5 pieces of advice for picking the right agency partner

Luke Dean-Weymark


September 1, 2022

I've worked with a vast amount of clients in my 15+ years of experience in the Australian and UK PR industry. And I can safely say that the best results are always achieved when a brand and the agency who represent them don’t just share respect for one another, but also share the same sets of values. Ethical Business + Ethical Marketing Agency = Results. A bit like a romantic partnership, two parties can have very different strengths, different traits and even different interests, but if your core values are too far apart, chances are it’s not going to last. Finding and choosing the right fit isn’t an easy task though, so we’ve pulled together some pointers and things to look out for - good and bad, both green lights and red flags - when thinking of appointing another business to work on your own.

Don't rush the process

“As corporate ethics come under scrutiny like never before, companies must analyse every touchpoint – in particular their relationships with agencies and third parties – to ensure their brand purpose cannot be compromised.” - Lucy Fisher, Marketing Week

In the famous words of The Supremes, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, and similarly, you can’t hurry hiring. Trust us, it’s far more important to get it right then get it fast. Most agencies (Compass included) have a minimum period that clients commit to. And for many good reasons; after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day! However, you really don’t want to discover a few weeks into a fixed contract that you’re both trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Ideally, founders, leaders and marketing managers take the time to dive deep into their existing or potential agency partners and put them under the microscope - not simply from a performance point of view, but in terms of their principles too. 

If you’re at the stage of bringing external support in the form of ethical marketing, hopefully you’re already pretty clear on your brand’s mission and mandates. So don’t let all this awesome internal work go to waste by recruiting an agency who doesn’t really get you and could jeopardise the integrity of your brand. 

Due diligence doesn't just involve reviewing a business’ success rates, but also looking into where they stand on certain issues and how they do - or don’t - act on them. 

This leads nicely on my second tip….

Ask for evidence, not just sentiments

Make sure the agencies you’re considering don’t just talk the talk but actually walk the walk. With anyone you take on - be it a marketing agency, design studio, or even a finance team - find out what initiatives they take to back up their claims and bring their values to life. 

In our case, Compass is proud to have been Australia's youngest ethical agency to become a BCorp. We're certified carbon neutral (through Greenfleet), we're a part of Comms Declare and are in the process of going beyond carbon neutral with C2Zero.

We state these facts on our website, across our social channels and occasionally through press releases not simply to sing our own praises but to give brands confidence in our credentials and offer real meaning to words like ‘conscious’ and ‘sustainable’, which are often misused and rendered meaningless when they’re not substantiated. 

Transparency is key to any values-driven conversation.  

Take note of their other clients

“A strong agency partner needs to stay true to its values, rather than just its bottom line. It is entirely right that clients hold their agency partners to account for actions they take that fly in the face of their core values.” - Wander Bruijel, Marketing director at Elmwood, former global brand leader at EY and head of brand at Philips.

As a purpose-led agency, the brands we (politely) say no to is as crucial as who we say ‘yes’ to. 

We take great honour - and pleasure - in being an extension of our partners’ teams. Because of this we need to ensure we’re only representing brands and people we align with and are truly thrilled to be associated with. 

If an agency declares they care about the planet while having BP, Exxon or AGL on their books, or professes to advocate for racial and gender equality, yet take on clients with white male-only leadership teams, you have to question their authenticity. 

Even if a globally renowned fashion brand came knocking on our door offering millions of dollars, we couldn’t take them on if they weren’t concerned about the short life cycle of their products, the conditions of their factories and the wages of their workers. It would completely contradict Compass’ position as a leading ethical agency, our unique point of difference, but most of all, undermine the promises we made when we set out. 

Find brands you do admire from a values point of view, research which service providers they work with and try to delve into why. This could be a helpful starting point when searching for your own.

Take a 360 approach

In recent years there has been increasing awareness of the impact our individual consumer choices can have - whether it’s where you invest your super, or who you use as an energy supplier. Industry disruptors like Verve and Powershop show that we no longer have to settle for or support the bad guys. However, the buck doesn't stop with obvious culprits like banks. Every organisation your business gives money to in one way or another is worthy of your examination, and this includes your marketers!

Remember, if you’re engaging an agency in publicity, they are essentially acting as one of your spokespeople, so you must be able to trust that they espouse the values that matter to you most*. 

*In saying this, it’s also important to avoid surrounding yourself entirely in an echo chamber. A good ally can - and sometimes should - challenge you on certain things. As long as you’re strong on your non-negotiables, this can be a positive attribute of an agency partner. 

Appearances can be deceiving - beware of smoke and mirrors!

It’s a sad but honest truth that well-curated platforms do not necessarily equate to well-practised values. An agency’s impressive office interiors or alluring Instagram grid might be designed to make them seem progressive but that doesn’t mean their business activities are too. 

Last month we discussed some of the signs of ‘purpose-washing’, a new phenomenon that agencies can be as guilty of as brands.

So our final tip is to be discerning of those who play it super cool or attempt to dazzle you with an in-house bar and a few Cannes Lions from the late 80s - neither of these quite cut the mustard anymore!

Instead, notice the businesses who are curious about you, your brand, your goals and your beliefs, and genuinely resonate with them - that’s where you’ll meet your long-lasting match.

ready to make IMPACT?