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Does my business need an Ad Agency?

The short answer is yes. Every business needs some form of professional creative help in marketing, advertising, and production. However, every company’s needs are unique, and it takes a professional experienced ad agency to fill those needs. Having meaningful and effective creative content is no longer a luxury, it is required.


Unfortunately, as technology advances, people are misled into believing that quality content is easy to make, and that any content will do. This has made it easy for non professionals to claim professional status. This has brought us an ocean of crap that we often sift through just to get to the good stuff. Ad Agencies are more important now than ever.

What is an ad agency, and what do they do?

Ad Agencies are companies comprised of a group (or multiple groups) of creative teams, who are experts in branding, messaging, creating ad-campaigns for print, television, radio, and digital media. These teams are comprised of a creative director, graphic designers, art director, copywriters, and other creatives who develop and execute effective ad-campaigns. These days, most ad agencies offer additional services such as digital marketing, website design, social media management, and video production.


Ad agencies also come if different shapes and sizes. Some ad agencies are very large, and some have only a few team members. Some focus on a particular industry, others focus on a particular platform, like digital marketing. The key to selecting the right ad agency for you is, knowing what you want to accomplish, what is your budget, and how will your culture mesh with the culture of a creative team. Does your company like to play it safe and conservative, or are the players on your team open to playing outside of the box? Both viewpoints are valid. Being honest about the culture of your business can save you lots of frustration in the communication process with your creative team.


The point is, you want to hire an agency that is going to match your budget, culture, understands your industry, and is looking to develop a long term mutually successful relationship with you.

Why is hiring an ad agency so important?

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Hiring a great ad agency is like hiring a great doctor. Like medicine, advertising is not straight forward like changing a tire. An ad agency follows a similar process to a doctor.


• First, they will diagnose or assess.

• Second, they both draw conclusions.

• Third they prescribe a solution.

• Fourth they execute the action of the solution.

• Fifth, they measure and adjust.


Just like in medicine, a great ad agency can either do wonders for you, or leave you worse then you were before they found you.

How do I spot a great ad agency?

I could write 50,000 words answering this question, but instead of writing a novel, I will give you five main points to help you. Finding the right ad agency for you is striking a balance between, your budget, agency style, and the agencies capabilities. Different agencies can specialize in different sectors of marketing and advertising. You would not want to work with a digital agency (primarily internet search based) if producing TV commercials is what you think you need.


1) Compare the work of similar ad agencies. Ad agencies will usually display their work on their websites and social media. Look at the work from two different perspectives. The first is, does their work appear to be of the same quality of the industry leaders. The second is, does their style, match how your stylistic preferences. If you are one who appreciates minimalistic design, an ad agency that leans into bright colors and super creative text shapes may not be a good fit for you.


2) Do they produce their work in-house? A good solid ad agency has their own designers, and production people on staff. They are not reliant on freelancers and outsourcing the execution portion of the process. Some ad agencies have their own designers, copywriters, audio / video production studios, web designers and other people needed to execute impeccable creative material. Other agencies revolve around a single creative designer who hires production people as they are needed. Both are valid and both have value to the right business.


3) Look at the types of clients they serve. Does the ad agency you are considering have any named work, or are all their clients’ small local businesses? How many different clients do they have? How robust is their portfolio? Does the work span over a few years, a decade, or decades? Experience matters in this business. More is better.


4) Grade their website. Is their website easy to navigate, or is it confusing? Is it creative and interesting? Does it appeal to your preferences? Finally, do they include any behind the scenes photos or videos? Showing process is paramount. Knowing that the people you meet, are the people in the photo doing the work is a great source of confidence.


At SM Media Group our motto is clarity over creativity. I have come across some very creative, but distracting and confusing websites. Creative agencies make this mistake often, because they are trying to show off their creativity by using an effect. This is a huge red flag.


5) Meet them in their office. Going to see where your ad agency works will tell you more than any website ever could. You will see what part of town they are in, how large their offices and staff really are. You will get a great indicator of what their in house capabilities really are, and you will also get to meet more of the team. You will be able to discover how you may connect or conflict with the creatives. This first meeting will answer many of the unknowns that are crucial in making this decision.

Hiring freelancers in place of an ad agency is a big mistake many small business owners make. 

It is only logical that if you need a logo, or a website, or a video that you would hire these people in their respective fields. The truth is that often leads to an unprofessional result.


1) Logo - Business owners hire the local printer, freelance graphic designer, or student to create their logo.


2) Business Card & Stationery Design – Then they have the local printer, or online design tools to create these items.


3) Website – Next, they usually hire a local web dude to create their site, or even explore DIY options.


This is a recipe for disaster, and I will explain why. First, when creating a brand, all brand elements need to be based on a single vision. When hiring different unrelated sources, inconsistencies and lack of quality control will give you an unprofessional result.(Professional branding services)


Second, this same group of people will probably have been hired based on price, and this usually means that they do not have the experience to deliver a result that is on par with industry standards. Again, putting your company in bad light.


Third, because the business owner is coordinating this group, he will not be able to know who to believe when receiving conflicting feedback. This often leaves the business owner confused and left to ask the opinion of unqualified people like spouses, friends, and other unqualified family members. These personal biases lack objectivity, research, and expertise in making these creative decisions.

What to expect from an ad agency

Clear Communication & Professionalism: Your ad agency should be very clear in what they intend to do, why they plan to do it, what it will cost, when it will be complete, what the process is and how things will work day-to-day. They will have standing bi-weekly or monthly meetings in addition to other creative and production meetings.


Emails and meetings will be recorded and signed off on by both the agency and the client. Every step will have a process followed by approvals. This keeps all parties on the same page.


Fresh Ideas: Ad agencies pride themselves on thinking outside of the box. Great ad agencies have new ideas and fresh approaches to old industries and markets. These creative concepts can fast-track businesses into a level of popularity they could only dream of. The creative concept is the core of every campaign.


Impeccable Creative: Whether it is a print ad, billboard, TV Commercial, or a website, the creative design and execution is top shelf. There is a reason why Super Bowl commercials have such an impact. The visuals are stunning, the audio is clear, the ideas are memorable, and the production team is on par with a Hollywood studio. The same goes for a Nike print ad. The choice of model, the photographer, the set, the lighting, the graphic design, and the messaging are perfectly executed. Nothing is left to chance, no corners are cut, and no critical expense is spared. This is the type of work a true ad agency produces.


Treat You Like Gold: Ad agencies love their clients. Once both parties agree on a budget, a monthly retainer, scope of work, and the general terms, ad agencies do everything in their power to keep their clients happy. Not only do they do their best in producing their best, but they also want their clients to feel important and appreciated. Ad agencies work late, they work hard, and they want their clients to walk around proud of the material that represents their company.


Research Based Strategies: One of the biggest differences between an advertising professional and nonprofessional is, ad agencies base all their decisions on data. They leave their personal preferences at home. Ad agencies design with the audience in mind, not with what is aesthetically pleasing to themselves. Ad agencies go to great lengths to discover what makes different audiences tick. They want to know what messaging, colors, typestyle, models, music, mediums, platforms, tone, and tempo will have the greatest impact on the audience. They also use effects and gimmicks very sparingly. Amateurs often base an entire design around an effect.


So, when you ask your agency why they made a design decision, they will probably have a data-driven answer. Conversely, when you want to make a change to a design that your agency presents, be prepared to answer the question…what are you basing these changes on? Ad agencies are known for their pushback, on clients who want to make extensive or structural design changes to any advertisement.


Be Prepared to Pay: Ad agencies are not cheap. This is probably the number one barrier between small businesses and ad agencies. Big businesses already know the value of their agency, but small businesses are usually very skeptical. It is hard for a small business to justify spending money on items that they believe they can get for a fraction of the cost.


Unlike your local coffee shop graphic designer working for a few hundred dollars a job, ad agencies can bill between $150 per hour to $600 per hour. Depending upon the scope of work and experience level of the agency, retainer based service fees can start as low as $2500 per month and go into the hundreds of thousands per month.


Ad agencies also make a 15% commission on all the media that they place. However, this is not paid by the client it is paid by the media outlet. For example, if a client buys $100,000 in TV advertising the networks will pay the ad agency 15% of that media buy. Some ad agencies will share that commission with their clients, but it is rare. This is an important profit center to most agencies. Advertising agencies also markup outside services from 35% to 65% depending upon the service. Just like any other business, costs are simply passed along to the client, they are makeup accordingly. The difference with an ad agency is, they disclose the markup.


For small business owners, they think that they can save this money by acting as the ad agency themselves. They don't realize that they have assumed that role, but they have. The saying is... you don't know what you don't know. This leads small business owners into believing that they are comparing apples to apples, when indeed they are comparing apples to oranges.

What am I really paying for with an ad agency?

BRAIN POWER. This is what you are paying for. Experience, expertise, knowledge, talent, vision, and most importantly a proven process. The process is what should be most important to you. Having a general understanding how your ad agency makes decisions will give you new insight about your company, what you have to offer, and how your market responds. Freelancers simply do not approach their work this way. A freelancer asks the client for guidance in regard to what they want, an ad agency offers guidance to client in regard to what they need.


Advertising agencies stand behind their work. You will never be left in the middle of a web project because you web developer disappeared. (that actually happens often) Ad agencies adjust and tweek along the way creating the most precise, efficient and cost effective campaigns possible.


The Takeaway

Hiring an ad agency can be one of the best investments a business owner can make. Having trusted professionals can prove to be invaluable. With a little luck, taking a risk with freelancers and nonprofessionals may seem to pay off in the short term , however, long term it will probably do more harm than good.


Salvatore Marotta

Creative and Film Director

SM Media Group

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