When you think of an advertising agency, what springs to mind? It’s most likely Mad Men and the swagger, sultry sexism, extravagant client perks and “the next big idea”.
When you think “marketing firm”…. well, probably nothing. No one has romanticized marketing firms, made them sexy, or really ever explained what a marketing firm actually does. It may seem silly to think about marketing and advertising like this – but it’s a great illustration (although perhaps not entirely realistic) – of why they’re so different.
Advertising vs Marketing: Which is Which
It’s important to note that because there isn't a formal definition of “advertising agency” versus “marketing firm”, many ad and marketing companies use the terms “marketing”, “advertising”, “agency” and “firm” interchangeably. Since the name of the company won't necessarily offer you any clues, you’ll have to listen to their language and understand their objectives, the results they emphasize and how their service offerings will benefit your business to understand which kind of company you're talking to, and whether they'll be able to help you accomplish your objectives.
Ad agencies are traditionally most focused on design services; branding and identity creation; company and product positioning in the form of overarching language - including taglines and the imagery that supports this positioning; brand planning and setting overarching creative and messaging “themes” for the company, brand and products. They focus on creative campaigns that can run for years with regular updating and their focus is therefore locked on brand awareness and building brand loyalty.
Marketing firms, on the other hand, lean into the relationship between marketing and sales. They focus on lead generation, lead nurturing, and developing and executing the marketing tactics required to generate leads that will convert into sales. The work marketing firms do must be positioned and developed within the overarching brand positioning and messaging platform that the company has in place – with some leeway for promotional marketing messaging. Marketing firms lock their focus on “feet through the door” type marketing tactics to drive revenue growth.
Which is Better, Ad Agency or Marketing Company?
The correct answer is neither. They are different. The reality is that without brand recognition, lead generation can be an uphill battle. And without lead generation and sales, the best brands in the world could never stay in business. But many small and mid-market B2B businesses don’t have big budgets for marketing and advertising and often end up doing neither advertising nor marketing well.
Thankfully, unlike in the era of MadMen, there are options that offer you both.
While there are still distinct ad agencies and marketing firms, there are also now many that blur the line between the two. That said, even these hybrid organizations tend to lean more one way than the other, so it’s important to clarify your top business priorities before you engage with any advertising or marketing agency or firm.
Figure Out What You Need First
Before you can evaluate which advertising or marketing partner is right for your company, you need to determine your business priorities. For example, do you have great brand awareness but flat sales? Are you just starting out and need to establish a presence in your market? Has your business or product been around a long time and perhaps lost touch with its customers or is struggling to attract new ones? When you ask prospects and customers to describe your business, products or services, what do they say? Is there a new competitor in your geography, market or industry? How do they compare? Where are your greatest opportunities and greatest weaknesses? When you read your website copy and look at your logo and imagery are they engaging? Dated? Tired? Wrong? What do they say about your business? Are you generating sales leads but having trouble converting them to customers?
Figuring out what you need can be a daunting task – particularly when you don’t have the advantage of an outside perspective. If you lack the time, senior-level resources, or marketing expertise, consider hiring a marketing consultant to help you. In the long run, having a clear idea of where you stand and where you want to be with your business will help you ensure that you spend your marketing and advertising budget not only wisely, but with the right partner.
Match Your Needs to the Right Type of Partner
Once you have your business priorities clarified, finding the right advertising or marketing agency or firm is far easier. Your priorities will most likely fall into one of two categories and the category with the greatest number of needs or those identified as the most urgent, will be the one that helps you to choose your marketing or advertising partner.
Category A will revolve predominantly around building awareness. This group of priorities will focus on:
- your brand and messaging
- your overall look and feel for the business, products and services
- your website and social media presence
- your product literature, company brochures, sales collateral and packaging
- any sponsorships or partnerships you have
- general awareness advertising both digital, traditional and events
Category B will focus predominantly on sales revenue. This group of priorities will focus on:
- lead generation
- building your sales funnel
- nurturing your prospects
- converting your prospects to sales
- launching a new product or service or entering a new market
- promoting specific products, services or incentive offers
- increasing engagement on your website and social media
The reality is that every B2B company should regularly be doing a mix of all of these activities, but depending on your short and long-term objectives and your budget, you will prioritize them differently – and potentially change those priorities annually or even more frequently.
If the majority or urgency of your focus lands your business in Category A, you will want a partner that predominantly focuses on advertising agency services. Category B should see you partnering with predominantly a marketing firm partner.
Building Your Advertising Agency or Marketing Firm Short-List
If you’re looking for a partner that leans towards advertising services, ensure that you love their creative approach, their creative process, and that you can see examples of their work and the types of clients they’ve served. If their site and work doesn’t resonate with you, move on.
Once you’ve shortlisted agencies that deliver on the creative approach you want, determine if they can provide you with the marketing services you might also need. Some advertising agencies can, and others really can’t - which means you may have to decide if you are willing to work with multiple partners – an ad agency and a marketing firm. If not, you’ll need to ensure that their other services offer your business the strategic, tactical execution that marketing requires. Ask to see examples or case studies for lead generation, product launches, and digital engagement. Review their results and confirm that they will drive the lead generation you require. Speaking with a marketing firm about your marketing requirements will also give you a comparison for the quality and level of service and results that the ad agency is offering.
If you’re really looking for a partner to support your B2B lead generation and marketing requirements, ask for referrals, but also search the Internet for thought-leadership content marketing. Good marketing firms that understand lead generation practice what they preach – and provide insight, education and examples through articles, whitepapers, infographics and blogs. These marketing firms will be able to demonstrate results and share case studies and testimonials. In particular, look for Business-to-Business marketing firms with a proven understanding of the complexities and quirks related specifically to B2B lead generation and engagement. Marketing firms will also be able to provide some design services including logo creation and messaging, and many also offer website development or site updates with a focus on lead generation.
Now’s the Time
It’s never too late or too soon to get started on building your business. Keep a list of the advertising agencies and marketing companies that impress you or catch your interest. Just because you’re not ready to partner now doesn’t mean you won’t need somewhere to start your search in the future. To help you get started, check out Evaluating Marketing Companies: Everything You Need To Know But Didn't Know To Ask.
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