8 Tips for Hiring a Creative Ad Agency


j6BH-453AYour creative is stale. Your ads don’t break through the clutter. They are not memorable. You waste money on paid media. The agency team that works on your business is constantly changing: a new account director every year, new creative people, new strategists and planners. It seems as if once you get a new group up to speed on your account, they then depart. You feel as if new business is more important to your agency than YOUR business.

Is it any surprise that the same accounts are always in review and the same search consultants are pushing the same mediocre creative agencies? Don’t you think it’s time to fix the pitch process?

Rate of change and the speed of business are at an all-time high. More content was created in h-armstrong-roberts-hands-of-magician-performing-magic-trick-pulling-rabbit-out-of-top-hatthe past two years alone than in the entire history of civilization. Not just marketing content…but content content. Advertising reflects society (when it can lead it). Agencies rush for the next new bright and shiny “paradigm” (ugh…is that the worst word in the business or what?). They seem to be running away from the one thing clients value from them the most: CREATIVITY. Creative chops. Creative bones. The alchemy of taking a strategic brief and creating something mysteriously wonderful: magic. Many agencies have stopped being artists and have become scientists.

Agencies tend to over analyze what they do and what a client wants from them. Account service? Price of entry. Collaboration? Who would NOT collaborate with their client? Strategy? Ah, strategy…I love the intellectual bullies that think a brand is doomed without their insights. Regardless of the category, there is a finite set of strategies that sell anything. And clients sit around every day and kick them around:

  • More for less
  • New and improvedUnknown
  • One of a kind
  • Original, authentic
  • Better experience/service
  • Better stuff/quality
  • Selection
  • Performance
  • Aesthetics (beauty/design)
  • fill in the blank…

But, what most clients cannot do, and will always be at the mercy of creative agencies for is…creative product. If you are still reading this article, your creative product probably doesn’t meet your expectations.

So how do you go about hiring a better creative agency? Here are 8 tips:

  1. Hire a culture, not a process or person — All agency processes are basically the same and they should all be driven by the same singular goal: to get to the best creative work possible. All agencies think they have the best creative talent. But, it is the culture that must be the right fit for your brand. Do they have a mission? Do they live that mission or just talk about it? Does that mission align with your company mission?
  2. Define your company goals and communicate them clearly to prospective agencies — What is success for your company and brand? Do you have a roadmap or a plan to get there? Where does the agency fit in with that plan? Set the expectations early and monitor them often.
  3. Define your required Scope of Work — every good process has a clearly defined, surgical SOW. It is the core of any strong RFP.
  4. Conduct an RFP — Know what it is that you are looking for. Prioritize criteria. Set a process and stick to it. Be decisive in establishing criteria.3fe00259f3f1efd6fb9f0d5d3dfafa73
  5. Require a staffing model — Ask prospective agencies to explain how they specifically plan on servicing your account. Make sure you “interview” the key staffers in the RFP process. Place the most emphasis on the creative team. These are the shoemakers that will make the shoes. Make sure their shoes will attract your target’s feet.
  6. Be transparent — Don’t play games with budgets, Scope, existing research or proprietary methods. Water seeks its own level.
  7. Be inclusive — Your company has many stakeholders. Include them all. Form a “core” selection team but also include a secondary team and bring them in at various points in the review process. Seek their input. Everyone has a valid opinion.
  8. Own the decision, program it for success — Transparency and inclusion are great. But, ultimately ONE person needs to own the decision and live or die with it. Again, be decisive. Hire a consultant, or “marriage counselor” to set expectations for the first 100 days. When agency relationships go bad…they go bad fast. Get over the honeymoon in the first week, and get on to the marriage.

Book Review: Creative Bones by Guy Bommarito

It’s a new year and the holidays are history. The parties are poof. Christmas is kaput. What to do now for fun? I like to pick up a good book and hunker down in front of the fireplace.

UnknownGuy Bommarito has written one on creativity and it should be required reading for anyone that works or wants to work at a creative agency. “Creative Bones: How Creativity Works. No Really.” is interesting NOT because of its stories and anecdotes about creativity; or as a critique of creative work and campaigns (it has both). Its real value is its fact-based, how-to approach…like Creativity for Dummies. Somehow, Bommarito combines a comedic writing style with a Calvinist approach to creativity. And it works. He’s a sly, dry Guy.

The first time I heard Guy Bommarito’s voice was in 1992. He was just named the new ECD of a regional agency with about 100 employees in Austin, TX — GSD&M. They were Longhorns long on ambition to become a great creative agency. They were good — but Guy wanted them to be great. Like Bogusky, his commitment to attracting top talent from the best agencies in America was unwavering.

GSD&M’s creative goal was to do the best broadcast of any agency outside of NY or Chicago. At the time, great print advertising was coming out of Minneapolis and Richmond — both cities had thriving, robust ad communities. So for the first time, great work was being heavily awarded and highly recognized from outside of the major hub cities. But, the big broadcast was still being created in NY and Chicago (and to some degree, San Francisco). There were few agencies doing national TV in the regions — and what little there was didn’t match the creative level of the print coming out of Minneapolis and Richmond.

GSD&M changed that. And Guy Bommarito was the force behind it, with the courage to act upon the vision of recruiting top talent to Austin — a fertile creative Petri dish of a city (Stateimages-51 Capitol, State University, thriving music scene). A lot of guys talked about doing this, and a few (like Doner) were able to produce good broadcast sporadically. But, This Guy was In Love With You if you had a great reel and skin thick enough to be a creative cowboy — you were hired. So in the ensuing years, dozens of Palma people loaded up the Bekins moving van and sought gold (pencils) in them hills of the land of the Longhorns. And memorable TV campaigns followed.

Fast-forward twenty something years and GSD&M is over 500-employees strong and has become one of the most respected creative agencies in the world. Guy Bommarito put them on the map. So when he writes about creativity…we should take notice.

Creative Bones demystifies the creative process almost anatomically. It compares ideas with vomit: “they just come out” as Dylan tried to describe how he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Bommarito machine-guns 20 quick “chapters” with rapidity. It’s a one-sit read.

Agency folks sometimes lose sight of the fact that everything they do, regardless of title or department is done with the single mission of producing the best possible creative work. This book enforces that mission and makes noble a pragmatic approach to creativity. Pick it up  here on Amazon and get your creative new year off to a great start.

7 Rising East Coast Agencies…one year later

How did they fare?

Last July, I posted a column on seven creative agencies on the rise: LINK. Due to the post’s popularity (it went ridiculously viral), I thought I’d circle back a year later and report on their progress. 

Baldwin&  Raleigh, NC — Five years down the agency road and this one has really hit its stride. They launched Cree LEDUnknown lighting‘s new light bulb last year, and coincidentally the Cree stock doubled in the first month. And new work just launched a few weeks ago:  roomofenlightenment.com. They won the prestigious O’Toole Award for small agency of the year. They doubled in size every year for their first five years. So as a result, they moved into bad ass new space which is their  third space in five years. And recently, they  were featured in a Communication Arts agency profile. But, mikepalma.com scooped them one year ago.

Barton F. Graf 9000  New York, NY —  The 4A’s named BFG9000 it’s “Mid-size Agency of the Year” after this white-hot shop doubled its office space.  The tallies are coming in from Cannes as I write this but rumor has it that Gerry Graf had a tough time clearing security at the Nice airport due to all the hardware in his carry on. Great new work for new clients 350 Action, Axe, Supercell. Great work for old client Little Caesars. The hype from Fast & C0 makes one think they’ve gone from underrated to overrated in the past year. But, the work dispels that notion. It’s a short walk from the outhouse to the Penthouse. This may be the hottest creative shop in the world. But, we knew that last year…

Unknown-1 Silver & Partners  New York, NY — This agency should rename itself “Funny or Die”  based on the CarMax work (including the 2014 Super Bowl spot). But, the brilliant and somber Social campaign for the NYC Rescue Mission shows Another Side of Eric Silver. Here’s the idea: http://silverpartners.com/project/make-them-visible/. No big hype here, just an agency on a mission. I look to them breaking through a la BFG9000 this year.

BRIGHT RED\TBWA   Tallahassee, FL — If you drive southbound on I-75 from Atlanta and go back 20 years, you’ll eventually find Tallahassee. And then once you get to this agency, it’s suddenly the year 2024. They do things differently, particularly in Digital & Social. Led by their development of data analytics and digital tools to match the ability to generate award-winning content, this agency shows Omnicom the way. Data is just data without the people and intelligence to utilize the information. They have added staff to support Bright Red Insights, a measurement and analytics suite. To keep up with the growth (and the speed of need) of video content,  they also built in-house editing capabilities. In the past year, they’ve begun new relationships with Wounded Warrior Project and YOO Hotels in London and Krystal. As far as I know, no industry publication has discovered them yet. That will change.

22squared  Atlanta, GA & Tampa, FL — 22who? This agency completely reinvented itself a few years ago and the returns are astonishing. Their business has grown so much in the past year, adding PGA Superstore, OGX Shampoos and Home Depot  that HR can barely keep up with hiring new staffers. This growth, coupled with brilliant new work for Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings and American Standard has them on the top of their game — everyone knows them for their Publix Americana-styled work, but this is a new regime and an exciting new portfolio. They recruited two creative superstars to the Tampa office. Maybe, after Wieden & Kennedy, the best independent creative agency in America. They are one big brand win away from becoming a creative household word.

The Fantastical  Boston, MA — Practically a startup one year ago, founders Mike Ancevic and Steve Mietelski had the most to prove and boy did they deliverteam-shot-bw on their promise. They now do the National TV for Sam Adams and built them a new Declare your independence brand platform. They won the global ’47 Brand campaign and are doing all of their social media as well.  They launched the Let Your You Out brand platform and campaigns for MLB and NFL. They launched the global Row NYC hotel campaign featuring Lizzy Jagger with global print and Times Square takeover billboards.They also picked up the Olympus North American business and launched the award-winning OM-D camera series this year. They won a Jay Chiat Award for their  J Jill “Uncomplicate” campaign. Recently, they were featured in Creativity Magazine…but mikepalma.com scooped them one year ago…yawn.

Neiman Group  Philadelphia, PA — Neiman Group was acquired by Boston-based Allen & Gerritsen last year. So they must have been doing something right…

5 Signs of a Great Recruiter

by Miles Jennings  Founder/CEO Recruiter.com

images“I was talking to a friend of mine at a party that will soon be looking for a job. He pretty much knows where he wants to work already, as it’s a small industry and market. He also already has an “inside connection” at the company – a relative of his works there and can help him out with introductions to key team members.

However, the company where he wants to work is a big place, with lots of different teams and hiring managers. He asked me an interesting question – should he use an external agency recruiter to help him get a job with the company, even though he already has a good networking connection?

My answer was yes – use a recruiter as well – if you’re trying to get into a big company, you need to do everything you can. As long as you tell the recruiter what you’re doing and that you may already be represented for some jobs at the company, there isn’t any problem with trust or communication. The issue is that with hundreds of open jobs and tons of complex projects, any one particular networking connection, job application, or introduction isn’t enough. One department inside a large company won’t know what another department is doing or who they are interviewing. So you have to hedge your bets and go deep (as long as you tell everyone involved what you’re doing.)

We talked more about when you should use an agency recruiter and how you know when it’s valuable. The answer is pretty clear: when you already have a connection to a particular company, you are looking for added value in a recruiter. You are looking for a recruiter that can do more for you than submit your resume into a database, talk to you about the open jobs on the company’s website, or even introduce you to one person at the company. You are looking for indications that a recruiter has real influence over and knowledge about a particular company. This influence and knowledge is the mark of a great recruiter. So what will this great recruiter sound like?

Here are 5 signs that you’ve found a great recruiter that can really add value to your job search, even if you already know the company or know about the jobs online.

Past success: You want to work with a recruiter that has successfully placed candidates at that company in the past. Look for the recruiter to reference their past placements. Ideally, these past placements have become valuable networking contacts for the recruiter. The right recruiter to work with is the one with a solid history of success at the companies that best fit your skills in your local area.

Company knowledge: What does the recruiter know that you don’t know? Recruiters should have a detailed knowledge of the company that goes well beyond what can be found on the web. They should be able to tell you about the company culture and examples of previous hires at the company, or problems with certain managers, etc… Look for fluid discussion about the inner workings of the organization.

Project information: Good recruiters know jobs, great recruiters know projects and initiatives (the why versus just the how.) You don’t want to just know that there is a new Accountant job opening at ABC company, you want to know why that Accountant job is open and how it fits with the company’s efforts and business initiatives. A great recruiter will offer you multiple touch-points inside a company and tell you information that can’t be gleaned from the job description. By working with a great recruiter, you’ll walk into the interview with a leg-up on every other applicant.

Technical understanding: Job description are often, if not usually, filled with stock language. Positions often list every system that the company has, for example. A recruiter worth working with will tell you what the position really entails – what the hiring manager really is hurting for. Oftentimes, positions will be replacements – what was good about that last employee? What was bad? A great recruiter will have a comprehensive understanding of all the job requirements, but more importantly have a nuanced understanding of the key talent differentiators. They’ll know what the company reallywants and if they have a really great relationship, they’ll even be able to tell the company what theyshould want.

Personal connections: Your recruiter doesn’t have to be personal friends with everyone that hires from them, but there is no substitute for solid, in-person networking skills. Your recruiter should have actually visited the companies at which they hope to represent you. A great recruiter will talk to you about the soft-skills of the job and how you might fit in with the various teams and managers for whom you might work. Examine the depth of the recruiter’s relationships and not just the number of their employment connections.

A great recruiter can make all the difference to your job search. They can offer you valuable information, detail the nuances of jobs, and help you navigate through the entire hiring process. If you’re a jobseeker like my friend, it’s important to know when you’ve found a recruiter that can really help. When you do find those great recruiters, be sure to stay in touch with them, even after you’ve found the job you want – those connections can be invaluable to your career.”

What you can learn from Charles Darwin


“It’s not the strongest creative content that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Charles Darwin may very well be the most quoted person of the past 150 years. So, what’s the big deal? More important to us, how does he apply to creativity? At the heart of Darwin’s theory was the idea that each species adapts to its environment. From this process of change, new species arise. This theory has relevance to agencies and marketers seeking to spread their message in a changing marketplace; let’s call this the marketing evolution.

While on a journey aboard the HMS Beagle (now that would be a cool name for an ad agency), Darwin observed that every island of the Galapagos had its own type of finch. While these birds were closely familiar, they differed in subtle, but significant ways. This holds truth when a marketer attempts to distribute their message across various platforms.

Darwin theorized that organisms best suited to their environment had a greater chance of survival and reproduction. They passed along their key survival characteristics to their offspring

Today’s agencies and marketers that distribute brand messages through multiple platforms are prone to Darwin’s theory. Competing for attention in each channel, key “survival traits” are necessary for optimal success. While “content is king,” both context and relevance matter — if neglected, the message can disappear and the brand faces extinction.

Here are 5 theories Darwn outlined in On the Origin of Species, and how they apply to brand content marketing evolution:

1.  Evolution “While species come and go through time, they change during their existence” — Branding and marketing isn’t new. Brands have always relied content to survive. But, content has evolved over time. It started as stories told around the campfire to teach and entertain family and friends. Make sure your brand’s content can evolve with the times. The best way to accomplish this is to use stories about your business. Storybuilding (I don’t like the cliché “storytelling”) is how people will remember your brand.

2.  Common Descent “While organisms descend from one or more common ancestors, they diversify from the original stock” —  Diversify your content! Use various techniques – text, photos, infographics, videos, etc.. Don’t be a one trick pony.

3.  Species Multiply “Diversification involves the population of one species changing until they become two distinct species” — Allow your brand message to multiply. Create subsequent content around your core brand and products. Your brand will take on exponential lives.

4.  Gradualism “New species don’t occur suddenly. Rather evolutionary alterations happen with small incremental changes inside populations” —  Content distribution is not effective simply by getting it out there (except maybe here at mikepalma.com). Adapt it powerfully for each platform and channel. Drip it.

5.  Natural Selection “Evolution occurs due to differences between individual species’ therefore some variations provide improved chances for survival” —  Just as natural selection affects species competition, each piece of marketing content struggles for attention. Success is not about mass volume attention but about the most relevant content to the most relevant consumer. Create content that ensures that. Successful messages survive.

What you can learn from Holden Caulfield

By J.D. Salinger (written in 2009)

JD_SalingerWhile sauntering aimlessly up Madison Avenue one tepid autumnal afternoon, I could not help but think of my favorite protagonist and what he might think of the advertising industry. Holden Caulfield, the thinly veiled autobiographical character I created for “Catcher in the Rye” would have made a terrific copywriter. If you want to know the truth, he also would have made a great brand marketer, and I’m not kidding. I know what I’m talking about.

While strolling amidst these phony baloney ad execs at lunchtime, you think of all the phony messages and claims brands make and have always made: “Stronger than Dirt,” “Save Money, Live Better” (the poor Simpletons that believe that…), “Open Happiness” (me and Holden never much trusted happiness)…yeah sure. What a bastion of disingenuity this advertising game is.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s commercials. Don’t even mention them to me. The actors are phony. Holden would have written commercials that don’t rely on an actor’s talent. He would make the product and the benefit the star. He would have written honest commercials, like “We know you hate shaving, it’s a chore and time-consuming and boring. Our razor is not going to save your life, or make shaving more fun, or make you more handsome so you can have more silly girlfriends (most girls are so dumb and all)…but our razor is made right here in America and if you buy it,  you have a conscience and here’s why….” At least the company would communicate a mission and make a real emotional connection; not just an appeal to narcissism.1331226310

Holden was authentic, unlike most advertising today. It’s faked, like it’s a movie. Is there anything less authentic than this new “hidden camera” trick? However immature, Holden was true to his conscience and I know what I’m talking about.”

If you really want to hear about real creative advertising, here’s what Holden might tell you, and he’s not kidding:

  1. Be honest about your brand
  2. Be authentic
  3. Stop trying to impress everyone (know your target)
  4. Have a mission (beyond selling stuff)
  5. Communicate your mission with a humble swagger

On Writers, Copywriting and How to Build a Portfolio

The utter audacity to call yourself a writer! Now that takes cojones. Writers are born with an acute sensitivity to the human condition (in this way, they are “chosen”) and then they are self-made through reading, studying and, well, writing (then, rewriting). You must “invent” yourself as a writer. To think that you can play with words enough to massage them into something interesting and entertaining (and in advertising, sell something at the same time) requires a certain insouciant naiveté.  And at the same time, it requires a willful dedication to language and style as well as devout discipline to practice the craft daily.

Writers are a rare breed, like southpaw pitchers in baseball. I’ve placed more writers than any other type of talent — hundreds and hundreds of them. I don’t know why. Maybe because the good ones are so rare. I’ve noticed an alarming de-emphasis of writing in the advertising industry in the past decade. I’m not sure that’s a result of the declining literacy of today’s audiences or the slow extinction of the breed providing less written content (or both). But, it’s almost odd to see a “writer’s campaign” today. Everything is so visually driven — hinging on a “concept” (usually shock value or a slapstick gag — like the Betty White spot).

I’m not just referring to the Print medium. It’s also TV, Radio (how can radio be so poorly written and dependent on cliched sound-bite gags?) images-4online and outdoor (all you have to write is 7 words). I’m also not necessarily referring to a lot of body copy or words. Take a recent Google Super Bowl spot — it was a delightful narrative; a coming of age story allegorical to all Google users (that would be everyone with a computer and an internet connection). Not one spoken word, just three and four word “googles” [Google Super Bowl Spot]. And I’m also not referring to nostalgic Neil French/David Ogilvy exhaustive Print tomes drawing upon Noel Coward drawing-room humor. But more along the lines of the discarded Avis “The Other Car” television campaign Avis \”The Other Car\”. Brilliant. These days, a writer’s campaign sticks out like a boner in a lesbian bar.

Before I forget, just a second while I digress on radio. It’s not going away. People drive to and from work — most of America does (check out the HOV lane). Yes, the dork in the Beamer has Sirius — but most of America listens to the radio. Every day. Even with iPods and iPhones — radio images-1remains a viable medium. I can’t think of a better way for an advertising writer to prove they can write than to author an entertaining and sustainable radio campaign. Think Tom Bodett. The Folgers Coffee Couple. Molson. I know as a fact that agencies discourage radio from their clients’ media mix because they can’t fulfill the creative. I once sent a young writer to interview with Lee Clow in Venice. He turned the job down and subsequently founded a successful radio scriptwriting agency. That’s how rare the skill set is — they don’t need Chiat/Day. As an aside, I listen to 1690AM Atlanta WMLB “The Voice of the Arts.”  Stream it into your agency, set it on your laptop at work. It is guaranteed to inspire you and increase your creativity. To stream them in from anywhere: 1690wmlb.com.  Don’t trust me, trust your ears.

I’m often asked by writers for assistance in constructing their portfolio. What’s most striking about young writers’ portfolios is the absence of evidence that they can actually write. I visited the Creative Circus not too long ago and reviewed several dozen student portfolios. WHAT ARE THEY TEACHING THEM THERE? Certainly not how to write interesting or entertaining copy. I can’t tell the difference between the copywriters and the art directors. I can’t find the headline (“oh, there isn’t any headline”). The body copy (if there is any) reads as if it were written by Jeff Spicoli. No radio scripts to be found anywhere.

Here are some tips to help guide you in building a writer’s portfolio:

1. Provide examples that you can actually write. Show us you can do more than just think visually in advertising terms. That you are actually a writer, as you purport to be. See the paragraph above. Headlines that inspire, compelling body copy, radio scripts, TV scripts with dialogue. You get it.

2. Provide examples that you can sell something. I recently ran a search for an ECD at one of the Southeast’s largest and best-known agencies. We reviewed a dozen or so candidates’ portfolios. There was a lot of humor (really funny shit), pathos (Goosebump City, near Rineytown), whacked out weirdness (half the stuff we saw we didn’t understand until the 3rd or 4th view). But there was very little selling happening. I am not just referring to price/item dreck retail formulas but basic brand/product/benefit advertising that is interesting and entertaining. Sell me something, dammit.

3. If it’s not great, there’s no place for it. This especially applies to TV. One of the hazards of Digital books (web sites, microsites, links, etc..) is the temptation to over-indulge in your own work. Treat it the same as an actual hard case portfolio. It only takes one mediocre campaign to get someone to click away from your site.

4. Be interesting, but not too cute. Tell us a bit about you WITHOUT actually telling us. Hell, you’re a writer. Figure out a way to make yourself entertaining without trying too hard. Use music, film, theatrics or something topical to augment your work. Don’t overdo it, but using a snippet  from an obscure Monkees tune as intro music is a nice touch.

5. Yes, show digital, duh. Everyone shows websites, banners and promos. Very few show cool applications, videos, games and original content written for websites (beyond basic yada “Who We Are” stuff). Live links are okay but remember, they take people AWAY from your site.

6. Order your work so it tells a story. Make it a “book within the book”. Make it a narrative. Leave ‘em laughing or crying.

7. Stay away from spec unless you have nothing else. Sell an ad, man.

8. Be a headline machine. If someone puts 50 cents in, give them a case of headlines. There will always be a place in this business for a headline machine.

9. Radio. See my digression above. This can be spec if you have none produced. You can produce your  own on basic Mac apps — like Garage Band. I’m waiting for the young writer to produce a radio campaign for himself — just to show me he can do it.

10. Keep the gimmicks to a minimum. Be interesting and entertaining, not weird. We all know you’re weird — you’re a writer. Don’t rub our nose in it.

I’ll close with some of the infamous CP+B Copy Test. Devised by a writer I placed there about 15 years ago — Bill Wright, employee #28. Bill is now the Creative Director on Burger King. He noticed some of the same disconcerting trends in young writers that I  mention above. So Bill implemented a copy test as part of the hiring regimen at Crispin.

  • Give a short, persuasive argument on letting Pluto remain a planet.
  • Pen a haiku about prairie dogs.
  • Describe toast to a Martian in 50 words or less.
  • Describe the color red to a blind person
  • “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work” is such a boring sign. It’s ubiquity has rendered it useless (a sobering thought). For all humanity, please rewrite it.
  • You might be redneck if:
  • Write a really awful pun.
  • Match the airline with its hub airport:
  • What’s your favorite oxymoron?
  • What’s your favorite retronym?
  • Write 12 synonyms for the word “Go”.
  • Now write 12 antonyms for the same word.
  • Extra credit: Diagram the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.