8 Questions to ask your next media agency

Level up your advertising when you know what questions to ask your next media agency or media buyer. Our comprehensive set of 8 questions covers several subjects including: staffing, workload, tools, expertise, outsourcing, vendors, transparency, and most importantly, how much of your media spend is actually being spent on media.

Use the form on this page to download our worksheet(Excel) to help you track each media agency or buyer you engage with.

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How many people are on your in-house team?

Before you do anything else, find out how large of a team you’re considering working with. A website can make a one or two-person shop look like a major player, and maybe that’s fine for your business. The point is, you need to know what sort of resources are available to you. What happens when people go on vacation—can they support your needs? Be sure to always ask about the “in-house” team. Vendors and outsources can take a part of your media spend and may cost you more money long-term.

Of their in-house staff, how many are in each of the following disciplines: strategy, creative, media buying/planning, execution, optimization?

Besides knowing staffing numbers, it’s key to know where those staffers’ expertise is. The answer to this question reveals potential bottlenecks and single points of failure. Things to avoid include:

  • heavy staffing in one discipline and light or missing in others
  • one or two people wearing all hats

Find a team big enough to handle your business with redundant expertise in all disciplines. Again, watch out for vendors and outsources who many times end up taking a part of your media spend.

What is your current workload percentage?

With a handle on staffing, it’s time to talk about the workload the agency or buyer currently has. For smaller agencies, workload and the open cycles to take care of your needs are paramount. Keep in mind that any size agency may hit critical mass and not have the proper staffing to handle your business. There isn’t a specific percentage that works for everyone. A smaller agency at 60% might have the same open cycles as a large agency at 90%. Your goal is to feel comfortable that the agency can handle your business without issue. Avoid agencies that are at or near capacity, or agencies that are at a very low capacity. The former may not have open cycles for you, and the latter may indicate an issue with quality or performance.

What tools do you use for media research and planning?

Media planning involves a very complex research and buying process. It requires an understanding of platforms, reach, and implementing the right media mix while staying under budget. Google, a spreadsheet, and a calculator aren’t going to cut it. Look for agencies that have made an investment in sophisticated tools that connect to the right vendors and use up-to-date dataMaking an investment in the right tools illustrates that the agency is serious about media planning and buying—and your campaigns will thank you for it. Look for agencies who’ve made the investment in enterprise-grade tools and platforms. Watch out for agencies relying on insufficient or outdated technology.

What existing media relationships do you have? How long have you had them? What’s your average yearly spend with each?

It’s not only what you know, but who you know. Established media agencies should have a stable of existing media relationships, and they should be spending lots of media dollars with those relationships regularlyWhat that means to you is that the agency can leverage their relationship and buying power to negotiate better pricing and value. That is, after all, the job of the agency. Look for long-term relationships and large yearly media spends. Watch out for a limited set of relationships, short-term relationships, or small media spends.

What vendors do you use to supplement your in-house team?

Most agencies can’t do everything in-house—sometimes certain specialties or disciplines are outsourced. Outsourcing should be the exception, not the rule. An agency should do most all the work for your business in-house. This keeps costs down and quality high, and provides visibility as well as accountability. Look for a short list of vendors in specialty areas like data sources or research. Watch out for long lists of vendors in core competency areas such as:

  • Strategy
  • Media planning
  • Digital display ad placement
  • Ad operations
  • Optimization

If core areas are being outsourced, you may experience extra commissions on your media spend. Extra commissions mean less of your dollars are spent on media.

Are those vendors and their fees disclosed?

When talking about vendors, this is the bottom line. If a vendor is being used, you should know their commissions and fees. Look for disclosure that is inclusive of any vendors and all costs passed on to you. Watch out for a low level of detail and “black boxes”. Not only are you entitled to know how much you’re spending with the agency, but you should also know where your money is being spent. In the end, you must know what is actually being spent on media.

How much of my media spend is spent on media?

The mother of all questions for media agencies. If you ask no other questions, ask this one. If you do ask other questions, ask this one last. You’re spending money on media, on advertising. You’re not spending money to line the pockets of an agency. You need their expertise and are willing to pay a fair price for it, but you should know exactly what you’re getting for your dollars.

Agencies will take a commission—that’s normal. But that does not mean the rest goes to media spend. This is particularly evident in the case of digital advertising where a vendor is used. Vendor commission is typically not included in the agency commission, and unfortunately for you, it probably isn’t disclosed at all. Vendor commissions are a pass-through cost—a cost you don’t always see, but that eats away at your media spend nonetheless. You might choose an agency based on a low commission rate, but in reality, that rate is tripled (or worse) because of additional vendor commissions and you’re none the wiser. In the end, your media spend suffers.
 
That’s not the worst of it. Watch out when billing is impression based. If an agency guarantees a certain amount of impressions and then reflects that on your invoice, you may not know the whole story. Agencies buy impressions at the lowest rate they can, then in turn bill you as high as they can. You’ll most likely never know what they paid, but I can assure you, it’s pennies on the dollar to what you’re paying. Things look rosy on the invoice, but in reality, your spend is a fraction of what it should be.
 
Look for:
  • All-inclusive commission rates
  • Complete vendor disclosure that includes respective commission rates
Watch out for:
  • Billing on impressions – this is one method to hide vendor and outsource commissions
  • Super low commission rates – It takes money to run a business, and low commission rates oftentimes don’t tell the whole story

Have more questions about media agencies?