Breaking up is hard to do.
It’s not just the tears and the bitter raking through past hurts. It’s also the practicalities, like who gets the house, how to divide the photo albums, or in one bizarre case in Britain, who gets the kidney she donated to him four years earlier. (That’s right, she demanded it back as part of the divorce settlement.)
While splitting up with your creative agency might not involve quite so much drama, it’s still never easy. Maybe they’ve worked on the brand for far longer than you have. Maybe they’re a big name. Maybe the CEO went to your boss’s wedding. For these, and many other reasons, it’s often far easier to stick with your agency, even if you have a nagging feeling that there’s something better out there.
This is a risky play. Getting the right creative partner is critical to the success of your brand (and not inconsequentially, to your success as well). So, how do you know the time is right to look elsewhere?
Just look for one or more of the following five warning signs.
1. Confusing, made-up words and phrases keep cropping up
I’m all for invention, and words can be made up. Language is an evolving, rolling ocean of possibilities. Shakespeare did it all the time, inventing “serendipity,” “utopia” and “pandemonium,” among many, many others. These are now some of the most vibrant words in the English language.
But awkward invented jargon such as “crea-tegic,” “smarketing” or “nanocampaigning” are not Shakespeare; that’s just agency bullshit.
It’s more than lazy. People make up words that sound important, look like innovation and make the listener question why they’ve not heard it before for a reason. It forces the listener to focus on what they don’t know rather than on the quality of the idea. It’s almost always a way of papering over the bland and unoriginal.
Demand to be addressed as a human being, rather than a marketing automaton.
2. Calendar invites make your heart sink
Time spent with your creative agency should be the highlight of your week. It’s time away from the hard, practical work of running a brand, a liberating moment in the magical realm of ideas.
These ideas should show you a better future. They should make your brain pop and fizz, your heart leap and sing. They should inspire you to look at the world in a new way. You should leave refreshed and ready to tackle the rigors of corporate life.
So, if you see an agency presentation in your calendar and you don’t look forward to it, that’s worth a discussion. If your heart actually sinks, start scheduling a review.
3. You’re inundated with TMs
If it’s trademarked, it must be special. I’ve got to get my hands on it before anyone else does. Name your price, and I’m in.
That’s what they want you to think. Don’t.
Think instead about why the agency is spending more time in meetings with their patent attorney than their creative team. Look at the quality of the idea rather than the legal process surrounding them.
4. That creeping feeling of déjà vu
A woman in her fifties serenely practicing yoga before browsing a farmers’ market. A curated modern family who live deeply meaningful lives centered on a can of carbonated sugar water. Or, my personal favorite: quick cuts set to a quirky song accompanied by a deeply felt but shallowly conceived manifesto. You’ve seen this reel before.
If they’re showing you this, they’re not a creative agency; they’re a cliché. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. People deserve better.
But you don’t demand more. You settle for meh. You don’t stop them partway through the presentation and tell them it’s not good enough, everyone’s seen her downward dog a hundred times already, and you want creativity, not cliché.
5. They don’t hate mediocrity enough
If your agency is too quick to settle, that’s a big alarm bell. Watch out for an overweening sense of pride at being given shiny things by other people in the same business.
Strange as it may seem, a few grains of self-loathing are ideal if you seek true pearls of creativity from your friends with black clothing and tattoos. No truly great work was ever born of affable complacency. Demand that restless striving for better and intolerance for anything less — even if it results in a healthy back-and-forth.
Break-ups are never easy. But you’ll look back and realize you made the right call. Most importantly, you’ll be getting real creative work — and the fun, satisfying, exhilarating agency relationship — that your brand, your customers and you deserve.
Ben Ingersoll is co-founder at Minds + Assembly.