The One Question You Must Ask Your Ad Agency

4 min read

So you need brains.

That’s the whole reason you hired an ad agency: to have good thinkers on your side. People good at mulling over, cogitating, noodling. Masters of rumination and resolution. Nimble-minded folks who can coax good ideas from the six inches of gray stuff between their ears on a daily basis.

But let’s imagine for a moment that instead of brains, you need beer. And let’s imagine that the company you hire to brew that beer uses dirty kettles. That their thermometers are not properly calibrated. That their water filtration system is a sieve.

The final product, no doubt, would disappoint you.

It’s an elementary rule that manufacturers must properly maintain and care for their equipment in order to produce quality products. I would argue that this same rule applies to advertising agencies. Which brings us back to brains.

Brains are the means of production for creative advertising professionals. And this is true now more than ever, since the proliferation of inexpensive and easy-to-use computer software has created a world where good ideas and marketing instincts are more prized than technical skills.

This raises the question: What if the brains of the creatives working on your ad campaign aren’t functioning at an optimal level?

What if the art director’s synapses aren’t firing on all cylinders? What if the creative director’s neural integrity is compromised in some small, imperceptible way? What if the blood flow of the copywriter’s brain is non-fatally yet significantly restricted?

Is it unreasonable for you to expect your ad agency to keep the brains of its creative employees in optimal condition?

Well, maybe.

You can’t ask an advertising agency to police the behavior of its employees during their time away from work. But you can ask them a simple question: What are they doing to promote healthy lifestyles among their employees?

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Ten years ago, I was not a very healthy person. In fact, I was pretty militantly anti-exercise. At the time, the idea of fitness as a lifestyle represented something grotesquely narcissistic to me.

I was sort of dumb.

Meanwhile, my weight slowly crept to an all-time high. After a long-postponed doctor’s visit, I learned that I had high blood pressure. And high cholesterol.

So I did what any frightened human would do in that situation. I ran. Literally. I started running a mile at a time, and kept adding distance until I was prepared to run my first half marathon in 2008. I finished in 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Last year, I ran my tenth half marathon, finishing with a personal best time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. This Saturday, I’ll run my eleventh 13.1 mile race.

What I’ve learned after nearly a decade of being an increasingly disciplined runner is that my exercise routine doesn’t just maintain my body. It maintains my mind. And it makes me a better writer and creative director.

When I don’t run, I am less clear-minded. Less motivated to work. Less interested in anything outside my immediate sphere of interest. More irritable. More depressed.

Long-distance running doesn’t just enhance my attention to the world. It brightens the corners of my mind. And it sharpens my ability to evaluate, analyze, and comment on what’s in front of me.

You don’t have to take my word for this. A recent study published in the Journal of Physiology found that rats that jogged regularly experienced neurogenesis—a process in which new brain cells are formed in an already mature brain. In the study, jogging rats experienced more neurogenesis than rats who weight-trained or rats who did high-intensity training. Although rats are not people, the study strongly suggests that running might well be the best possible exercise for the human brain.

Am I saying that you need to hire an ad agency full of amateur Prefontaines? No. Believe me, I’ve met plenty of runners who I wouldn’t want within a 10-minute mile of a creative brief. But I am saying that you should ask any agency you’re considering hiring about what it does to promote healthy lifestyles among its employees.

It may not be a polite or politically correct question. But if you’re considering investing a lot of money in their product, you deserve to know how they maintain the machinery.