How to prepare for your first ad agency meeting as a small business client

We had a potential client come in to meet with us today. The meeting wasn’t very productive because we failed to give them a preparation checklist. Our mistake is your gain, because here is a primer for how a small business can get the most out of an ad agency interview.

Picking an advertising agency isn’t like a date, it’s more like a marriage, only the divorce can be much less painful if you plan properly. But, talking about ending the relationship before we start is not a great place to begin- or is it?

Think about your goals in this relationship? When you go into meet with an agency- are you looking for a quick fix to a business problem, or a long term partnership to build your business. We can tell you some stories about quick fixes, but, if this is what you are looking for- let the agency know in advance. The best advertising usually doesn’t come on the first attempt- or even in the first year. It takes time for the agency to learn your business- and for your business to find the right brand voice. Here are some quick things to think about when it comes to prepping for that first meeting:

Who is your competition- and what do they sound like? Bring a list of who you believe to be your competition- and samples of their advertising. Be prepared to discuss what you like or don’t like in their ads.

What makes your company different? Can you make a list of what you do differently than your competition? Can you share some client testimonials or case studies on successes that you’ve had? Differentiation is one of the most powerful tools in marketing. Think about how brands like Harley Davidson or Apple stand out from their competition. Now think about your company- is there a clear differentiation? Is this something you want the agency to help identify or amplify?

What advertising have you done already? Did it work? Do you know how you get the customers you have now? Or if you are a start-up, how do you think you’ll build a customer base? It’s not like “Field of Dreams” -build it and they will come. Please bring all the examples you have of what you’ve done- from brochures to business cards to media buys. This is the first step in establishing the foundation of the relationship.

Are there companies you would like to emulate? Do you have samples of their ads, branding etc? Mostly- this is helpful for the discussion between an agency and a start-up, but, there may be someone who wants to be the Apple of the medical devices industry for instance, where good design and ease of use are critical to their differentiation.

Know why you are meeting with that agency as opposed to the others. There are a lot of agencies out there, all of them quite different. Finding the right one for your business has to do with the size of your agency- and the size of your budget (it’s sad but true). If you are going to be a small, niche, local business- going to a global agency is probably not going to work out. Make sure you research the agency, their work, their client list- and know why you are sitting in their conference room. Don’t be shy- tell them why you like them- and even who else you plan on talking to. Advertising is a pretty small, incestuous community- more than likely, they can guess who else you’ve been talking to- and can probably recommend who you should talk to next.

Never try to cherry pick: Although it may sound like a way to save money, cherry picking some work from one agency and other stuff from another is like being a polygamist. Find a partner who can deliver on most of your needs- and then stick with them. We have a client who thinks that having one company do her graphic design, another do her web development a third do her ads and then tries to buy her printing herself is a great way to save money. What ends up happening is she spends too much time with all her vendors to get the best out of any of them.

Have clear goals for the meeting: know your budget, and what your expectations are. That way, both sides can see right away if it’s going to be mutually beneficial to work together. The last thing you want is to be a client that isn’t worth the agencies time- because you’ll get shuffled off behind other clients if you can’t pay your bills on time, or have realistic ideas about how fast the creative work will work.

Who will own the work. This is the divorce part, and sometimes pre-nups are really good to get out of the way. Many small businesses will need all kinds of print work done- from invoices to brochures. The cost of recreating the files can be prohibitive, so it may be good to stipulate up front, what will belong to you and to the agency. If you make TV spots- who will own the raw footage? Answering these questions now- can save a lot of money at the end.

Lastly- know how much time the agency is willing to donate to this first date, or if you are expected to pay for your consultation. With small budgets, it may be best to ask first how much an hour of the agency’s time is- and be willing to pay for it, you may get some of the best ideas from agencies that won’t let you hire them, but feel indebted to you and share some great thinking.

Remember, one great idea can transform a business. For Nike it was “Just do it”- for Apple it was the idea of a portable mp3 player with a new interface and an integrated music library. In your search for growing your business- remember to keep an open mind on how best to take it to market, and ask the best minds in the business for their ideas. It only takes one really good idea to make you more money than you pay the agency.