I was speaking with another marketing professional recently, and the conversation turned into a discussion about how to differentiate between various marketing agencies. Just saying the word “marketing agency” opens up a host of considerations for most businesses. There is such a vast spectrum of opinions on marketing partners. Some people have been burned by bad experiences. They hired an agency to build a website, and it ended up $10,000 over budget and three months late. Others have had wonderful past experiences which led to business growth and increased sophistication of their go-to-market strategy.
It’s possible that the same agency even produced both outcomes. Honestly, if you interviewed every single client Element Three has worked with, I’m certain there will be examples on both ends of the spectrum. We aren’t perfect; no one is. So then, what separates the good from the bad and how can you be sure you’re picking the right partner for you when you’re searching for marketing support
The biggest name isn’t always the best fit.
your outfit matters more than just about any other aspect. You can buy a gorgeous $5,000 custom suit but if the pants are too long and the jacket is baggy, you’ll look like you spent $50. It won’t look good.
Business relationships are the same way.
The first step to building a great professional relationship is to ensure that the marketing firm you’re talking with fits the goals you have as a business. A creative advertising agency used to managing large media budgets and coming up with campaigns to get consumers’ attention will show up differently than a company whose background is specifically focused on SEO and content strategy. Additionally, consider whether you are looking for a partner or a vendor relationship. This is among the most cliche of topics in the professional services world, but here’s an easy way to differentiate: vendors fulfill your strategy, partners define your strategy and fulfill when appropriate.
It’s easy to say you want a partner, and easy for an agency to claim that they work as a partner. But sometimes that’s just because “partner” sounds good. Sometimes you don’t actually need a partner. You have a plan, you just need a vendor to bring your projects to life, and that’s completely okay! Neither party should feel any sense of shame in that.
Imagine if you were making a home renovation, and you had already designed your entire kitchen. You know exactly what you wanted it to look like and are imaging all the memories you’re going to make with your friends and family in that room. Then the contractor you hired to execute that vision starts coming to you with new interior designs. Frustrating, right? Just do the work! Vendor relationships can make sense, so don’t just throw around the “P” word without thinking it through. Find the right fit, not the marketers who use the fanciest words.
What is your business model and reach?
Another important consideration when hiring a marketing partner is your business’s scope of work. Are you a local business with a focus on the city you physically serve, or are you a national or international company needing to reach a very broad geographical audience? These two levels have very different needs, and may require different expertise.
For the local-focused business, you almost certainly don’t need to pay the rates associated with a nationally focused marketing consultancy. While a fancy large consultancy may provide more perspectives, they also could be farther away from your target consumer, or simply be a sledgehammer when a scalpel will do. Now, as soon as you get into the game of e-commerce or dealership management, you’ll want to consider that national partner—they’re better equipped to handle a wide range of more sophisticated needs—but when you’re only serving a twenty-mile radius, starting with a local-focused firm can be a great choice.
Where in your growth stage are you?
All companies should care about differentiating themselves with their messaging. They should care equally as much about being extremely clear about who they do their best work with. Let’s take Element Three as an example. Our team is built primarily to work with two business groups: growth-stage businesses (out of startup mode, but not at an enterprise capacity yet) and small-enterprise businesses (not Apple and Google size, full enterprise). We’ve done a good amount of work over the last two years to build out those buyer personas, talk to our customers about what we do well and what they value, and understand what challenges we are actually solving for them.
For this reason, I regularly tell startup businesses that most likely, Element Three won’t be the right fit. One of our key value adds is uncovering truths about their business they don’t know—from customers, sales professionals, and leaders throughout the organization who often don’t have a loud enough voice to be heard. If you’re a startup the founder still knows those truths. They just do, and more often than not they need more of a vendor environment than a partner one. Does this mean we miss out on some extremely unique opportunities with exciting companies? Sure. It is also the best answer both for their long-term success and our ability to execute work we are proud to see in real life.
On the flip side, enterprise businesses aren’t often a perfect fit due to the simple fact that they are most often looking for a vendor. When was the last time you talked to an enterprise business and they were looking for true strategic help? It’s fairly rare—and when they do, they think consulting like McKinsey and the big four, not marketing partners. Does this mean we sometimes pass up on big money opportunities? Yes, it does. It also means we continue to do the work that keeps our team inspired and motivated, and don’t get out over our skis on what we are built to handle.
This may seem a little bit blunt, but if the marketing agency you’re talking with cannot articulate who they serve and the questions they’re most often solving for their clients, you may be in the wrong spot.
Remember: industry and work samples don’t tell you as much as you think.
We could argue until the cows come home about the importance of industry experience and showcasing the work you’ve done. However, when you hire outside of your four walls, you’re not looking for some hidden secret your industry isn’t telling you. You’re looking for new perspectives and you’re not going to get that by talking to people who have done the exact same thing you have, just with more success.
Similarly, work samples are snapshots of a much larger relationship, and typically cover up the most important parts of getting the work done, which is how you manage the relationship when you hit your first major obstacle or that key presentation falls flat. Without context and story, work examples show you nothing. So move beyond them and industry experience when you’re choosing your next agency. Instead, focus on fit; their ability to reach your customers, whether those are internal, external, or both; and the agency’s understanding of who they serve best. If you don’t find alignment in those areas, chances are the work is going to be mediocre at the end of the day and both you and your agency are going to feel terrible about it.
“Whatever you are, be a good one.” This advice has served Joe well as he’s worn many hats throughout his career–from college soccer player to marketing expert to Business Development Manager. He’s passionate about using big ideas to build mutually beneficial partnerships, because “to help yourself is to help others.”
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