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Thinking of switching ad agencies? What to consider

Stephanie Kruse

First of all, I must say that I love the irony of having the CEO of an ad/PR/digital agency write an advice column on “How and When to Hire a New Agency.” For those of you who can get past your immediate skepticism about the proverbial “fox in the henhouse”… read on.

In defense of my authorship, I feel more justified in being able to write this particular column in that I’m a little unusual; as an ad/PR agency CEO, I’ve also been “on the client side,” running a marketing department that hired agencies, and had cause to switch agencies as well. I’ve also been CEO when KPS3 has been the firm hired by clients at the changing of the “agency guard,” stepping in after a client-agency “break up.” Of course, we’ve also been the one who either chose to leave a client relationship or who were told “It’s time for a change.”

When is it time to change? What are good reasons to do so?

There are a number of valid reasons for companies to change agencies. Here are a few:

1. The agency has consistent performance issues. Note the use of the word “consistent.” Every agency will make errors, have a bad day and disappoint the client at some point in their relationship. However, if an agency consistently is not strategically approaching projects, has yawner off-target creative solutions, doesn’t understand the digital space, can’t write or design well, consistently makes goofy errors, or doesn’t meet deadlines or budgets… there is probably good reason for a switch.

2. The agency just doesn’t understand your brand and can’t execute brand products for you, even if you’ve given them the time and resources to learn it and understand it.

3. There is a bona fide change in your organization’s needs and you need an agency that is more of a specialist or has more experience in that realm, i.e. a rebranding, a specific business problem or challenge, a crisis or digital marketing.

4. The agency is doing something unethical or even borderline illegal, i.e. in billing practices or intellectual property usage. You don’t want to continue to work with people who don’t do, or know how to do, the right thing.

What are not-so-good reasons to change agencies?

1. Research shows that the most common reason that companies switch agencies is the change in a high-level marketing decision-maker at the client organization. And almost every agency in the world has experienced this first hand. A new chief marketing officer may want to switch agencies because he/she has a very comfortable prior relationship with a different agency. Or to make his/her mark on the organization. I’d recommend to new top-level marketing managers in client companies, that you don’t make an automatic switch until you’ve really vetted how the current agency is performing for your organization.

2. It takes a while for an agency to learn the client organization and its industry. As fast as companies move in this day and age, the client may be impatient for the agency to learn and begin working seamlessly on its behalf. I’d counsel client companies that adequate time and effort be spent on the front end for a new agency to learn and understand. Be as patient as possible, if at all possible. The outcomes will usually pay off.

3. In some relationships, one party is upset with another, but can’t or won’t clearly tell the other why. Clients and agencies are no exception. When a client is unhappy with an agency’s performance or attitude, etc., I’d suggest that the client have a straightforward, clear conversation with the agency team about the problems. Be candid, be fair, provide examples of the issues frustrating your organization, and tell the agency what changes you’d expect to see going forward. Let them process it (quickly) and come back to you with a plan on how they intend to fix the issues. If they don’t think they have issues that need fixing, then maybe you do need to think about a change.

How much hassle will be involved?

The short answer is: It depends.

If you as the client are in the middle of a complex or time-critical project or campaign, the downside of a change might overwhelm the positives, even if you are frustrated by some aspect of the relationship or the agency’s performance. A large campaign with tight timelines, a large Web development project with many moving parts, or a crisis communications situation where your brand or reputation is on the line … are probably not great times to make a switch.

If you are at a place in your marketing, digital or PR programming that is less critical, it shouldn’t be that much of a hassle to undertake the actual transition phase. An agency that is “being left” should be professional and with reasonable time and fees supply all materials and products that were produced for the client.

Orienting your new agency team is a wholly different story. If you’ve had an agency for years, they will have (or at least they should have) known your brand, your organization, your style and your quirks. Don’t expect a new agency to walk in and know all about you on day one. It will take time. Yours and theirs.

And finally.

A client-agency relationship is just that. A relationship. Just like every other relationship it needs some attention if you expect it to be a good one. Some clients think that they shouldn’t have to work on their relationship with their agencies, that it should be easy and effortless for them since they are the clients, after all. Your agency’s understanding, knowledge, performance and attitude can benefit from your willingness and ability to give clear direction, share organizational strategy and other pertinent information, be consistent in how your operate with them, and uphold your part of the deal when meeting timelines and managing project budgets. Maintaining a great agency-client relationship, after all, is often a lot less hassle than making a switch.

Stephanie Kruse is president of KPS3, a marketing, advertising, public relations, digital and Web agency in Reno. Contact her at 775-686-7439 or info@kps3.com.