Shopping for a branding agency? Ask about their strategic direction.

January 28, 2013
Angi Krueger Vice President, Marketing/Business Development

If you’re a CMO or marketing director, chances are at some point in your career you’ve been put in the position of helping find an agency partner to help grow your marketing efforts and strengthen your brand.

Whether you decide to go the traditional route and issue an RFI (Request for Information), do research on your own, or rely on referrals from colleagues to find the right agency, you typically narrow down your top choices to a select few – and the interview process begins. How that process unfolds varies, but when it comes time to ask specific questions about the agency, you need to think beyond the basics.

What do I mean by “basic” questions?

These are the ones that “qualify” the agency’s credibility, that show they know their stuff. History, facts, financials, client list, bios, ownership, org charts, recent clients won and lost, relevant experience, creative work samples, and of course – case studies that show results.

But when you think about it, all of those questions focus on the past. What the agency has done.


“…you’re not hiring an agency’s past, you’re hiring its future.”


It would be safe to assume choosing an agency that produces great results – especially in the area of expertise you’re looking for – would do the same for you. There are a lot of very talented agencies out there that produce very high-quality work and produce excellent results. But then again, that kind of stuff is “table stakes”. Of course you expect that – that’s one of the main reasons you’re in the process of hiring one! Sure, one agency might stand out from another because they have sexier creative, or be more results-driven, or be more tech-savvy than the others. But how do you really know what the right choice is? Do you rate with a scorecard? Go with your gut feeling? Or just make it easy on yourself and flip a coin (if it were only that easy, right)?

However if you think about it, you’re not hiring the agency’s past. You’re hiring its future.

This thought has often crossed my mind, and recently I came across a blog post written by agency new business consultant, Michael Gass (@MichaelGass), where he referenced Edward Boches (@EdwardBoches), a Professor of the Practice at Boston University’s College of Communications and the Chief Creative Officer for the Mullen agency. In his post he cites Boches in his suggestions for “5 Questions Every CMO Should Ask A Prospective Ad Agency”.

In my opinion, Boches nails five very important questions you should be asking your prospective agency:

  1. What is the future of advertising?
  2. What are you doing to assure your survival?
  3. What are your criteria for hiring people?
  4. What is your definition of a creative team?
  5. What are five recent creative ideas that aren’t ads?

In the future, I will explore these questions, and answer them from Core’s perspective. But one question that wasn’t on this list is an important one that I’d like to add, and will answer now:

“What is the strategic direction for your agency?”

There are a lot of “hidden” questions behind this one, but what I like about it is that it can really bring to light the leadership and management behind the agency and find out if they have the ability to BE the brand they say they can help develop for their clients. At the same time you can get a “sneak peek” into what the future might look like working with them, and how strategic they will be for you.

At Core, I’m proud to be part of our leadership team – a team of partners and directors that help set, lead and drive the agency’s vision and mission. In my previous blog post, The New Core Creative, I referenced that mission – which is to be “the best at the business of creative.” And our vision, which is to help our clients discover and define their purpose – then help them “say it and live it” to create brand alignment. This mission and vision sets the strategic direction for our agency’s future and serves as a foundation in which we make business decisions that will help further benefit our clients.

This mission and vision are more than just statements on an internal document that someone sees when they are hired. They are part of our overall brand – the lens we look through to not only project who we are on the outside, but also to drive who we are on the inside. It provides guidance to truly help determine not only what we do, or how we do it – but WHY we do what we do. Our purpose is to help clients find and express their purpose.

As simple as this may sound, it’s a difficult exercise to go through – and it’s extremely important to make sure it’s RIGHT. It’s something we have a passion for, and part of what we do to help our clients make their brand the strongest asset they have.

So, if you were to ask me, “What is the strategic direction for your agency?” I would briefly describe the heart of our brand message and some relevant decisions we have made to directly impact how working with Core is only going to get better. For example, in 2013 our focus lies on training and developing our people both digitally and in brand strategy, generating even more thought leadership in branding inside and out, and providing more proprietary digital tools that support companies in their sales and branding efforts.

Why does knowing all of this matter if you’re shopping for a branding agency? Edward Boches said it best, “…you’re not hiring an agency’s past, you’re hiring its future.”

What other questions would you like to add to this list? I’d love to hear them.


Angi Krueger is Core’s Vice President of marketing and business development. After many years working as an art director, she is instrumental in developing the strategic direction for both our clients and ourselves.



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