Adding an Agency

When it comes to competing for today's consumer, adding an advertising agency to your marketing team can be the right move. And it's not as costly as you might think.

By Dr. Ray Begovich

Ray Begovich, EdD, is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Franklin College, near Indianapolis, and is the Coordinator of Franklin's Advertising and Public Relations Program. He is the author of the new book, Writing for Results: Keys to Success for the Public Relations Writer.

Athletic Management, 14.2, February/March 2002,

Advertising is not for the squeamish.
It takes as much guts, as much precision, and as much talent to run a successful advertising campaign as it does for a quarterback to fire a pass into the midst of three defensive backs. In advertising, however, the stakes are usually much higher than the risk of an interception.
That's why intercollegiate athletics departments may call on advertising agencies for help. An ad agency can deliver the expertise and creative spark that helps athletics departments achieve their marketing goals, even when top-notch sports marketing talent is available in-house.

For example, the University of Washington, which hadn't used an agency in recent years, is using one this year. "For a long time, I thought it was cost-prohibitive to use an ad agency,"says Leslie Wurzberger, Director of Sports Marketing for the Huskies. "But if you get the right agency, it's more affordable than you think, no matter what your budget is. Outsourcing, if you do it right, helps you do more with less."

Wurzberger has found that working with an agency has benefited the sports marketing pros at Washington in several ways. The agency has given the Huskies top-quality expertise in making cost-effective media buys, strategic support for brand development, fresh creative ideas for ads, and expanded capabilities for a marketing staff that was and remains incredibly busy. The agency also has helped Washington form beneficial promotional partnerships with the agencies' other clients.

Doug Ihmels, Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs at Cal State Bakersfield, says it's easy to tell if a college or university uses an ad agency--you just check the quality of the ads. "You can see that the ads are more polished, more professional,"Ihmels says. "There's a better advertising product out there in the community."

Hiring an ad agency is not a simple, slam-dunk decision. It takes a careful analysis of costs and benefits. And it requires knowing how to choose the right agency, along with becoming familiar with the advertising profession.

But where to start?

Know What You Want
The strongest way to approach advertising is to have a precise understanding of what you want it to accomplish. The best way to do this is to set measurable objectives, stating them in clear, simple, single sentences.

Here's a good one: "Increase season ticket sales for the women's basketball team by 15 percent over last year."

Here's a bad one: "Increase awareness on campus and in the community of the women's basketball team and all its accomplishments."

The latter is fine as an advertising strategy, but it's not the ultimate objective. An objective is, to use a common colloquial phrase regarding ticket sales, "to put butts in seats."

Another measurable objective is broadcast ratings--TV and radio. Often, these kinds of objectives are a partnership venture between a university and the station or network that broadcasts a team's games.

"Softer"objectives are okay, but be aware that they are hard to measure without investing in pre- and post-campaign research. For example, the objective of introducing or enhancing a team or school "brand,"or attracting first-time attendees to non-ticketed events such as field hockey games are perfectly legitimate objectives, but not readily quantifiable.

The bottom line: Before you start researching ad agencies, know what you want. Have something measurable so that you can ultimately judge the success of the agency.

Think 'Partnership'
It's quite unlikely that someone who is highly skilled at putting together business-to-business partnership deals is also highly skilled at writing TV commercials that stop someone from flipping channels with a remote control. Or that someone who is great at market research can also design billboards so visually compelling that drivers struggle to keep their eyes on the traffic.

That's why one of the important considerations in looking for an ad agency is how the agency complements the skills, knowledge, and workload capacity of your in-house marketing operation. Maybe your sports marketing professionals are so swamped with nailing down sponsorship deals and arranging halftime promotions that they don't have time to do well-researched, strategic advertising plans. Or maybe you have a public relations office on campus that can do brilliant copywriting and designs for your ads, but there's nobody who is an expert on the intricacies of buying and placing ads to get the most bang for your buck. In other words, before you look for an ad agency to hire, examine what you do well and what you need help with.

But don't do this examination alone. A key part of hiring an ad agency is getting your sports marketing people--at all levels--involved right away in any discussions about the process. That way, you'll be getting valuable input and insights from the people who will be working directly with any agency you hire. And, just as important, by involving your marketing people in the decision-making process, you can minimize the threatened feeling that insiders can have when hotshot outsiders are brought onboard.

There hasn't been any magic potion developed to make those threatened feelings vanish--after all, it's quite legitimate for someone to feel bad if the unintended message being sent is, "You don't do a good enough job, so we're bringing in someone better."But you can minimize potential bad blood with these three tips:

Involve your staffers in all meetings with the agency.

Ensure that your staffers are involved in providing input, insights, and advice to the agency before creative work and media plans are developed.

Make it clear from the start that you want your staff to see the agency as a partner, not an adversary.

The Agency Review
The process of researching, interviewing, and selecting an advertising agency is usually referred to as an "agency review."Often, the first step in a review is for a university to develop and distribute a formal request for proposal (RFP). Your RFP should detail what you expect an agency to do for you, explain application and review procedures, point out deadlines and decision dates, and list any regulations or restrictions that apply to your situation.

Hint: Make it as easy as possible for agencies to respond to your RFP. You might lose the interest of good agencies if your RFP makes you look like a bureaucratic nightmare to work with.

RFP's are distributed in a variety of ways, often through a letter or e-mail message that says an RFP is available on a Web site or to be picked up in person. Some athletics departments require agencies to pick up RFP's at information sessions at which the project or campaign is explained. You can find agencies through the yellow pages, city directories, city or state business registration documents, agency directories (such as one published by Ad Week magazine), and through local chapters of professional organizations such as the American Advertising Federation.

Depending on your legal requirements, you may "blanket"your RFP to every agency in your area, or send it to a carefully selected list. The scope and method of your RFP distribution may be totally up to you, or it may be specified by state law or university policy.

Another common way to begin a review is simply to issue invitations to a few agencies. You select three or four agencies you think may be capable of doing the job, and, either in writing or verbally, ask them if they're interested in competing for the account. Although this avoids the consider-all-comers approach implied by a widely distributed RFP, you still need to have a formal system in place for evaluating the competing agencies.

Hint: If you use an informal invitation process, be sure to keep the playing field level. Don't ask agencies to go after the account if you've already secretly decided your favorite.

If you work at a state-supported university, state law may require you to go through a formal process of seeking bids. There's nothing wrong with that, except you're in big trouble if your state or institution requires you to choose the lowest bidder. That may work for buying fax machines, but not for buying smart, creative advertising. Find out what procedures you may have to follow when seeking professional advertising advice.

Whether you go the RFP route or the informal invitation route--or some combination of both that fits your needs--you'll get something in writing from an agency. It could range from a formal, point-by-point response to an RFP, or simply a letter of intent to apply for the job, or maybe a packet that includes a print or CD portfolio of an agency's work. Then, when you've narrowed down the applicants to a few finalists, you can ask them for more elaborate presentations on their credentials, their work samples, and their ideas about how they may approach your account.

Be sure you have enough internal people involved in the review process to get a variety of opinions. In addition to your sports marketing professionals, you should consider a coach from the teams involved, a representative from your college's PR office, and maybe a faculty member who teaches advertising or marketing. However, don't make the group so big that it's too unwieldy and indecisive

Hint: Move at the pace of the business world, not academia.

Sometimes, clients require agencies to create ads and media plans as part of the agencies' presentations. Agencies that agree to this requirement will present mock-ups of print and Web ads, and storyboards or rough, computer-generated slide shows of what TV spots may look like.

This approach will give you a good idea of what an agency may be able to do for you, but be careful before you go this route. Some agencies won't feel like creating what amounts to free ad campaign ideas for you. But a more important reason for not taking this approach is that an agency won't be able to produce its best work for you until it has you as a client and can really get to know your program, your audiences, and your organizational culture.

Hint: It's best at this stage to ask agencies for broad, speculative ideas, but not for full-blown campaigns.

Another option is to avoid the review process altogether and simply hire an agency that you have approached or that has approached you. There's nothing wrong with this, as long as you're confident you're going to be getting top-notch work at a price you can afford, and that you're complying with state regulations and institutional policies.

Making Decisions
If you do decide to go through an agency review, be sure to think of exactly what you need to assess. The following are a few, broad questions to consider when examining agencies:

Is the creative work of this agency compelling and focused on grabbing attention, holding interest, and generating action?

Does this agency have at least one full-time media-buying professional?

Can I afford this particular agency?

Can this agency provide wise advertising counsel, and not just witty headlines?

How compatible is the personality of this agency and its staff with my athletic department and its employees?

Is this agency financially stable and well managed?

Another important factor in deciding on an agency is what current and former clients think of the group. Agency Web sites often provide client lists, and a call to the marketing or public relations offices at a few of those clients is a good starting point for finding someone who has worked directly with the agency. If that person is willing to talk about the agency, you can ask about both the quality of work (research, planning, media buying, creative execution) and quality of service (timeliness, responsiveness, and cooperativeness).

What are the pros and cons of using a local agency over one with sports marketing experience? There's no hard-and-fast rule that says you should choose a local agency rather than one from out-of-town. But, a local agency is going to know your institution, your market area, and your regional media better than anyone. Plus, using a local agency minimizes travel costs, travel time, and long-distance phone charges.

An agency that has some experience in sports marketing may be able to get up to speed on your needs--and start speaking your lingo--quicker than an agency that has never had a sports client. However, you shouldn't automatically discount agencies that don't have sports experience. Agency people excel at quickly becoming experts in their clients' fields.

Money Matters
The way ad agencies are compensated for their work can seem confusing if you've never worked with them. It's less confusing once you understand the basic schemes.

One method of compensation is agency commission. The client--be it a team, an athletic department, or a marketing department at a college or university--pays for the cost of running ads in various media. This includes space in newspapers, air time on radio and television, or banners, buttons, and pop-ups on Web sites. The agency receives a commission--15 percent is common--of the total media buy.

Some clients and agencies are critical of the commission method because they say it provides an incentive for agencies to recommend more costly media buys than the client needs. While that has happened in isolated cases, the overwhelming majority of agencies don't work that way. In fact, reputable agencies work hard to formulate the smartest, most cost-effective media buys for their clients.

Rather than receiving a commission on the media buy, agencies may also be compensated on a monthly fee or retainer basis. You pay the agency a flat fee every month for a certain number of hours of service the agency provides. Those hours include account management, account planning and research, creative work, production coordination, and media buying.

Also, agencies may be compensated on a per-project basis. There's no commission or long-term contract, but you pay the agency a flat fee for a particular project--such as creating and placing ads for a short-term, one-time campaign.

Markups, although certainly not a universal practice, represent another way an agency may charge clients. In this way, agencies charge a markup (often 17.65 percent) on products or services the agency purchases and manages on behalf of the client. For example, photos and photographer fees may be marked up. Sometimes, markups are not a profit-making venture for an agency, but simply a way for an agency to cover its costs for the time involved in working with outside vendors.

Variations of the compensation methods mentioned above are plentiful. Often, agencies are compensated by a hybrid of methods. All you have to do to find out about how a particular agency gets paid by clients is ask. And don't be afraid to suggest and negotiate variations that best fit your unique needs.

Be a Good Client
You should expect not just high-quality work from your agency, but also professionalism, cordiality, flexibility, and a can-do attitude. And your agency deserves the same from you. Some tips:

Make sure you are communicating clearly, precisely, and completely with your agency. Don't assume anything is understood and can go unsaid. Trust your agency with the confidential information it needs in order to work effectively for you. And, of course, explicitly share your overall goals and measurable objectives. Don't cut your agency out of the loop.

Be a teacher for the advertising professionals at your agency. Teach them the complex world of intercollegiate athletics. Teach them the marketing history of your department. Teach them about the movers, shakers, and whiners on campus you have to deal with each day.

Avoid excessive debating and nit-picking about copy points and design elements--especially near deadlines. Constant tinkering with ads not only wastes time and money, but also can suck the enthusiasm right out of a creative team. You don't have to accept work you think is below par, but neither should you feel that you must "tame"an agency to merely do your creative bidding.

Finally, also remember that, despite the high pressure you may face to sell lots of tickets, advertising is not an all-powerful force. Even effectively created ads and hefty media buying budgets can't overcome a dismal losing season.

Who is Who?

No two advertising agencies are exactly the same in how they are structured, how they divide up their work, and how they assign job titles. However, to help you get familiar with the types of agency professionals you may be working with, here are a few common job titles and some hints for working with these advertising professionals.

Account executive. The AE is the main liaison between the client (you) and the agency. Your AE is the person you call on whenever you need to set up meetings, get questions answered, raise concerns, check on progress, and get problems solved. It's the AE's job to represent both the interests of the client and the agency so that both sides prosper. You should help your AE with achieving a goal that all AE's share: becoming an expert on the client's organization and the client's industry.

Media buyer. The purchasing of advertising space and air time is an extremely complicated task. Sure, anyone can call up a newspaper ad sales person and buy some ads. But in order to get the most strategic placement of ads in the appropriate media, at the appropriate times, and at the best price, you need the services of a full-time media buyer (also called a media planner).

Media buyers know what's hot and what's not, and they know what kinds of buys have worked in the past and what kinds have bombed. These are people whose vocabularies include words such as reach, frequency, flighting, pulsing, gross ratings points, and cost per thousand. And they're usually pretty good at explaining all the technical jargon of advertising to their clients.

Some colleges or universities may prefer to do their own creative work, and then contract with an agency that specializes in media buying. Some businesses use one agency for creative work and another for media buying.

Copywriter. The copywriter is indeed the wordsmith on the agency's creative team, but also is involved in concept development, coming up with "big ideas"that drive the creative work. Copywriters write headlines, subheads, body copy, calls to action, radio ad scripts, TV commercial scripts, billboard copy, poster copy, and even the few words that may fit into a small banner ad on the Web.

Copywriters need a great deal of self-confidence because every word they write is nit-picked to death by their colleagues and clients. So don't be rattled if you come across a copywriter who is a valiant defender of his or her words and of how those words will get the results you need. As the client, you have the final say on all copy. But if you want to dictate your advertising copy, all you need is a secretary, not an ad agency.

Art director. This person is responsible for the visual aspects of ads--in print, on TV, on the Web, on outdoor media such as billboards, or on transit media such as buses and taxicabs. An art director and copywriter usually work as a team to develop concepts for entire campaigns or specific ads, and then to actually write and design those ads.

The art director usually supervises and directs the work of still or motion picture photographers hired for photo or commercial shoots. Big decisions regarding colors, typefaces, lighting, models, clothes, mood, tone, and movement also fall on the shoulders of the art director. As a client, you should have plenty of input into how your ads look. But be sure to let your art directors have the freedom to do what you're paying them to do--come up with innovative ideas and bring those ideas to life. Those ideas will never be exactly like your ideas, nor should they be.

Creative director. An agency's creative director supervises and guides the work of copywriters and art directors. This is a management position, and the person in this job walks a tightrope every day, trying to please the client while keeping the agency's writers and designers from feeling embattled and besieged.

Ultimately, the creative director wants to ensure that all creative aspects of an ad and of a campaign are working to achieve the results the client needs. Expect the agency creative people you work with to push you and your organization to new creative heights, and even to walk you out to the edge of your comfort level. Remember this: ads must first get and hold attention before they can do anything else.

You want a creative director who listens to you, who understands your concerns, and who works to make sure the ads are in sync with your organizational culture. However, you also need that same creative director to say "no"to you sometimes, and to keep pushing you to let them create ads that break through the incredible clutter of media messages floating around out there.
-- Ray Begovich