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  • Writer's pictureSteve Fairhurst

How to choose a good advertising agency

I’m going to tell you how to pick a good advertising agency. You can also apply this logic to other types of agency: Design, Digital, etc.

I’ve been working in and running marketing agencies since 1989. That’s 30 years. That’s more than most people serve in jail for murder. ‘New business development’ is the bit that always caused the heartache.

In my original job I saw countless New Business Directors come and go. They would never deliver, just bamboozle the studio with requests for pitch boards. Hours of magic marker visuals, cutting foamboard, spray mounting and covering. No work, just pitches.

The worst it ever got was when my boss called me late one evening and stated “You have a life raft that’ll hold 6 people. You’ve got 12 people in the water. Who do you want in your life raft?”

What that actually meant was that 6 people in the studio would have to go. As Creative Director, I would have to decide who that was. Shit like that is not what I signed up for. A horrible time.

Nowadays I dislike new business endeavours as I feel it should be a no-brainer to work with us. Our case studies say it better than I could ever write it. I’m ill at ease networking, I’m rubbish at golf and apart from the actual presentation itself, I’m not great at it. Luckily I’m lucky, which helps.

I genuinely lie awake at night wondering how people choose agencies and experience tells me that it boils down to one thing. But companies I speak to frequently tell me a whole host of other criteria that matter.

So without further ado, here is a list of what is important and what is not.

What is important


Pure and simple – you want to be making money not spending money. You want a return on your investment. That alone is all that matters. The ability to consistently deliver commercially viable results.

What is not important


I hear this a lot. It doesn’t matter a bit where the agency is based in terms of results. It might be the case that a large opulent City of London agency is going to be more expensive, but again that shouldn’t matter if they are doing their job.


OK I’m going to be controversial here – the majority of awards for ‘creativity’ are no guarantee of results. You only win awards for 'being left field'.

You see sometimes marketing is too clever. I think this ad for Chilly’s Water Bottles is a great example.

I remembered the ad – I laughed hard at the ad – but I could never remember the product. It was totally eclipsed by the creative.

Sector experience

Here’s the problem with placing importance on sector experience: We work with Heineken. If we stopped working for them and started working for AB Inbev there would have to be a prolonged period of ‘on-boarding’.

That is to say we would have to learn the way they like to work – how they do things, software platforms, protocols. No two companies are ever the same.

We’ve worked on some wildly diverse sectors and never had a problem getting results. It’s the ability to learn and act with supreme agility that should be the prized attribute, not sector experience.

Dominic Cummings notes in his blog:

When Warren Buffett needed someone to turn around his insurance business he did not hire someone with experience in insurance: “When Ajit entered Berkshire’s office on a Saturday in 1986, he did not have a day’s experience in the insurance business.” (Buffett).

Elaborate reception areas with pick n mix counters and inspirational neon signs

Come on – really? To me it demonstrates two things:

1. They’re charging too much.

2. They’re trying too hard.

I concede that some people will find a drum kit in the open plan area inspirational, but if you got on it and really dug in, there would be cardiac arrests. So there you have it – all that matters is the results. Simple as that.

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