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Hiring a Marketing Agency: 11 Red Flags to Avoid

Business relationships are like any other—you want to find a good partner that’s going to stick with you for the long haul, one you can trust. When you’re shopping specifically for a marketing partner, that might ring even more true. You’re going to be trusting them to represent you in the wider world. They’d better do it well.

But in a lot of ways, you’re going to be even more actively looking out for signs that the relationship could break bad than you will be looking for signs that it’s going to be great. A tremendous marketer gives you an advantage; a mediocre marketer might still give you a few wins here and there. A bad match could be disastrous.

So how can you know when the match is bad? How can you identify that disaster before it happens? Keep an eye out for these red flags in your vetting process.

1. Initial impressions

First impressions are important. They’re all the more important in marketing—if your business botches its first impression with your prospects, there’s little way to come back from that. So, while in real life it might be a bit harsh to write someone off entirely over a poor first impression, it’s honestly pretty reasonable when you’re shopping for a marketing partner.

Now, that search won’t always necessarily include a real “first impression”—maybe you’re already familiar with a local agency that’s had some success, and you’ve seen their work or heard talk of their reputation before you start interacting directly with them. But a lot of the time, that’s not going to be the case. Marketing isn’t like buying a car, where you’ll recognize most if not all of the options available. There are plenty of smaller agencies that can do great work, and if you’re not already a marketing expert you might not know the major players going in anyway. Everyone who buys a car in the United States knows what a Ford is. Not everyone knows who the Ford of advertising is.

If you’re unfamiliar with the agencies that are available to you, do a thorough job of vetting them. And don’t be afraid to judge based on first impressions. A bad one doesn’t necessarily have to doom an option, but remember that the way they show up when you first meet with them is likely to be a good representation of how they’re going to represent you the first time your prospects hear about you—so it had better be good.

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2. Referrals

Let’s be clear: a positive referral is not a guarantee. Every business is different. We all operate differently, we communicate differently, we have different needs. That means that a marketing partner that’s great for one business might not be a perfect fit for another. A referral alone isn’t enough to guarantee a successful partnership.

That said, a total lack of referrals is not generally a good sign. If you ask around a circle of your business peers and mentors and nobody knows anything about a marketing agency, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. It might mean that they weren’t a good fit, or that they simply overlooked them when they were hunting for their own marketing help. It’s not a death blow to an agency’s chances, but it certainly doesn’t help.

3. Website

Unlike the previous red flag, I feel pretty confident saying that if a marketing agency has a bad website, you’re probably not going to have a successful relationship. It’s crucial that you evaluate it closely before making a decision.

Does their website look good, or is it poorly designed? Can you easily find your way around, or is it confusing? How many pages does it have—just a few, or enough that you can really understand them? Do they produce new content on a regular basis, or was their last blog post published in 2017?

The chances are slim that a marketing firm with a bad website is going to be able to help you with yours. And even if you aren’t looking to build a new website or refurbish an existing one, it’s one of the most important pieces of a business’ marketing puzzle. If they can’t get it right, that’s an issue.

4. How their team is represented online

This might seem minor, but it’s important. An agency’s team is the group of people with whom you will be entrusting your business’ reputation, in a lot of ways. You should be able to get to know them at least a little bit before you make the call on whether or not to partner with one agency or another. Well-run agencies will include a solid team page in their website and allow prospective partners to read about the backgrounds of the copywriters, art directors, creative directors, and executive team. If they don’t have this at all, or it’s poorly done, they’re missing something important.

5. A fixation on search rankings

Search engine optimization is a very important part of the digital marketing playbook, and of course any digital partner is likely going to try to help your business climb on the SERPs so you’re more easily found via Google and other search engines. But if they’re promising an instant jump to the top of the search rankings, or they really hammer link building and guest posting, be wary.

Google and the other search engines are really good at identifying when someone’s gaming the system. And they do not like it. Search engines value user experience and great content over keyword stuffing and link spamming, and if a site is caught using unseemly tactics, it can get buried. Patience is required where SEO is involved. Anyone who’s promising otherwise is almost certainly cheating, lying, or both.

6. Promising quick results

Yes, there are some things that marketers can do to quickly give your business a boost. But these results are usually not going to be earth-shattering. They’re likely to be minor changes that can hold you over until larger projects can take hold. Building a brand doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long and work-intensive process. Don’t get tricked by false promises—they won’t bear fruit.

7. A lack of long-term results

Any agency that you will want to work with should be able to show you ways that they have transformed the businesses that they work with over the long run. Again, that’s how real brand building happens—over months and years, not days and weeks. If every client they work with bails quickly, or they simply help their clients stand fast where they are, are they a partner that you really want to be working with? They need to be able to build success on success on success, not just spruce up a few web pages and nail one digital advertising campaign and then disappear.

8. A hard sell, rather than solving the problem

If a marketing agency is simply desperate to get a new client, it’s not likely that they’ll actually solve anything for you. During the sales process, it should be pretty easy to tell the difference. Are they asking questions? Are they doing everything they can to probe deep and figure out what the real problems behind your pains are? That’s good. If they’re just giving you the hard sell, though, you should probably move on. Smart marketers look for the right fit, not just anyone who will sign a contract. And they’ll tell you if that’s not them.

9. Talking trash about the competition

Marketers like to win. We’re competitive people, in general. But that doesn’t mean that we’re jerks. If you’re talking to one marketing agency and all they can do is trash the others in town, that’s not normal. In fact, often marketing is more of a community than anything else. We compete for the same talent and clients a lot of the time, but that also means that we tend to have friends who work at those other agencies. A reputable marketing group won’t tell you everyone else is terrible—in fact, they’re more likely to be happy to point you in the direction of a competitor that’s a better fit if your relationship doesn’t work out.

10. Their own marketing partners

A big full-service firm will be able to help with almost any marketing problem. But there are still times when a particular issue might call for outside help. Most marketing agencies have a go-to partner when they need even deeper expertise than they can offer regarding a specific problem. Honestly, most have a few. If the agency you’re looking at would rather solve your problem poorly than ask for help to get it right, they probably care more about the check than your business success.

11. Bad reviews

Okay, this one is probably the most obvious one, but if a bunch of people who have worked with an agency hated it, that’s generally not a good sign. Nobody’s perfect, of course, but a history of bad work is hard to hide. Do a few branded searches and see what people are saying online. Talk to people in your networks. See if there are negative patterns that you can identify. If so, you might want to pass.

Marketers should be able to market themselves

One of the most important principles of purchasing marketing is that if they can’t do it for themselves, they aren’t going to be able to do it for you. If a marketing firm can’t market themselves—if their website’s no good, if they don’t show results, if they can’t represent themselves well online or in person—there’s no reason to believe they’re worth the money. So when you’re looking, look for red flags. And don’t be afraid to ask them about them. You’re making a major investment. Make sure it’s the right one.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.