ensure that you don’t become complacent and that your brand doesn’t grow stagnant.

Of course, the difficult thing about being challenged is that it’s, well, challenging. Sometimes you just want the agency to do what you say, give you something familiar, or avoid rocking the boat. But you wouldn’t want your attorney or accountant to be an order-taker, no matter how much he or she complicates your life. Once your agency loses its passion, you’ve lost a key strategic asset.

Think about the interactions you’ve had with your agency over the past year. Have you been challenged? Have you been pushed? Have you felt a little bit annoyed by the fact that your team there always wants you to go a step beyond what you’re comfortable with? If so, the relationship is probably worth saving and you can focus on fixing any bumps in the road you may be experiencing.

If not, consider turning the tables and giving them a challenge. Share with them something you’re struggling with, give them an assignment, or simply give them a problem statement and tell them you want them to break new ground—strategically, creatively, whatever. And see how they respond.

If they’ve lost the fire or simply don’t come through, then you’re paying too many bucks for too little bang—and the opportunity cost of not moving forward with a change means more foregone brand equity every day. If that’s the case, it’s time to move on. But if the agency comes through, you’ve just saved yourself a great deal of time, money and momentum by avoiding a superfluous review. Either way, your brand comes out ahead.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some challenging work to do.

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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