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What you really need to know about hiring an ad agency

Picking the right team to steward your brand is a notoriously fraught task. There’s no science, so embrace the art

Creative agency people standing around a whiteboard

(Thomas Barwick/Getty)

Some facts really are too good to check. The dusty bit of apocrypha I’m thinking of right now goes like this: U2—by this time one of the biggest bands in rock—are in a studio recording an album. Bono stops in the middle of a take and frets aloud that the track sounds too much like U2. The Edge, bored with the strutting frontman’s hand-wringing, snorts, “We are f-cking U2.” It’s a great parable about the inevitability of branding, but it contains a more literal truth every marketer eventually faces: The better creative people get, the less able they are to serve any brand but their own.

Sooner or later, every successful company confronts the dilemma of hiring an ad agency (for the purpose of this screed, we’ll use that term to describe marketing services companies of all stripes, such as creative ad shops, digital agencies, PR firms—the whole hairball). It’s not an easy decision. Sure, advertising people are a fun tribe, and the best ones are indelibly inspiring to be around. But if you’re a marketer, choosing one is still the most terrifying act of faith your business will ever commit. You are, after all, about to empower total strangers to spend a lot of your money saying something about you to the world. Something not easily unsaid, and something for which you—not they—will be held responsible. Launching your first ad campaign can feel like sending somebody else on your first date.

The natural reaction to so much risk is to manage it, of course. An all-too-common approach to agency selection is the slightly evil practice of asking candidates for speculative creative work. This way, all you have to choose is an idea, which seems safer if you ignore the question of what kind of people would give their work away for free. Or, for that matter, how anyone could solve your business problem without talking to you first. But even the most diligent and respectful attempts to take the guesswork out of agency selection often fall short, because you can’t deconstruct chemistry. And chemistry, more than anybody wants to admit—including most people in the agency business—is almost all that matters.

The reason for this is something the industry has never wanted you to know: Ad agencies function pretty much the way bands do. They’re not management consultants burnishing a proven process with interchangeable MBAs reading from scripts, though some holding companies might wish it were otherwise. Ad agencies, especially the best ones, are freak collisions of talent and personality. Some are one-hit wonders that collect their trophies and evaporate; some churn out chart-toppers for years. But very few manage to transform their chemistry into a scalable culture. And none I can think of has ever managed to turn what they do into a bona fide system.

That means who you see is what you get. I’ve forgotten more ads than most people will endure in their lifetimes, yet the first agency search I ever observed is still etched in my memory for what its characters revealed. From the CEO of a Texas-based shop who sent his regards to the selection committee via video from his yacht, to the mesmerizing story spun by a strategist from New York using nothing but a Sharpie and a pad of paper, there was never really any doubt about what these teams would be like to work with. It was written all over them. All you had to do was watch and listen.

The fact is, if all that mattered was the quality of an agency’s work, you could get one on Amazon. The capacity to generate ideas, aside from being more prevalent than you’d think, is easy to verify. But that’s not really what you’re buying. When you’re looking across a boardroom table at whatever collection of rumpled dreamers and smug hipsters made it this far, fall in love with who they are together, not what you think you as a business leader can make them do. If they’re any good, you won’t be able to control them. And if you can control them, they probably aren’t much good. They’re going to be a constant in your marketing, not a variable, so you’d better like the music.