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Choosing an Ad Agency

The ins and outs of working with an agency.

Howard Fox




Size counts

Size does count. This is particularly true with regards to choosing the right advertising agency for your business. It is critical that you match the prospective size of your advertising account with the size of advertising agency to get an ideal match for your business. Select an agency which is too large for your account and from my experience (irrespective of the assurances of the MD and creative director during your courtship), your account simply won’t receive the attention you think it deserves. Choose an agency that is too small and they won’t have the resources to fulfil your marketing needs, especially when up against tight deadlines.

How big then, is ‘big’?

Unless you are managing director of a large telco, financial institution or Unilever, accept that your account just isn’t that big. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a number of ad agencies out there that would be very happy to have your account. And size isn’t everything. Some advertising accounts are more attractive than others. Nando’s, because its management is brave with regards to advertising and because the brand is based on irreverence, is a much sought-after account. It is the sort of account which wins agencies awards and which punches above its weight on impact. This is why you will find even larger agencies take on (and carefully look after) smaller, even pro bono accounts.

Full-service or specialist?

Larger agencies are more inclined to be ‘full service’ (I will skip the all too obvious innuendo here). This means they have teams or associate companies throughout the spectrum of marketing needs. Most agencies such as this have for instance, activation, public relations and digital teams within the group, and which can be brought on board as required. The obvious advantage is the simplicity of working with a single client service team and consistency of execution. The difficulty is that it is difficult for even the most prestigious agency to be best of breed across all the sub-disciplines that make up advertising in its broadest sense. This is especially true in new, dynamic specialisations such as digital marketing, where ridiculously young gurus start up small but impressive agencies all the time.

If, because of your marketing strategy needs or the sad reality of the size of your budget, you intend focusing on a single form of marketing execution, you are probably best off with such a specialised agency.

Er, so what exactly do advertising agencies do?

Less than you may think. Let’s start with what they don’t do. They don’t do marketing research. If there are fundamental questions regarding the market, you will need the services of a separate research agency. They don’t decide where to place your ads. This is done by a media agency – although ad agencies would normally have a relationship with a media agency if you don’t have one.

Ad agencies don’t own TV ad production facilities or recording studios. If your agency creates a radio ad they will buy in the services of an outside recording facility. The same holds true for TV ads – having developed the concept and detailed storyboard of each scene, the agency will then find a specialised director and suitable production company to create the final ad material.

What they do do, is create a communications strategy from your marketing strategy and create campaign concepts and specifics of each subsequent ad, such as copy writing. Most print advertising production is done in-house by the agency, except for bespoke photography or specialised illustrations. And when it’s all approved by you, the client, the agency distributes the digital files to the respective radio, television or print media. What they shouldn’t be doing is dictating your marketing strategy – that’s your or your marketing director’s job.

I found an agency I like but they won’t take my money!

Like any relationship, both parties have to agree to the union. Advertising agencies, for traditional as well as obvious confidentiality and ethical reasons, don’t take competing companies as clients. For a number of, especially large, agencies they may well have a similar client to your company (unless you are The Association of Left Handed Basket Weavers, who have no competitors).  Unless it is in their interest to fire their current client (yes, it does happen), they are likely to politely eschew your advances.


Association of Communication and Advertising – representing South Africa’s advertising and communication professionals:

For a listing of ad agencies in South Africa:

Marketing Association of South Africa (Chartered Marketers):

Howard Fox is the marketing director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He has 25 years’ marketing experience. Having started his career as a professional photographer, his experience ranges from marketing commodity chemicals through financial services, to advertising. He is a Chartered Marketer (SA) and sits on the board of the Marketing Association of South Africa. Howard holds a Masters degree in Marketing and an MBA. Linked In: Twitter: Blog:

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Consumers Don’t Have An Attention Problem. It’s Just That Your Advertising Isn’t Very Good

With so much media available to consume, quality matters more than ever for ads.

Brendan Gahan




If a brand releases an ad and no one sees it, is it still called “advertising”?

People have more tools than ever before to skip out on ads entirely. More than three-fourths of the people in North America engage in automated ad-blocking, and 10 percent of them block ads across four kinds of media or more, according to Deloitte. Much like the question of trees falling in forests, what good is a brand’s message at a time when people generally don’t want to hear its sound?

Ad units are shrinking in the wake of ad-blocking technology, but human attention span remains unchanged. Today’s consumers are surely more distracted than any previous generation, so they guard their attention spans more mercilessly. When advertisers can successfully command that attention for a minute or two, it means the consumer is watching an ad for the same reason he or she binge-watches Stranger Things on Netflix: The ad has managed to present itself as relevant or vital to the viewer. It wins every time.

Just 10 years ago, Gillette dominated the razor blade market. Its ads were comfortable, predictable 30-second units that reminded everyone of something they already knew: You need razor blades on the regular, so you might as well buy Gillette.

Related: Advertising Consulting Business Plan

But, the market had to reorganise itself with the appearance of Dollar Shave Club and its distinctly off-the-wall messaging. The notorious startup used quirky 90-second ads to spread its word online, presenting itself as unignorable by comparison to the competition. Even though we live in a time when people can skip ads, block ads and avoid ads, Dollar Shave Club’s marketing won major viral attention. It didn’t exactly kill Gillette’s Goliath, but it sure made Goliath sweat.

The lesson here is that people don’t hate all ads, they just hate the crappy ones. The bar for perceived quality in advertising is so low these days that many choose not to engage with anything on principle alone. People even close web pages they want to visit when the page auto-plays a video ad. When job number one of the advertiser is to interest consumers, it’s never been easier to annoy them.

Far from the rise of the six-second ad unit, there’s strong evidence that people generally want long-form content.

Ooyala reports that long-form video content consumption is up 30 percent from last year. Instagram used to be all about sharing individual photos and short videos, but now with the launch of IGTV supports 60-minute videos. The most widely subscribed YouTuber, PewDiePie, regularly posts 20-minute-long videos to a community of millions of fans. Joe Rogan’s podcast blends comedy, politics and philosophy for two to three hours at a stretch, and is one of the most popular podcasts on the internet.

People can, of course, handle stories and follow them over time. It’s one of the defining characteristics of humanity. But, there are so many stories competing for our attention nowadays that we are extremely selective about which ones we let into our lives. If any of these opt-in narratives will come from advertising, those ads must first run the ad-blocking gauntlet, then be immediately relevant and spectacular to the consumer upon arrival. The bar for perceived quality in advertising these days is actually quite high.

Related: 9 Strategies For Memorable Advertising When Your Audience Is Chronically Distracted

But, there is meaningful assistance on your way to clearing it. Social listening tools trawl the internet to learn what’s being said about and around different brands. With help from a company specialising in consumer insights and some Nielsen data, brands can better learn who their customers are, what they love and what they don’t love. This is key information in designing a vital, relevant message. In simplest terms, a brand must know its audience. The marketing needs to reflect what the audience is interested in, not what company leadership is interested in.

From there it’s only a matter of iterating and optimising. The great thing about digital advertising is that you get feedback instantly. You can iterate a campaign to make it better. Simple tweaks in copy, reframing key ideas and A/B testing can help make your campaign truly great.

Otherwise you run the risk of a mediocre campaign and a wasted media spend. No one wants to hear that sound.

This article was originally posted here on

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6 False Advertising Scandals You Can Learn From

Don’t stretch the truth the way Volkswagen, New Balance, Airborne, Splenda, Rice Krispies and Red Bull did.

Jayson Demers



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New entrepreneurs are often tempted to exaggerate what new products or services are capable of. No wonder: Presented to a powerful investor, a stretch of the truth just might help land that series A funding.

And, less seriously, a bit of marketing flair or showmanship, in many cases, will help an entrepreneur accomplish his or her without many repercussions.

But, in other cases, if you’re that entrepreneur who is caught deliberately misleading investors or consumers, you could face false advertising charges – and the ruin of your brand’s reputation. Consider these six examples:

  1. Airborne
  2. Splenda
  3. New Balance
  4. Rice Krispies
  5. Volkswagen
  6. Red Bull
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Forget Everything You’ve Heard — Fear Doesn’t Sell

If consumers associate your product with fear, they may not have a strong connection to your brand.

Scott Brown



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Sixty percent of Subaru owners have dogs. So in 2008, when the company decided to sponsor Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl, it made a major break from previous advertising campaigns — ones that showed drivers with other cars getting stuck in the snow, for example. Alongside a pledge to donate $250 to charity for every car sold, the company began to understand how to appeal to its core audience through their own interests — and how those tied together in a Subaru.

Since 2008, the company has been running a campaign called “Love,” one that brings together all the attributes that Subaru is known for — including safety and reliability. Instead of talking to customers by telling them all the bad things that will happen if they don’t drive a Subaru (e.g., getting stuck in the snow), the company began speaking in a more positive language — including bringing furry friends along on drives.

For many, the instinctive approach toward marketing is to tell an audience why they have to buy your product. Bad things will happen otherwise, and yours is the best in market. The others won’t help you reach your goal. The problem with that logic is that it doesn’t take into account the impact of brand image on product marketing. Sure, you might skid in the snow without a Subaru, but you need to think positively of the company as a whole if you’re going to be drawn to its products in the first place.

Related: How do I know that my product is market-ready?

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