I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some of the biggest and best agencies in the world – J. Walter Thompson, BBDO, TBWA/Chiat Day, and Ammirati & Puris in NYC and West Media in Prague. I’ve also had the pleasure of working for two great mid-sized regional shops Cole & Weber in Seattle and Carton Donofrio in Baltimore. As co-founder of The Republik and founder of Immortology, I’ve built, managed and run two very successful small agencies in my home state of NC. Over a career spanning three decades, creating effective solutions for clients of all shapes and sizes, I’ve learned from the best of the best and seen the worst of the worst.

These experiences have given me a unique, inside perspective on how to quickly size up any ad agency. The truth is, it’s pretty easy to do.


Fact is, you can learn everything you want to know about an agency by just looking at its work portfolio. That’s because the ads an agency makes are its product. Period. Ads represent the sum total of all they do. Research and analytics begets insights. Insights beget strategy. Strategy begets media selection and the creative work. If you choose an agency for anything other than it’s creative work, you’re not buying an agency, you’re buying parts and tools. You don’t buy a BMW for its stereo or a surgeon for her scalpel. When you choose an agency, choose the agency with the best portfolio of work. Everything else is nothing more than a list of parts. And while some parts and tools are decidedly better than others, the real magic is in how an agency selects and assembles them to make effective ads. The chart below illustrates my point.


47% of advertising effectiveness is due to the creative idea.


Almost 50% of an ad’s effectiveness is directly tied to the creative idea. When you add in the 15% lift due to the brand (which almost always owes much to the creative idea behind it) you get a whopping 65% of effectiveness bound directly and indirectly to how an agency brings a product or service to life through creative ideas. Not the media channel. Not the targeting. Not the research. Not the insight. Not any of those things. All those things contribute. But the only thing that really matters is how all those parts are interpreted, assembled and crafted into a head turning, holy crap, you gotta see this creative idea.

Strategy, media planning, data analytics, research, account servicing, project management, technology and in fact every single capability and area of expertise an agency lists is worthless if their creative work fails to attract, connect with and convert. Great agencies put their work first and center. Crappy ones try to sell you their parts.

So now you know the best way to evaluate an agency, here’s how to evaluate their portfolio. Great agency portfolios are filled with work that is:



In today’s attention deficit economy, you can’t buy people’s attention you have to earn it. To be noticed and remembered each and every brand experience must be more interesting, informative or entertaining than anything else on the media channel where it runs. Impossible to ignore and hard to forget should be the number one standard by which you judge an agency’s work. After all, if people don’t notice or remember an ad then everything else is moot.

Wherever we ran this ad – online, outdoor and print – it pulled more than its fair share of attention for the Museum of Life & Science. See the rest of the campaign here.

What if shopping for food was as fun as hunting it? That’s the question we answered in this wildly different spot for Obsession Bows.
See the rest of the Obsession Bows campaign


It’s a fact humans are hard-wired to seek out the novel, surprising and unexpected. If an agency’s ads and designs are familiar, predictable and expected they will be ignored. And you should ignore them as well. On the other hand, if an agency’s portfolio is packed with original and surprising work that clearly differentiates their clients from competitors – you may have a winner. I say “may” because many times an agency’s best work was created by people who don’t work with them anymore. The average tenure for most creatives is less than two years. I won’t name any names here but there’s an agency out there right now still showcasing work I created there over a decade ago.


How do you sell an industrial light with a magnetized tail? Promote the benefit in an unexpected way. See more of our Streamlight work here.


Great ads have to do two things simultaneously. Grab attention and clearly articulate a benefit. Doing one or the other is easy. Only pros can consistently create ads that do both.

If at all possible, integrate your advertising across 5 different platforms for maximum ROI.


If an ad agency is only comfortable creating ads for social platforms or online, their leaving money on the table for their. A massive study by the Advertising Research Foundation concluded that each additional channel a campaign runs on increases ROI. Five channel campaigns are ideal with a 35% higher ROI than one channel campaigns. What’s more, seeing a brand advertised on different media engages long-term memorability. So look for agencies that are comfortable creating ads for TV, print, outdoor, radio and of course, online.



Campaigns that are unified by a consistent and highly creative message are 57% more effective. 


One of the biggest issues is that many agencies have become obsessed with a short-term, direct approach to advertising. This approach tends to generate lots of inconsistent messaging in an attempt to create unique messages for specific groups of people. (Despite the fact that there is no evidence correlating more targeted, personal messaging to effectiveness.) On the other hand, we do have evidence that having inconsistent messaging is harmful and that consistent messaging is definitely more effective. A recent study by the ARF called How Advertising Works Today found “campaigns with varied creative strategies can actually cancel each other out and become less memorable”. On average, cross-media campaigns unified in message, look and feel are 57% more effective than those that are not. Here’s the kicker. If you really want to see better results make sure your agency is skilled in creating integrated campaigns united by a central creative idea. (Think Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Man In The World, Old Spice with Isaiah Mustafa and Allstate’s Mayhem campaigns.) A Kantar Millward Brown study found campaigns unified by a strong central creative idea perform 64% better across all brand KPIs.

The Lipton Brisk campaign was one of the most successful brand re-launches ever. The spots I created for it over 20 years ago still get thousands of views a month and are constantly being rediscovered by younger generations. It was a highlight of my career to have it included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
See more Brisk work


The best creative ideas tap into a universal human truth that transcends the passage of time. Instead of appealing to a certain demographic, during a specific point in time, they appeal to a diverse audience spanning across multiple generations who share a common mindset. Instead of specializing in advertising to one generation (say Millennials or GenX) your agency should have work that appeal to a broader market.

This online video I created for Triumph boats caught the attention of Inside Edition and boaters around the world. See more videos here and here.


In addition to grabbing the attention of potential customers, great advertising also grabs the attention of the press. One good article, blog or a segment on a news channel can expand awareness exponentially. Make sure your agency not only knows how to promote its work to the press but also has actually been successful getting the press to cover it.


Immortology has been fortunate to work with B2C and B2B organizations of all shapes and sizes from a local medical practice to one of the largest manufacturers of flashlights in the world. See all our work here.


Great creative ideas don’t just come from anywhere or anyone. (Despite what some agencies will have you believe.) Most of the time they come from seasoned advertising pros that have a lot of experience working on a lot of different accounts. While specialists may know a certain category really well and really deeply, their work tends to look and sound like everyone else’s in the category. On the other hand, an agency with experience in lots of other industries can bring new and fresh thinking to a category dominated by specialist agencies.  

This simple spot for the Museum of Life + Science was produced for less than $10,000. See the rest of the campaign here.


A big production budget can sometimes make up for a less than stellar creative idea. That’s fine if you’re Pepsi but when you’re a small or medium-sized company with a small or medium-sized production budget, you need an agency that know how to create magic out of nothing – or close to nothing.



Well this goes without saying. If the work isn’t effective it wasn’t worth doing. Instead of relying on agency case studies, listen to what their clients have to say. It’s easy for an agency to say a campaign generated a 7x return or so many millions in sales. It’s much harder to get their clients to say it for them – unless it’s true.

Bottom line. Before reviewing an agency’s:

• About section
• Past and present clients
• List of capabilities
• Unique approach

First go directly to the agency’s portfolio. It will save you a whole lot of time. Believe me. If you like their work, odds are you’re going to like working with them.

Looking for an agency with a great portfolio of work that will give you an unfair share of return? Let’s talk.

Eternally Yours:

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David Smith | Founder & Creative Leader