Research Sorts Contenders From Pretenders

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More than 3,000 interactive agencies submitted applications for New York-based One Club's awards competition last year. With so many candidates to choose from, how do you zero in on the best matches for your firm?


Start your search by defining your company's interactive advertising goals and objectives. For example, do you need to drive 1 million people to your site before the end of the year? Do you want to sign up 100,000 registered users by April? Or, are you trying to increase brand awareness for a consumer packaged good? Whenever possible, develop specific, quantifiable goals that include time frames.


Next, translate these goals into tactics. If the goal is to drive traffic to your site, you'll need to create and execute a media plan, develop creative assets and measure your success. The agency you select should help you refine these tactics, but thinking about them now will help you find an agency with the required experience.


Once you have your goals clearly defined, quantify your budget. Budget discussions help you choose an agency that is the right size to handle your account. If you choose an agency that is too small, it may not have the staff and resources to handle your account properly. Go to an agency where your account is the smallest and you may drop in priority.


Finding Agency Candidates


Your colleagues are one of the best resources for finding interactive agencies. Ask them which agency they use and whether they would recommend it.


Research successful noncompetitive companies with similar objectives to find out which agencies they use. The Agency Compile Web site, www.agencycompile.com, might help you figure out which agencies an advertiser uses. It features agency profiles, including work samples, clients and case histories.


There are also several directories and agency award sites on the Internet. One of the most popular is the DigiTrends Web site, www.digitrends.net/digitrends/iagency/, where you can search for information on more than 140 agencies. You also can look at ChannelSeven, www.channelseven.com; AdAge, www.adage.com/dataplace; and the Clio Awards, www.clioawards.com.


Narrowing the Field


Once you're ready to meet with agencies, call their clients. Compare the agency's competencies to your requirements. Determine if the agency specializes in direct response or brand-building campaigns. Unlike the offline world, the line between interactive branding and direct response agencies is blurred. Many agencies don't specify which side of the line they fall on.


To find out, look to their existing clients. What are their objectives? How well is the agency accomplishing and measuring their success against those objectives? If all of the agency's clients are packaged-goods companies, for example, odds are they have brand-building expertise. But if you are looking for a firm that excels in direct response, ask how the firm handles tracking and measurement.


Remember, everything on the Web is trackable, but knowing how to leverage raw data into effective advertising campaigns is crucial. Ask potential agencies for case studies that show they dramatically lowered a client's acquisition costs. Ask them what their process is for optimizing media buys over time. And ask how frequently they analyze their clients' performance statistics. You may be surprised at the variance between agencies.


Find out what tools the agency will use to create your media plan. Larger agencies subscribe to costly market research services such as MediaMetrix, @Plan and Jupiter.


Take notes after each discussion. Keep a spreadsheet with each agency name across the top and your requirements down the side. At each meeting, determine the areas in which the agency excels.


While only a few agencies are good at Web-site development and interactive marketing, many will say they offer both services. One way to determine an agency's true expertise is to ask what percentage of billings comes from each area of their business.


You don't necessarily need a one-stop shop. Interactive agencies are used to working with each other. I have often hired two agencies - one for Web-site development and another for interactive marketing. This best-of-breed approach makes coordination a little harder, but it can have better results.


Finding a good agency match takes a lot of due diligence. Be organized and patient. Your efforts will pay off in an agency that understands your needs and can deliver results.
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