How Does an Advertising Agency Work?

Most campaigns follow a series of steps

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The inner workings of an advertising agency can be a mystery to anyone outside the industry. The way these agencies are represented in movies and on television is often a world apart from the actual day-to-day operations of a legitimate firm. This is a driven—and sometimes cutthroat—industry with many interlocking parts and personnel.

Most agencies have four major departments: business, research, creative, and media. Each must excel if an agency is going to be successful.

How Does an Advertising Agency Work?

An agency usually gets work when it receives a pitch from a potential client—an audition, with the client providing a creative brief to a number of advertising agencies and choosing the one that best resolves the problem, perhaps something along the lines of a competing brand. It doesn't always happen this way, but it's common.

Contracts are then signed, and the real work begins. The scope of works (SOW) can vary greatly depending on the type of agency and the client, but the agency generally agrees to produce a certain amount of work for a set amount of money. That might be a retainer, an hourly fee, or another arrangement. The client agrees to pay the agency upon receipt of the work.

The ad agency's role is to solve problems for its client. The types of problems and solutions can vary depending on the nature of the client’s business and the ad agency’s areas of expertise. 

The Process of Creating Advertising Campaigns

The majority of advertising, marketing, design, and PR firms work along the same basic concept of steps. Some steps might be skipped or combined, but the basic structure is often the same.

  1. The account manager and team meet with the client to identify the problem that needs to be resolved.
  2. The account manager writes a creative brief based on that problem. It will include competitive analysis, research, the assistance of the planner and/or creative director, and, eventually, a sign-off from the client.
  3. The account manager briefs the creative team and establishes a timeline, budget, and proposed media.
  4. The creative team works on the project for several days or weeks and brings the first round of ideas to the creative director.
  1. The creative director will cull the ideas that aren't working and direct the team to explore better ideas.
  2. The creative team will continue to work on the ideas, bringing in assistance from the production department if necessary. The account manager and other members of the agency might be enlisted as well to make sure the work is on track. The production department will begin estimates if there are printed pieces involved, or if a shoot is required.
  3. The creative director approves the final ideas and the creative team presents them to the client.
  1. The client will typically take some time to discuss the ideas before giving feedback to the agency. Feedback might result in a reworking of ideas, or a green light to move into the execution of workable ideas. A budget and timeline will once again be approved at this point.
  2. The creative team works closely with the account team, the media-buying team, production, and the creative director to produce the ads in whatever form has been agreed to.
  3. The final ads are placed in front of the client for approval. The ads are published if the client approves, whether it's online, in print, outdoor, on the air, or in any other media.
  1. The agency will monitor the success and the return on investment of the ads and give feedback to the client.
  2. The client pays the agency and the whole process is repeated.

Self-Promotion and Awards Are Key

Firms reserve the right to cut ties with an ad agency at any time and to move on to another agency that might serve their needs better. It's a competitive business, and acknowledgment and success are crucial to survival.

Agencies must get out there to win more business and to have clients coming to them for more work. They often enter their best work in awards shows. Only the best shows will garner attention from clients who are worth having. They'll also develop websites and other forms of self-promotion to get clients looking in their direction.