With contributions from:

It has been said that the relationship between a manufacturer and its advertising agency is almost as intimate as the relationship between a patient and doctor. We couldn’t agree more.

If you’re in the market for a new food marketing agency, you probably already have a wish list of capabilities: packaging design, photography and digital strategy, for example. But, as with any intimate relationship, sometimes it’s the intangible things that make someone “the one.”

Before you hire a new food marketing agency, Signal Theory’ leadership team urges you to give thought as to what you need in terms of competence, consumer insights, commercial mindedness and culture. These 12 questions can help:

1. How Deep Is Its Knowledge Pool?

How many food clients does it serve and from how many categories? What are the agency’s focus areas? Does it consider itself an exclusively food marketing agency or is food one of many categories it touches? Both models present benefits and challenges for clients.

If the client portfolio is a broad mix, the likelihood is that a lot of knowledge gets shared throughout the agency. This knowledge sharing makes for real food experts. An agency’s commitment to continuous learning about all parts of the food industry will often serve its clients just as well as its experience in a specific category.

“If an agency can transfer knowledge, within itself, of how consumers are pulling food into their lives – how they’re thinking about it, consuming it, what they want to know about where it comes from, where they’re purchasing it – the more applicable and the more valuable that knowledge becomes for the agency’s clients.”

– Diane Young, VP account management

2. Can It Tailor Its Business to Work for Yours?

A long list of services and clients is a great starting point, but be sure your food marketing agency is agile enough to tailor those things to what you truly need. If yours is a local or startup brand, for example, you will have different needs than a national brand.

Research an agency’s portfolio in detail – existing clients that represent different business sizes and stages are a good sign of an agency’s agility.

“When you see those big-brand logos next to the challenger brands on an agency’s website, you know they can adapt.”

– Ali Mahaffy, co-CEO

Find out how much tailoring goes into staffing for clients and allocating resources. Does it dedicate teams to clients based on their specific needs? Or perhaps all of their employees work across multiple accounts. Identify which structure is likely to suit the way you and your team work, and make sure your agency understands why.

It’s also crucial that an agency be able to integrate with your existing infrastructure. For example, if it has a great reputation for new product ideation, consider if and how the employees could work alongside your in-house product development functions. Are they willing and able to lead these conversations with your internal teams if you need them to?

On the flipside, if you can’t offer them opportunities in their wheelhouse of new product development, are they prepared to support you at the beginning and at the end of the process?

An agile agency is prepared to serve the needs of your business, even if it’s a change from its norm.

3. Can It Help You Talk B2B and B2C?

Before and after your product makes it in front of a consumer, there are a host of audiences throughout the food value chain with whom you need to engage.

“It’s extremely important to be able to talk to business audiences about food. Signal Theory is a strong team of experts, not only because of its mix of clients, but also the mix of channels that we design experiences for: big food, niche food, retail, B2B, B2C and internal.”

– Christy Niebaum, associate account director

Why are these audiences so important? Because the people in them make decisions that impact your business. Perhaps yours is not a consumer-facing brand and business audiences are your only audiences.

B2B marketing is a crucially important dynamic of any business – it’s what gets things done and decisions made. So it’s equally important that your food marketing agency be able to talk to this audience as comfortably as it talks to consumers.

Whether you’re seeking agency support to address your B2B or B2C needs, it’s vital that it understands both audiences in order to create meaningful, measurable, successful programs.

“Ensure your agency understands not only your challenges, but also those of your customers and your sales teams, so that they can lead strategic conversations that address those challenges.”
– Melanie Leinwetter, associate account director

Exposure to your stakeholder audiences throughout the entire process will help educate and inform your agency about the bigger picture of your business. It’s important that everyone in an agency recognizes that everybody has a customer – a process rarely ends once something has been handed off to a client, nor did it start there.

Make sure your agency appreciates the world beyond its direct relationship with you.

4. Does It Know Your Consumers Inside and Out?

Your agency’s understanding of consumer needs, behaviors and trends can be the difference between your brand being one that consumers trust and one they have zero connection with.

“It’s important that you’re working with an agency that really can craft and tell the brand story in a way that’s relevant to your consumers.”

– John January, co-CEO

Find out what tools and expertise the agency has to understand consumers –  does it have an in-house research function or partnerships with reputable research houses? What can it tell you about your consumer that you might not already know?

“It’s important that an agency can recognize short-term fads versus long-term, meaningful trends. Fads come and go, but to play the long game of growing your business and your brand, your agency needs to know the difference.”

– Tom Linafelt, marketing director

5. Does It Know What to Do With That Insight?

“The action that comes from those insights is what matters most.”

– Greg Standifer, account director

Insight alone isn’t enough. Your food marketing agency partner must be able to harness what it knows about your consumers and turn it into multiple actions.

“Your agency should understand your audience well enough to identify what their unmet needs are and what products fill those gaps. That insight also informs marketing activation – take what you know about consumers and use it to create a deeper, ongoing conversation.”

– Christy Niebaum, associate account director

Look for or ask the agency for specific case studies that demonstrate how it has applied consumer insights directly to its work, and what results that work drove. There should be a clear path from insight to result.

And don’t be shy about asking how strategic the agency’s employees are in their thinking. It’s not just the strategists’ job to interpret consumer insights. Art directors, media planners and copywriters all need to understand those insights to create conversations with consumers.

6. Does It Understand the Implications of That Insight to Your Business?

“When a consumer says they want something, an agency should understand their client’s business well enough to know what the implications of that really are, and the probability of being able to deliver a product that satisfies that desire.”

– John January, co-CEO

There is always a sweet spot between what consumers want and what a company can realistically deliver. A food marketing agency needs to be able to identify that sweet spot. If it can’t, you might find yourself spending time and money rejecting proposals that your business model simply cannot accommodate.

Understanding that sweet spot will also make for honest communication with your consumers that does not over- or under-promise.

“That knowledge also helps builds authenticity in your messaging. It results in campaigns that center on what the consumer wants, balanced by what the brand can deliver.”

– Jessica Bukowski, account director

7. How Has It Walked the Walk?

As obvious as it may sound, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you need your food marketing agency to be committed to growing your business. This means generating results – commercial results – in everything it does for you.

Agency leaders should be able to give you concrete examples of where their work has driven growth for a client and exactly how that growth was measured.

“Beyond an agency’s experience lies their results. Press them for the results.”

– Tom Linafelt, marketing director

Tip: Look for Effie Awards. An Effie is a recognition of marketing effectiveness, so it’s an indicator that an agency is commercially minded in its planning.

Oftentimes a person’s credentials seem more credible if you hear them from someone else. The same goes for agencies. Reach out to a prospective agency’s clients to hear their testimonials and ask them some of these questions.

Look also at how long the agency has worked with specific clients. Client tenure speaks volumes for an agency, as companies don’t stay long with agencies that don’t deliver results.

8. Is It As Invested in Your Brand as You Are?

Seek out a food marketing agency that will treat your brand as its own. That means one full of people committed to doing whatever it takes to understand your story, your business and your audience. This not only makes for a great relationship but gives your brand story the best chance of being properly told.

A true partner believes in your products – eats, sleeps and breathes them. A true partner eats your food, follows your social channels and makes sure your packaging is facing front on grocery store shelves when they’re on their own weekly grocery run. A true partner lives your brand day in and day out.

“An agency that is truly invested in their client’s business is an agency that’s willing to work in the store, visit the farm, milk the cow.”

– Tom Linafelt, marketing director

9. Does It Put Your Ideals Above Its Own? 

Agencies should understand that if your business grows, so does theirs.

While it’s important that agencies seek out opportunities to expand their repertoire and build their skills, these opportunities should be explored organically. If you believe an agency is working to serve its own agenda before yours, the relationship will be tainted from its very beginning.

“Some agencies will pitch these really cool ideas because they desperately want to do them, but they don’t ladder up to the true goal of the campaign. That’s not a strategic partnership.”

– Jessica Bukowski, account director

Look for a partner that sees the big picture of your business goals. Your agency should recognize that opportunities for it to shine are all well and good, but opportunities to drive your business will serve you both.

“A great piece of creative that brings nothing to the business is not a great piece of creative.”

– Greg Standifer, account director

10. Will They Challenge You?

“The fastest way to build trust with clients is to stop saying yes.”

– Greg Standifer, account director

 

While “yes people” can do wonders for your ego, hearing what you want to hear isn’t the way to grow your business. Just like that one friend we all have who candidly tells us the truth, an agency willing to challenge you is usually an agency invested in your business.

This doesn’t mean you have to relinquish control, but being open to an alternative perspective might uncover some hidden gems. You are paying your agency for that expertise and point of view.

Perhaps another way to think about this question is in the context of belief. Do you believe that the agency’s people have your business’s and your brand’s best interests at heart? If you do, you shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance on their challenges.

11. What Do the Agency’s Employees and Leadership Think and Believe About Food?

“As a food marketer, you need an agency that has an answer to that question.”

– John January, co-CEO

Does the agency’s food culture reflect yours? Your brand values are what set you apart and make your brand what it is, so find an agency partner that complements those values.

For example, if your brand was created to bring low-cost food to impoverished neighborhoods and the agency’s mission is to celebrate gourmet food with elite consumers, it probably won’t be a great match. Working with a partner who shares your philosophy will take a lot less work than persuading one to see things differently will.

Consider also how well-defined an agency’s own branding is and how consistent its messaging is. Nobody wants to go to a hairstylist with terrible hair. Similarly, an agency’s own branding should be the ultimate representation of what it could do for its clients.

12. Do You Like Them?

Sometimes the simplest questions yield the most telling answers. Do you want to spend time with these people? Are they good people with values that mirror your own? Do you like them?

There are so many things an agency needs to understand in order to support its client: how the client’s industry operates, the roles each of its relationships plays and its processes, even its safety rules. But it also relies on some basic human behaviors: common courtesy and behaving in a manner that shows respect and seeking to understand.

Do you trust this group to represent you well with customers, vendors, consumers and the press?

“We understand the norms and expectations of conduct in each of those situations. When we are talking or working on our clients’ behalfs, we conduct ourselves as if we are one of them, and because of that we often get introduced as part of their marketing team, not as an outside agency.”

– Christy Niebaum, associate account director

You are likely to invest time and money in these people, so be sure your investment is going to people you trust and respect. Trust your gut so you don’t regret your investment.

“If you don’t like your agency, you probably won’t trust them. And if you don’t trust them how will they help you grow your business?”

– Greg Standifer, account director

A Love Affair or a Fling?

While agencies are, at their simplest level, service providers, the relationship does not have to start and end there. All of these questions ultimately lead to determining whether you are looking at a potential partnership or a transaction.

Transactional relationships serve a purpose, and at times an agency might be both to different clients. A partnership, however, will ensure longer-term growth and consistency for your business.

A partnership is more than a mere match of needs and services. A partner will be committed to growing your business, investing in relationships with your people and delivering consistently great work.

“The intangibles are hard to describe, and they’re not the kinds of things you can list on a website. But they really matter when you’re looking for a group to work with this intensely. It’s not unlike falling in love – it doesn’t always come down to what you see on paper. Sometimes it’s either there or it’s not.”

– Ali Mahaffy, co-CEO

For more expert advice from Signal Theory’s food marketers, check out Signal Theory’s FoodThink. And if you’d like to get some advice in person, we’d love to talk to you. Drop us a line to discuss your food marketing needs and turn some of these questions on us.

 

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