How to Choose an Ad Agency

Illustration of silhouetted figures spinning a wheel of chance

More Than Just an Agency

A good ad agency should be a friend you can depend on to be there when you need them, and ultimately, a friend who cares.

Obviously, this is predicated on a relationship in which everyone benefits and respect is mutual. This describes the best-case scenario for a working relationship with a partner. The reason I think of it this way is because of how the service offerings at Swash Labs differ from most other shops — both in function and philosophy.

Our model is similar to what you would find at a big global shop, and that’s by design. For years, digital advertising for small business has been plagued by the “package price” structure, in which a small business owner pays some set fee and they get a predetermined Lunchable of services.

The Problem with One-Size-Fits-All Advertising

You may have encountered this with Pay-Per-Click (PPC) marketing firms, in which the client pays, say, $1,000 per month, and the PPC shop sends them an email once month with a one page report that essentially says, “You got this many clicks.” This method almost always requires some secondary yellow pages-style platform (which is a bad signal split) or even a second website (which is worse).

Usually, this type of service is also light on transparency, and savvy business owners caught up in something like this might find themselves asking...

  • How or where was this media buy made?

  • What was the audience? Did I — business owner — convert any of these calls?

  • Are you — shady advertising company — also doing this very same thing for my competitors?

  • Do I own the new website you built? What about the branded domain name?

  • How much of what I paid you actually went to the media buy? 😕

It isn’t always the case, but these questions often go unanswered.

I can speak to these methods because Swash Labs is often charged with untangling the mess these shops have made of a small business’ digital presence. Extra websites, weird off-platform listings, and duplicated content all make the internet robots mad. If you’ve read our other blogs, you know that is the last thing a small business wants to do.

The model offered by most of these shops is done out of necessity. Their offering has to scale, and so they must have a ton of clients in order to make money. Ergo, selling An Advertising™ – one package that has to be one-size-fits-all – is what results. The byproducts of this process are service degradation, lower quality, and waste.

The Alternative

In the old days, advertising agencies did not have a one-size-fits-all package, and services would generally scale with the size of the buy, because the old agencies were generally paid a percentage of the total media buy. This meant that small businesses could not hire big advertising agencies (and thereby gain access to their considerable capabilities) because they did not have a media budget big enough for the agency to make money. Some agencies still operate this way, especially for cable TV and terrestrial radio.

Building a custom plan for each client was the best part of the old system, so Swash Labs took that and combined it with the possibilities provided by how comparably cost-effective digital advertising can be. That means that when someone wants to hire Swash Labs, I can’t tell them a price right away, because it depends. It always depends. And based on how modern digital communications works, it should.

It also means that when a client has a problem, Swash Labs can help. This is because we don’t just do 1-4 specific things at scale with a limited tool set. We’re problem solvers and creative thinkers and strategists and artists and scientists, and the best tools we have in the bag are our big brains. A shop with a narrow offering has no incentive to help with anything else because it can only end badly: getting out of their lane will increase their costs and risk and reduce the productivity of the rest of their system. It is not rational for them to adapt outside of their specialization.

Opt For Transparency, and a Plan That Suits You

Since every business is different, I have yet to find an instance in which this kind of one-sized package service is the best way for a small business to market themselves. At the very least, you should be able to see what is special about your business reflected in the plan and the communications used to promote it.

You should choose an ad agency that presents themselves and what they can do – and will be candid about what digital advertising can do, and how fast it can happen – in a transparent way. Ideally, you should choose an ad agency that will fit a plan to your business and goals and hopes and dreams, and not make you fit those to what they have to offer.

Josh Berthume