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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

How to find your perfect advertising agency

Updated: Jan 4

Finding the right agency partner for you and building a strong working relationship with them is one of the most important parts of delivering effective creative that can drive your next stage of profitable growth.


For a scale-up, you might be embarking on a relationship with an external creative agency for the very first time. You’ve made great progress building your business so far with a smart and talented internal team but you’ve decided you need external help, extra resource and expertise for the next phase of your growth.


How do you find the right partner? How do establish a strong working relationship that will last and deliver effective advertising year in, year out?


For the first article in my series on Delivering Creative Effectiveness, I spoke to Gill Huber, Managing Partner at Oystercatchers, an industry-leading intermediary consultancy in the UK, on how scale-ups can ensure that they have the best chance of finding the best creative agency partner for them and build a successful working relationship that delivers the goods!

So Gill, thanks for joining. Could you just start by telling me about your career highlights so far and what you do today at Oystercatchers?

 "It's about the right people, the right process and the right ways of working, whatever that may be, that makes the most successful agency-client partnerships."

Currently, I am Managing Partner at Oystercatchers which is an intermediary focussed on accelerating marketing performance for clients and agencies, and we do this in a variety of ways. Primarily, what we're known for is helping clients find their perfect agency partners by working with them to understand their criteria, on landscaping suitable partners and we run every aspect of the pitch process. We also often find ourselves talking to clients about their internal structures and skillsets. We help them become better clients, help them brief better, help them manage their stakeholders, help them with commercial acumen as well.


Our fundamental belief at Oystercatchers is that it's about the right people, the right process and the right ways of working, whatever that may be, that makes the most successful agency-client partnerships. And a lot of the people we work with have had developed partnerships that have lasted over 10 years as well.


My 25-plus year career has been primarily working on agency side, a lot of that in media agencies. I’ve worked with three out of the big four networks, managing client business, which is where we worked together when you were at Heineken, Lucas. I’ve worked with lots of really different clients - big, and small, digital-native clients or more traditional brands, and therefore worked with lots of different kinds of agencies and different kinds of working models, which is ideal for what I do now.


More latterly, in Starcom MediaVest Group I was promoted to be the Marketing Director, working with staff from the UK and globally to understand our role within the industry and the client ecosystem. I then moved over to Posterscope to take on that role and then again, had that role promoted and expanded to become Chief Client Officer. Posterscope as an Out of Home (outdoor advertising) specialist is really interesting because it works with agencies, but also works with clients such as BT who want to work with an Out Of Home specialist directly.


Great. This conversation is all about scale-ups, so businesses that are potentially appointing an agency for the first time in their lifetime. I wanted to start by asking, why should a scale-up even hire an agency rather than just use the internal creative teams that they've probably been using up until that point?

"As a scale-up, if you want to make a step change in terms of your brand, often that's when people come to us to help work out who the right agency partners are for you to go on that journey with both now and, ideally, for the next five to 10 years."

The rules that apply, whether you're an established, very experienced advertiser or a scale-up is about understanding what your requirements are, and what your business is missing. What resource do you need? What support do you need? What is the job you're looking for your advertising or marketing to do? At Oystercatchers we spend a lot of time with our clients before a pitch is even decided on. Sometimes, in the time we spend together we might actually agree that their existing relationships are absolutely the right ones, but how they're set up needs to change. So, it's understanding what their needs are; what the team structure is like internally; what the team experience is like; what the gaps are and what the businesses want to achieve. Scale-ups might well want to move into working with agency partners because they don't have an internal creative team or only a very limited one. Or they want to use the specific expertise of a particular agency or particular group of agencies.


It's about spending a bit of time really understanding what it is you need; what you want; what your budgets are; how you want to be set up. There's not a one-size-fits-all model: some people will need retainers, some people have investments, some will want people to work on certain projects and then come away. So, with Oystercatchers it's not “the answer is a pitch, now what's the question?” It's about what are you trying to do with your marketing and how do you want to accelerate that? And as a scale-up, if you want to make a step change in terms of your brand, often that's when people come to us to help work out who the right agency partners are for you to go on that journey with both now and, ideally, for the next five to 10 years.


And how is that process different for scale-ups that you’ve worked with when you’re to helping them find their first creative agency partner?

I think where we find scale-up examples it has been because they want to make that step-change, they want to build their brand. They’ve been successful, but they now need to continue to nurture their existing audience while reaching that bigger audience. What’s really positive is a lot of these scale-ups tend to have quite small teams, so being able to make decisions and move forward, you've got a core team that you work with to get to decisions much more quickly, and then find those partners. Scale-ups also usually appreciate that senior relationship with an agency who will go on that journey with them and help them build their brand up.


And are there specific challenges that scale-ups face when they're looking for their first creative agency that's different to more established advertisers?

I think it’s about understanding and being clear about what it is you want and need from your agency and having established ways of briefing and interacting with them, to ensure you have a structure that means both of you are set up for success. You need to be clear on the rules of engagement and what availability you have for that relationship with your agency. What you don't want to find is that you get into a partnership with a brand or agency and lack that clarity because it things weren’t outlined upfront. And finally, you need to make the agency partner really clear about your expectations: how you want to work, how fast you need to work, what your goals are, and being really open on both sides about the business requirements as well.


Fantastic. So what I'd love to hear are your top three tips for any scale-ups looking to appoint their first agency.

Firstly, you definitely want to do is ensure that your agency aligns to your values as a brand and consider that cultural fit. You don't all have to be the same people, but you want to work with partners who are experts in their own fields, and you’re an expert in your field and you have mutual respect for each other. But you might want to make sure that if you, as a scale-up, have a smaller, more nimble team, that the agency partner needs to really be able to understand that's how you work and be able to work with it and demonstrate that they can work in that way. You don't want to be waylaid by lots of unnecessary processes that don’t work. That’s not to say that process is wrong, it's just being really clear on what your process needs to be, which is why it’s important for scale-ups to establish ways of working and make sure everyone is clear on roles and responsibilities from the outset. In terms of flexibility, you're going to want to expand and grow and move quite quickly so you need to have an agency who can show that and adapt to what you need as your priorities change.


A lot of this is in the setup. As the client, you need to take the lead on ensuring that your agency is fully embedded into your brand, your culture. Make sure they really understand the challenges before the beginning of the relationship. It's about making sure you're onboarding your agency as much as them understanding you so that they can be a successful extension of your brand team.


The second tip is that you need to trust their expertise. It’s not just about delivering a great campaign: you will probably want them to consult, understand the broader marketing capabilities, stress test ideas, etc. You want to work closely with them and you need to trust them and trust that you both are experts in your field.


And finally, my third tip: I would always be thinking of is how do they work with other agency partners, because what you want is everyone to know their roles and responsibilities. Nowadays the lines are probably more blurred but everyone needs to work together because you're going to be really busy trying to grow a brand. By making sure that your agency partners match your culture, understand your work and understand your need, you're more likely to have agencies that fit and can work well with each other. I would definitely want them to show that as part of the pitch process and make you confident that everyone can work together.


Thanks very much. And what would be one mistake to avoid if you're a scale-up?

"You need to be sure about the team. Do I like them? Do they listen to me? If we disagree, can they take on board what I'm saying and build on it?"

I'd say not spending the time to meet the people or have working meetings with them. We will be quite clear with a client going into a pitch process that it does take time resource on the client side. Yes, the agencies are having to do a lot of work, but we will always point out the meetings, the preparation, and what you need to do as a client. It's not really onerous, but it is on top of your day job, which we know and appreciate is quite busy.

What we will try and do is make those meetings as workshop-y and as face-to-face as possible so you get a real feel of what's it like to work with this agency. Not just having a sit back and be presented to. Most of the meetings should be leaning forward, roll your sleeves up and work with each other. Because the mistake is if you just see a beautiful presentation and a ‘tada!’ moment - which is what we at Oystercatchers always try to avoid – you’ll be sold on that one idea rather than the team. You need to be sure about the team. Do I like them? Do they listen to me? If we disagree, can they take on board what I'm saying and build on it? That's more important than just falling in love with a one-off idea because you need to say: how would you feel about working with them on a rainy day in February when things aren’t going brilliantly in your business? Are these the people I want to come and see? And the other mistake to avoid I would say, is make sure you're meeting the people who are going to work on your business. Yes, you need to see the senior people to understand the culture - and different agencies will have different people involved - but who’s the person I'm going to speak to day-to-day and who's the person I can pick up the phone to? That's why we will always try to organise as many face-to-face meetings to get a feel for the real working relationships.


And the time invested in that whole process is entirely worthwhile, right?

Absolutely. Because this is an investment of your time and their time and you're hoping this will be a long-term relationship. So upfront, getting all of that means you can really go in and think: I like the Account Manager, I like the Planner. Yes, we had a meeting where we disagreed on a few things but they came back a week later with something different. Because that's real life. You're not always going to buy every idea the first time you hear it.


Absolutely. Well, thanks, Gill. That was very helpful and very useful. Thanks for your time.

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