By Leann Anderson

Because most small businesses don't have huge advertising budgets, it is important the dollars you do have are spent wisely. That means working with an agency that can really meet your needs and with which you feel comfortable. Not all advertising agencies can deliver everything they claim. There are lots of companies vying for your precious money, so carefully consider the following issues before committing to any contractual agreement.

1. Define your objective in hiring an ad agency. What do you want to achieve? What should be different after the agency goes to work for you? What kind of working relationship do you prefer?

2. Check out sources. Consider work you've seen or heard that has impressed you. Call friends and colleagues you trust and get their recommendations. Attend professional or trade association meetings, and talk to members who have used agencies before. Seek out their opinions, and note whose names come up often (both pro and con). Watch for articles about ad agencies in area papers, trade magazines and related publications (such as chamber of commerce newsletters).

3. Once you have a list of candidates, screen them by phone. Ask about their backgrounds, projects they've worked on, the results they've had, their fees and anything else important to you. Then set up interviews with the three or four firms that impressed you the most.

4. Interview The Finalists. Find out the following:

Do they have experience working with your industry? What is their track record when working with companies like yours? Do they understand your business and the nuances of what you do? If not, are they willing to research the information they need?

Is there chemistry? You can tell if there is a good "fit" with an ad agency. A good agency will express interest in getting to know you as an individual and learning more about your company. They will be good listeners and quick learners. They will make good suggestions and react quickly to your questions and opinions. They should demonstrate the ability to anticipate what is best for your business and be prepared to disagree with you if they feel you're on the wrong track.

Do they show originality and creativity? Based on the agency's previous work, do you feel these people understand how best to "sell" your product or service? If you operate a home health-care agency, for example, you probably don't want an ad campaign that features technology over tenderness. Sensing your clientele, the agency should know enough about you to put together the appropriate message.

Are they reliable and budget conscious? No amount of chemistry and creativity can make up for a missed deadline or an estimate that's way off. Be sure the agency has not only the creative skills needed but also the time and commitment to devote to your needs. Whether you're the biggest or smallest client in their stable, you should be able to count on consistent attention to detail. They should be available to answer your questions and be accountable for delays and expenses.