MarkLives (@marklives) is running four extracts from New Zealand client and agency specialist Sarah Ritchie‘s second book, “How to Tango with a Tiger: a marketer’s guide to working with creative communications agencies“, over the next few weeks. Here’s the first, “Finding the right agency”.

Sarah Ritchie's How to Tango with a Tiger book coverFinding the right agency

by Sarah Ritchie. Trying to figure out which agency will be the right ‘fit’ for your company can be like trying to pick the right school for a child. You can physically go to the school and have a look around. You can meet the Principal and talk to other parents. But you won’t know if your child will be happy there until they start attending. You just have to make the best call you can at the time. Figuring out if you will like working with a particular agency is very much the same.

The best way to get intel on an agency is to talk to their current and past clients, and you can probably find the client list you are looking for on the agency’s website. An agency should also be prepared to give you contact people you could call (as referees), should you wish to check them out further.

Agencies are as different as they are numerous. If it’s not possible to get first-hand feedback, here are some tips to help decide whether an agency will be the right one for your company.

What are you looking for?

First and foremost, you are looking for a service provider. The output that an agency can supply is more important than how well you get on with the agency owner, account manager and creative team. However (and it’s a big “however”), if you don’t get on with the people you are doing business with, it’s likely to be an unpleasant arrangement, and life is too short for that! Therefore, when you are selecting an agency to work with, the services they supply are #1, with how well you gel with the team #2, following close behind.

Why are you looking for a new agency?

Are you looking to establish your first agency relationship? Has your marketing strategy changed, which means that your requirements for specific capabilities and skills have changed? Is senior management requesting that you find a new agency supplier? Does your procurement policy dictate you change agencies every few years? The reason you are looking for an agency will affect where you look, how you look, and the type of agency you need to target.

Where can you start looking?

There are various avenues that you can try to find agency suppliers within a particular speciality or field. You can approach your local marketing association for an agency list, or an association relating to areas of the creative communications industry (eg advertising, media, public relations, experiential, digital, social, etc).

You could ask colleagues in your company, or marketers within other companies, of the agencies they have used in the past, or are familiar with. Networking events could be useful in this regard as they can be an excellent place to canvass opinion.

Attending creative award events is another excellent place to get up close and personal to other marketers and their agencies. Not only are you able to talk to both marketers and agency representatives in person, but you can also see which agencies are nominated for the awards and assess the quality of their work.

Over time, you will build up an archive of agencies in your memory. You’ll pick this up from things like your personal experience, magazines that you’ve read, or industry news articles that you’ve received. It’s a good idea to keep a list of agencies and their capabilities and make a special note of any agencies that impress you or resonate with your marketing activities.

You could put the word out to the industry in the form of an RFI (request for interest) or RFP (request for proposal) to encourage interested parties to come to you. Before you do this, you need to understand what that process entails, the internal resources that you will consume from start to finish, and whether the outcome will be truly worth it.

Alternatively, you could save yourself the hassle of running an RFP and consider using a specialist third-party consultant to help you search for the right agency, such as TrinityP3 ( [or Yardstick or IAS in South Africa — ed-at-large].

Factors that will influence your decision


What short- and long-term services do you need an agency to supply; what do they excel in producing; and do the two align?

Are you looking for a ‘generalist’ agency that can work across a selection of channels with ease and provide a wide range of creative expertise under one roof? Or are you looking for a ‘specialist’ agency that has built its reputation on one or two key services?


Size is an obvious difference. Working with an agency of six people will feel chalk-and-cheese to working with an agency of 200. The two agencies will operate differently, interact differently, plus the team output capability will be vastly different.

With a small team, you’ll get to know everyone. In a large agency, you’ll likely forge a relationship with your account management team but may only rarely meet with other agency team members, and you may prefer this arms-length type of business relationship.

Large agencies are often not interested in working with small clients. There may be too much effort required for not enough money; or their process-driven, people-heavy structure is not geared to offer a cost-effective solution for smaller budgets. The converse may also be true, whereby a small agency may not be able to (or wish to) work with larger clients, though it’s easier for a small agency to resource up if required and so may be more open to having that initial conversation.

It’s important to note that the size of an agency may help you with the quantity of output or the breadth of expertise, but it is no indicator of the quality of work that you could receive.


Who owns the agency? An ‘independent’ (indie) agency is privately owned, and the founder/owner of the agency typically works in the business day-to-day. A small-to-medium sized team run by a managing director will have a different vibe to a network agency run by someone who may or may not be personally invested in the business outcomes of the agency.

A network agency is part of a wider ‘group’ of agencies. They are often large (although sometimes there are smaller agencies within the group) and the group will have multiple offices, both in your own country and internationally.

If your company is a multinational, it’s highly likely that you will be required to use specific agencies that your off-shore-based head office selected under a globally negotiated deal. These agencies will likely be part of a network group.

An owner-operator agency will be able to make decisions quickly, whilst a network (or board-controlled agency) will likely be bound by red tape, processes, and consultation requirements (but the results may be more robust).


‘Design agency’ vs ‘independent agency’ vs ‘advertising agency’ vs ‘1-to-1 agency’. Understanding labels, such as these, will help you to understand the services an agency offers. You’ll also get a feeling about the size of the company, and maybe also catch a glimpse of the ethos of the agency.


The culture of an agency will flow from the top down. The values, personalities and business decisions of the agency’s directors/owners will permeate throughout the whole company.

You will often be able to see the outworking of a company’s culture through their website. Have a look at the list of clients — are they corporates, SMEs, or startups? Are they sporting codes, events, high-profile retail or charities? Are they clients known for being edgy or predictable?

What type of work does the agency produce? Does it align with your values, or is the work pushing the boundaries of your ethical, moral or religious comfort zone? The clients and work produced will be a good reflection of those running the agency and the company culture.


You probably have more than one agency partner. If you require your agencies to collaborate together, will your new agency work well with other agencies in your roster? Is there any crossover of services that could create a competitive clash? Getting the chemistry right and defining boundaries across your agency roster is crucial in ensuring you are not just exchanging one problem for another.

Price and quality

Knowing for sure whether an agency’s pricing structure will fit within your budget will only happen after you have started dialoguing with them, and asking them to quote on projects. When you are in the phase of checking out possible agencies, you won’t know for sure whether an agency will be in your budget-ballpark or not, or whether you would receive good quality work, but there are ways to take an educated guess.

One way is to go back to the agency’s website. Are there clients listed that are of a similar size and type as yours? Is the type of work that they show similar to what you require? Do you like the quality of the work you see? Do they seem project-based or campaign-based? Does the agency seem large or small (the number of staff an agency has can sometimes be an indicator of pricing level)?

The price will ultimately determine whether or not you can afford to use a particular agency (or whether an agency can work within your budget), and so price becomes a pivotal part of the agency selection process.

Relationship type

Are you looking for an agency to be a real ‘business partner’ for your company — one that will treat your business and marketing objectives like their own? Or are you looking for a ‘production partner’ — one that is happy to work on an order-in-deliverable-out basis? Neither is right or wrong depending on your requirements and their service offering. You can usually find out an agency’s strengths by asking relevant questions and astutely interpreting the answers.

The emotional side of agency selection

Do you think you are remaining impartial, unbiased, and unemotional when you select your agency? Think again.

Choosing a production supplier — order in, product or service out — can be a clinical B2B (business-to-business) decision based on quality, price and reputation. However, choosing a business partner needs to go deeper and have a measure of emotion involved.

If you look around at a selection of creative communication suppliers and their clients, you may begin to notice something interesting. Whether the supplier is a one-man-band or a large group, the personality of the agency will most often align with the personality of the client. For example, if the client (as a whole, or the marketer specifically) is a conservative believer in traditional communication, then they will not (no matter how hard an agency tries to convince them otherwise) end up with a push-the-boundaries agency. Similarly, an excited, boot-strapping startup will feel constrained working with an agency that is not as nimble-minded as they are.

That is why you should base your choice of agency on more than just the size, charge-out rates, quality of work, or the channels that it offers — that’s the ‘procurement’ side of the process. You also need to gel with the people within the agency — especially the agency owner or manager, and the account manager with whom you’ll be working most closely. You need to understand an agency’s history and values to see if your client/agency synergy will work. If that doesn’t click, move on — dealing with ongoing clashes in personality or ethos isn’t worth the hassle.

See also


Sarah RitchieNew Zealander Sarah Ritchie, founder of and author of award-winning “How to Wrestle an Octopus”, shares her wealth of experience from a 25-year career in advertising and design agencies, as well as insights from over 1 100 interviews with marketing and advertising professionals from 30 different countries, in her second book, “How to Tango with a Tiger: a marketer’s guide to working with creative communications agencies“, available now on Amazon. “Extracts” is a MarkLives column featuring excerpts from books and research relevant to advertising, marketing and related industries.

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