Who Will Be Your Brand Steward?

Your advertising agency can make or break your marketing plan. Do you know how to find the best marketer for your brokerage?

December 1, 2008

When Coldwell Banker was searching for an advertising agency to help it promote its image for a 100-year anniversary media campaign, the national real estate franchise wasn’t looking first and foremost for a marketer with extensive real estate experience. The more important criterion was whether the company understood "where we were trying to take our brand strategically," says Coldwell Banker Chief Operating Officer Charlie Young. Only then, he says, would they be "able to translate [what we want] into strong, creative advertising messages."

Whether you’re a real estate giant like Coldwell Banker or an independent with just a single office, finding the right advertising agency to meet your vision for your brand is critical for success. Here’s what top real estate marketing pros suggest.

  • Clarify your thinking. An agency can’t help you tell your story if you don’t know what it is. Saying you’re a "customer-oriented discount broker" won’t fly, some advertising pros say, because it sounds like you’re trying to be all things to all people, and that’s no way to carve out a distinct picture for yourself.
  • Conduct a smart search. Find out who created ads you like for different industries in your area. Put a premium on agencies who know how to target women because they drive most homebuying decisions, says Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, president of real estate franchisor Real Living in Columbus, Ohio, and author of Real You Incorporated: 8 Essentials for Women Entrepreneurs (John A. Wiley & Sons, 2008).

Although it’s not essential, it doesn’t hurt for agencies to have real estate experience, or at least understand that brokers sell a professional service. If the agency thinks the house is the product, "brokers will probably end up worse off by hiring them," says Greg Herder, CEO of Hobbs/Herder, a training, coaching, and creative services company in Newport Beach, Calif.

And forget prestige. You probably don’t want a huge agency where you’ll be lost in a sea of bigger accounts. Look for one that will value your business. If senior managers won’t be following your account, write them off, Rouda says. Also, every agency specializes in some area of marketing, even if they say they do it all. Hire an agency that specializes in the need you have, says Rouda. If your Web presence is your focus, go with a digital agency, for example.

  • Leaven creativity with practicality. Young and edgy campaigns might win awards but they’re rarely effective, Herder says. Instead, look for an agency that is creative about its media plan. For example, why hire an agency that suggests putting a placement among the forest of similar recruiting ads in the Sunday newspaper? A more creative approach might be messages in the local edition of a professional journal where they’ll stand out.

Conducting Your Search

Coldwell Banker’s selection process was typical. It developed a list of 50 agencies that met the initial criteria, asked 16 to submit a proposal based on their success at telling vivid stories, visited the six best, and gave two finalists a small, unpaid assignment.

  • Whom to meet. Should you meet with senior management, the senior creative people, or the team that will do the actual work? All of the above, Young says. You want to feel comfortable with the people doing the day-to-day work, but you also want their seniors to be reachable.
  • Assignments. Should you give finalists a paid assignment or an unpaid ("spec") assignment, or forget creative shoot-outs altogether in favor of reviewing work they’ve recently done? An assignment may lack deep knowledge of your business. Still, Young says, what you learn through the interaction in a spec assignment is meaningful. You get to see what kind of rapport you’ll have with agencies and how they work, he says. "We wanted to see how they interacted with us as they went through solving the problem."

Rouda asks finalists for the standard "capabilities presentation" agencies give to all their prospects. Those are essentially the resume the companies present to show what they can do. She uses the presentation to glean how enthusiastic they are about winning her company as a client. Are senior managers present? Have they developed ideas specifically for her company? "When the agency walks in with five great ideas for me on top of their capabilities, I know they’re interested in my business," she says.

Tapping Consultants’ Help

Young is a big believer in the use of advertising consultants to facilitate the selection process. In 2007, a consultant helped his company with selection criteria, provided an objective sounding board for proposals, and conducted due diligence on finalists. The consultant steered Coldwell Banker away from agencies on the way down (and one that had just won the all-consuming Wal-Mart account). It also negotiated the winner’s compensation package to help the agency and the client avoid antagonisms over money that might hurt the relationship.

But don’t feel you have to retain a consultant, Rouda says. Savvy brokers are more than capable of setting out their criteria for selecting an agency examining proposals, and crafting a message with assistance from the agency, she says. The key is patience. Avoid hurrying through your selection process just to get the campaign underway.

In choosing an ad agency, you’re looking for a creative company that will be a faithful steward of your brand. Something that important is worth a little extra effort.