Why cultural fit is key when appointing the right design and other marketing-related agencies

April 2016

I’m not sure quite how many design, branding, marketing, web, PR and advertising agencies I’ve worked with in my career, but if it was less than 500 then I’d be surprised. Some, and ahead of setting up my own business, I’ve had forced upon me, some I’ve inherited when I’ve taken on a new client, and the rest I’ve appointed – and I’ve made good and bad choices along the way, though thankfully far more of the former than latter.

In any given week I might get five or six approaches from agencies offering me their services for my clients. These range from the genuinely interesting which, almost certainly, have done their homework on my client and have something relevant to say about them, to the near-pathetic who have an office junior churn out standard emails which, at best, have my client’s name typed in to the first sentence (albeit probably spelt wrongly).

About a month or so back, I was persuaded by the sales director of a company I’m currently doing a stint as marketing consultant/director for, that I should engage with a branding agency she’d previously worked with. I was happy to do this as I’d already agreed with her that we needed to appoint an agency to initially look at our FMCG brands, their relative market positioning, identities and pack designs. The agency in question was Big Fish, a Chelsea-based agency who I could see had the necessary credentials to carry out the work for us. And for further context, we didn’t just see this as a one-off job (albeit probably a £50k plus one) but potentially the start of a long-term relationship.

It’s fair to say that most agencies get their work by approaching clients – not the other way around. So the very helpful new business chap at Big Fish was understandably surprised by my approach, and also pleased that it had come as a result of a recommendation. We then embarked on an exchange of emails, including a very detailed brief from me on the project. However, after about 10 days and having spent a good few hours pushing things forward with him, he unexpectedly called me to say that his boss, the business owner (Perry somebody or other), had taken one look at our FMCG brands (ambient meat snacks which are sold in all the supermarket chains) and questioned him as to why he was even considering the project and working with us. Apparently, all our brands were far too coarse and downmarket for his agency to get involved with.

Probably fair to say that I was none-too-happy by this unexpected development (not least as my time had been wasted), though I did have some sympathy for the new business chap who was given the job of telling me the news. And that’s what speaks volumes about the culture of the agency: so not only does the business owner apparently think that his agency is far too good for the FMCG brands in question (even though the products are as popular with A, B and C1s as they are C2s and Ds), but it’s also below him to pick up the phone to me and personally explain why.

This rather nasty experience totally reinforces something I’ve believed for a very long time, and this being that regardless of agency ability – and I don’t doubt for one minute that Big Fish are brilliant at what they do – there has to be some sort of cultural alignment with the client. In this particular case, my client has a culture of openness, being unpretentious, and just generally getting on with people in order to get the job done. And, in my experience, the very best agencies have exactly the same mind-set and driven by their leaders.

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