1. Ask your questions

Begin your agency relationship by sharing your business goals — as concretely as possible — with your agency. If you don’t have an in-house marketing director, your agency can translate your goals into marketing strategies and tactics that will be the blueprint to achieving your objectives.

If this is your first time working with an agency, go over the contract fine print upfront. We try to do an Agency 101 with new clients to explain how we bill, how the project will flow, what the processes are. Don’t be shy when asking about advertising terms, some of which are right up there with Aramaic.

2. Throw back that curtain

Once you have committed to an agency relationship, treat the agency as a partner. We are not the printer repairman; we’re an extension of your marketing team. An agency can help create some remarkable shifts in your business, but not if you keep us at arm’s length. Throw back that curtain and share what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t. Give us access to your team. Let us listen in on your customer calls and evaluate all of your touch points — your reception area, proposals, receipts, signage, ads and Web experience. A good agency wants to be challenged and held accountable for results.

3. Do your homework

Our vice president and brand strategist Suzanne said last week that market research is the new black for small businesses. Yup. We are seeing many more small- to midsize clients letting us conduct market research than two or three years ago. They have fewer dollars to spend on advertising, and they want to get the strategy and message right the first time out of the gate. Keep in mind that there are more cost-effective ways to do market research these days: Twitter monitoring, online surveys, etc.

4. Buy fresh

As an advertising acolyte, I attended a creative conference in San Francisco in the ’80s when the advertising iconoclast Ted Chin spoke. He outlined to a rapt audience his “quotations from Chairman Chin.” The one that burned in my brain was, “Sameness is Lameness.” Let your agency know you’re open to big thinking. Paying an agency to execute preconceived notions is not a good use of your money.

5. Think big

Big ideas make people nervous. That’s how you know you’re on to something.

How can you tell the difference between a big idea and a big bust? First, check the idea against your strategy: Will it deliver your target audience? Will it achieve your communication goals? Is it true to your brand? Will it create an emotional bond between your company and your target audience? Bolster yourself with the reminder that marketing the same way you always have will get you the same results. Imagine that room full of insurance executives when someone first pitched the idea of a duck’s being the central advertising component for Aflac.

6. Talk to your agency

One of the strangest client relationships we’ve had — or tried to have — was with an entrepreneur who had an educational program. Like the Great and Powerful Oz, he hid from us. Over the course of working with the company for one and a half years, we never actually met him. We would meet in the company’s boardroom to share creative concepts with his staff. The staff would disappear into another room for a few minutes and return with his feedback. We need access to the person who will make the decision, and we need concrete feedback: “I don’t like it” doesn’t count.

7. Test strategy, not creative

Testing strategies makes sense. Testing creative solutions — with friends, friends of friends, kids, co-workers you stop in the hallway, focus groups, etc. — can lead to a watered-down final product. When you do seek outside opinions, be sure to share objectives, strategy, target audience and key messages. Otherwise, the feedback can be extremely subjective.

Two things to keep in mind: one, consumers tend not to be comfortable with something they’ve never seen before, which may be why the Jack in the Boxguy didn’t test well: “A guy with a giant round head? I don’t get it.” Now, Jack is a beloved advertising personality. And two, if you are not a member of your target audience, remember that you are not a member of the target audience. A 50-year-old man whose product targets 16-year-old girls may not get the Facebook campaign (or have a poster of Justin Bieber hanging over his bed). That doesn’t mean it’s a bad campaign.

8. Don’t skimp on production

The quality of your advertising initiatives, events, Web site, collateral materials, business cards says volumes. If you look polished and professional, it says you must be successful and really good at what you do. Set a budget and then let your agency recommend where to invest those production dollars. We recently photographed pets for Austin Humane Society TV spots. We hired a few pets with acting résumés (and wranglers) and then friends and family filled in with rookies. During this shoot, the pro cats sat, licked, looked up, fluffed their own whiskers. The production went swimmingly. The rookie cats raced away, terrified. We spent 30 minutes trying to get one to calm down. And on the set, time is money.

9. Take time to play together

Feeling a little constricted at work? Ditch the Dockers, put on a graphic T-shirt, sling a Chrome messenger bag over your shoulder and go hang out with your agency. Ad people are fun. They love an audience to laugh at their jokes. Visit for an hour, share feedback, talk about work stuff. Or not. You’ll leave feeling lighter — and glad you usually sit at the adult table.

Source: The New York Times