Your Guide to Finding the Right Marketing Partner
4. Finding the Right Match: Hiring an Agency
Okay, so you might not stick with one marketing agency for the rest of your life. But trust us, making that final decision really is a little like getting down on one knee. Why? Because like in a marriage, you’re choosing a real partner, to stand alongside you through thick and thin. So make the right choice.
Finding the Right Type of Marketing Support
Marketing entities come in all shapes and sizes. Just like you might prefer the angsty, creative type over the buttoned-up, traditional partner when it comes to dating, similar rules apply when picking your future marketing partner.
First, you need to have an idea about what kind of partner is right for you. Here’s the skinny on what kinds of marketing partners you’ll be choosing from and what you should be seeking out.
Types of Marketing Agencies
Most marketing shops will fall into one of four major buckets—each with their own pros and cons. Here's your quick breakdown.
1. Full-service agency
A full-service agency is a jack-of-all-trades agency. They are there to meet all of your needs or die trying. Full-service agencies offer a wide range of services that cover the traditional, digital, and creative marketing aspects of a business. These agencies are made up of a team of experts that have a wide range of skills.
You’ll want to work with a full-service ad agency if your business has a wide range of marketing needs. They will be able to help you with your employee branding as easily as they can run successful lead gen campaigns. One thing to note: it is important to have a devoted main point of contact with this type of agency because of the variety of types of work they cover—without one person you can reliably go to, it can be easy for things to get lost in the shuffle.
2. Specialized agency
These agencies have expert experience in one or a few areas of marketing. Specialized agencies drill down into a specific problem and identify every opportunity to succeed. They are typically able to better understand the problems and solutions in their area of expertise than full-service agencies, but the downside is that’s all they know. They don’t branch into other parts of the marketing process, which means if something unexpected comes up, you might have to go to other agencies to address new issues.
3. Consulting firms
Beyond the scope of what they can do, marketing firms can also differ in how they do the work. In effect, this shakes out to one main difference: who’s coming up with the ideas.
Consulting firms tend to focus on strategy—if you’re looking to simply place an order for work, they’re not the right fit for you. Oftentimes, consulting firms will help bring in a fresh perspective and in-depth expertise in the areas where you need help. Pricing for these firms will vary depending on the level of knowledge and the amount of time you need them.
4. Production houses
A production house is the opposite of a consultancy—they handle the execution while others own the strategy. Although they might not market themselves as a production house, this type of agency is a better option if you already know exactly what you want and you need something fast and cheap.
Production houses are purely devoted to getting deliverables to you on time, without worrying about any sort of strategic recommendations. When you work with a production house, make sure you give specific guidelines and directions about the deliverable—remember, they’re simply making what you ask them to make, so any mistakes and errors are going to be on you.
Selecting Your Agency
Before doing anything, you have to answer a question: what exactly are you looking for? It’s critical to be sure before you start looking—otherwise, you might end up falling in love with an option that’s not practical. If you only need someone to produce some stationery and business cards, sinking tons of money into a consultancy partnership would be foolish; if you need a large-scale reimagining of your brand, dumping that volume of work on a boutique agency won’t end well for either party.
So what exactly do you need to decide? To put it bluntly, you need to know what you want. What is it that’s going to make your business successful? How can your marketing help you achieve your goals? If you don’t have a good handle on things like objectives and budget, it’s really difficult to know whether one marketing partner or another is going to help.
Once you have an idea of what you’re going to need, you can start looking to see what’s out there. A simple Google search is always a helpful jumping-off point to give you an idea of what’s available. If you are looking for a specific type of agency, make sure you know what services they provide. You’re hiring an agency to help you and researching what they can and cannot do is vital for your success.
PRO TIP: If you’re having trouble finding information about a marketing entity, whether that’s on Google or elsewhere, realize exactly what that means. If they can’t market themselves, they’re probably not the best option to market you.
One really important agency evaluation criteria is where they’re located. Do you want weekly or bi-weekly in-person meetings with your agency? That won’t work if your agency is 100 miles away. If you’re comfortable with remote conversations with your agency partner, then it doesn’t matter as much where they are. Either way, one thing to consider is time zones. Time zone differences can affect project timelines, meetings, and other communication channels. So if you’re based in Indianapolis and you fall in love with a London agency, just remember that your 3pm status update call is going to be happening at 8pm for them, and you might need to adjust.
Another factor for selecting an advertising agency might be its size. Large agencies will have more specialists to fit your needs in more diverse areas, but that can also mean less flexibility in roles—that is, you’ll need a new team member to come onboard for each type of work—and therefore higher costs. On the flip side, smaller agencies will be more adaptable to certain requests (that is, a little more willing to change for your sake) but could lack the resources and expertise needed to fulfill all the needs of your agency.
One thing to think about here is the current and previous clients in a firm’s portfolio. The agencies you’re homing in on should have experience with businesses of your size and industry. For instance, if you run an outdoor retail business, then you wouldn’t do yourself justice to hire a marketing firm that specializes in science or insurance; more appropriately for what we’re talking about here, if you’re a mom-and-pop clothing shop, you probably can take Ogilvy or McCann off your list.
Obviously one of the most important things to assess in hiring an agency is whether or not they can get the job done. What makes a good agency? Well, there are a few ways you can tell. One of the less reliable ways is to look at their awards roll. Yes, winning an award for your work is usually good. But there’s a big difference between winning an AAF Addy and winning a Sub-regional Who’s Who of Marketing 2013 Purple Ribbon. If you’re not in the industry, you probably won’t know what that difference is—and you might not even know which one of those awards we made up. Having a bunch of trophies is great, but it might not mean much in the long run.
Instead, look at the results. Look at case studies that show how the agency’s work helped their clients. Look at the data—increasing leads, soaring sales—and see whether it’s directly attributable to what the marketing partner was doing. Look at endorsements from clients past and present, and see what they have to say about working with the agency.
The next step is to evaluate what you’ve learned. Some of this is going to happen naturally while you research—obviously, you’re not going to just be dispassionately taking in data, you’re going to think about it as you learn. But once you’ve compiled all the information you want to use to make your decision, it’s smart to organize and analyze it before you really commit to the decision-making process. Know what you’re looking at and precisely what it’s telling you before you propose to one agency or another.
You’ve done it—you’ve narrowed down the list and now you’re ready to select an agency to work with. Now it’s time to start narrowing down your options and meeting with your potential future partners to determine which is the one you’ll build a (marketing) life with.
There are a few things to keep in mind while you are closing the deal with a marketing agency. First, while you don’t work in the same physical location as your marketing partner, you do come into contact with them frequently both in person and remotely, so it’s important that you are comfortable working with them. If your personalities don’t mesh at the beginning of the relationship, then you might have issues later on. No amount of case studies or neat blog posts will overcome the feeling that you simply aren’t on the same page. To get an idea on how they might operate, as you’re meeting with potential partners be sure to ask questions about their company culture and how they operate within their business.
Next, determine how involved you are going to be in the work. Sometimes you’ll hire a marketing firm to take care of the tasks you just don’t want to handle, like email or social postings. You might want to be completely hands-off with your marketing agency and trust them to just get the work done without review. On the other hand, you might want to be engaged in every step of the process, especially if you’re doing major projects like a multimedia campaign or rebranding. This is completely fine and normal—that is, your partner won’t think you’re being overbearing or a “bad client” if you ask to review things before they go live—but it is important to let your marketing agency know how active you plan to be so that resources and timelines can be adapted accordingly.
Finally, review the contract carefully. A reputable and professional marketing firm will provide you with a proposal of work and scope to get the program started. These proposals speak to the length of the contract, cancellation process, and protection from future lawsuits in legal terms. Terms and conditions need to be reviewed carefully, as they are (obviously) legally binding once you sign.
RFPs: Why Do Companies Use Them?
An RFP—“request for proposal,” for those who hate acronyms—is typically used to examine different marketing agencies for a large initiative a company is pushing. Typically, this is associated with a big dollar amount, so using an RFP process to weigh different agencies equally is a typical approach for large corporations. It compares benefits, capabilities, and price across potential vendors.
Benefits of RFPs
One of the major pros of an RFP is that it is a clearly defined process. There are precise parameters for how each vendor is to operate. Not only does this give clarity to the vendors regarding what you’re looking for, it but allows for ease of comparison between vendors for you as the client. Since the process is so precise, it puts all of the agencies on a level playing field.
It’s also a demanding process that requires a significant amount of thought and effort, which means that once an agency makes it through, you have a pretty good understanding of how they work (not just how they say they work). It will show you not only how they’ll work with you now, on this project, but also—if things go according to plan—on future projects in a continuing partnership. And if all doesn’t go according to plan and they don’t deliver, you gain a list of companies that you can look at again when the time comes.
Cons of an RFP
The RFP process is a bit impersonal, which makes it harder to get to know the people you’d be working with. You can’t fully understand an agency’s work simply by looking at their website, and you can’t really understand them as a team simply by having them answer a standardized question set. To do that you need to dig a little deeper, to speak with your potential agency. Which companies and industries have they excelled in working with in the past? What is their process for onboarding a new client? These are all important questions to be asking, as they give you insight into how the business is set up, how it runs, and what your experience in working with them would be like. And they’re best answered in a conversation, not a slide deck or Word document.
Next, your agency partner should be invested in the work as much as they are invested in the working relationship. This means your agency knows more about you than what’s on your business card. They understand that you’re a person first, and a career builder second. It’s far more difficult to know if your chemistry with your agency's point of contact is going to be good or bad (or worse) if you are making decisions based on an RFP process. Presumptions made each way can kill a win-win relationship before it starts.
You’re only going to see a potential partner’s best work in an RFP response, and no successful engagement ever goes off without a few hitches. Everyone on both sides of the engagement, agency and client, is human. We all make mistakes. What you don’t see in the beautifully rendered case study or the carefully worded RFP response is all of the bumps in the yellow brick road. And that makes it difficult to set realistic expectations.
All of this is why, if we’re being honest, we aren’t huge fans of the traditional RFP process.
How to Find Top Agencies
A tip before you start entering keywords into the Google machine: be thorough. The best agencies for you might not rank in the top ten in overall search results. To narrow your search, keep in mind the type of agency that your business needs. Define what marketing service you need and filter out the ones that don’t fit. For example, instead of typing “marketing agencies IN,” you should search for “paid media agencies IN” if you’re specifically looking for help with paid media campaigns.
Take notes on what each agency offers and specializes in, discover your likes and dislikes, learn what they have done in the past through case studies and testimonials, and see what kind of content is on their website (blogs, guides, webinars, etc.). Ask yourself: “Does this agency show up online? And is that quality deserving of my business?”
The quality of the website and website content should serve as a key indicator of the quality of work you will receive. Like we said earlier, if an agency doesn’t have the ability to market themselves, they’re unlikely to be able to market you and they aren’t worth your time. The best agencies will have a well-designed website with clear information structure, quality website content, and simple navigation. Also, look at their social media. You should be able to pick up on their work, their culture, and what messages they are attempting to communicate to the people they want to work with—people like you.
Once you have your shortlist of relevant agencies, start contacting them. A quick, concise email describing your business, mentioning the reasons you’re interested in their agencies, and highlighting the services that bring you the most curiosity should do the trick.
Evaluating Agencies Through the Sales Process
Now you’ve entered the sales process with the marketing agency you’re hoping to work with. Hopefully it’s a streamlined journey for their sales team, with well-defined parameters and hopes to close with you. Before you fall head over heels for your new agency, though, there are a few things to keep in mind as you are learning about them.
Finding a good culture fit
It’s smart to learn more about the company’s culture as a whole at this point in the process. What are they striving for as an organization? Do they appear to be motivated to provide you the best work, or just make a profit? Is there a leadership team guiding the organization in a positive direction? Do they share similar core values to your organization?
Whether or not your culture and that of the agency you choose fit together will have massive long-term ramifications on the quality of the work. It’s a lot easier to build a healthy working relationship together if you’re on the same page culture-wise, and that synergy allows for you to build a foundation for an ongoing partnership that can stretch years into the future. Learning about culture is a vital part of the sales process with an agency.
Who’s going to be your point person?
The next phase in the sales process is a two-sided question: who will be working with you from the agency you hire, and who will be working with the agency in your organization? The point of contact with the agency will need to assist in managing the agency relationship, requests internally to the agency, general communication, and more. Both points of contact have critical roles to play, as you might guess, in managing, maintaining, and building the relationship between your organization and theirs. Make sure you trust them both, and they can work well together.
Finding an agency that understands your business
Client retention is all about reinforcing value beyond the checklists and tasks that need to be completed. One way that agencies demonstrate added value is by staying up to date on opportunities and trends and using them to drive results. Newsjacking to create blogs, capitalizing on a news story in order to create a case study or white paper, or simply tweeting about an event happening right now—these are just a few examples. Agencies should pride themselves on listening not only to their clients, but also to the conversations happening around their clients. From there it's up to the agency to act proactively, finding ways to quickly and effectively capitalize on these real-time opportunities.
That, of course, means the agency you choose needs to intimately understand your business, in order to be able to determine what opportunities are right for you and react quickly to them. Typically an agency will begin that process here, as part of the overall sales process, and they will continue to get to know you better as they work with you. One way this manifests is through buyer personas, internal and external marketing audits, and finally a brand plan. With all that in hand, you can trust that your agency will be able to take intelligent action on your behalf, whether or not they bring you in first.
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Red Flags in Hiring an Agency
In our dating metaphor, this is obviously where things are getting serious, and this is as good a time as any to think about dealbreakers. As you go through the process of selecting an agency, you might also be assessing whether you have the capabilities and resources to do a better job in-house, and obviously you have to be assessing whether there’s an exceptional fit between the prospective agency and your own internal team. Otherwise, the marriage simply isn’t going to work out. To help you make sure you aren’t getting hitched to a dud, here are a few things to consider.
1. Initial impressions
Maybe you’ve never heard of this agency. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there are plenty of smaller agencies that do great work and you might not be an industry expert going into the process anyway. That being said, you need to be careful about vetting an agency you’re unfamiliar with, and first impressions matter a lot. After all, how they show up the first time you meet with them is likely related to how they’re going to represent you the first time your own prospects hear about you—it had better be good.
2. First contact
Really strong marketing agencies get some initial contacts through referrals from existing clients. If the agency is contacting you, you’ll want to start vetting them by looking at how they’re viewed in the market and whether they’re growing. A referral is great, but if that’s all an agency has going for it, they still might not be the right fit.
3. What is the website like?
You always need to evaluate an agency’s website as part of vetting them. Does the site have a nice look, or is it poorly designed? Whether they’re a traditional advertising agency or a digital marketing agency, the company should have a website that effectively communicates their value proposition and showcases their work. How many pages does their website have? More than just a few, hopefully. And the site should be easy to navigate and you should be able to find the information you want. Are they regularly producing content? If their most recent blog post is from 2012, that’s a red flag. You want to see a solid blog that’s sharing helpful content, white papers that help prospects solve their problems, and insight into the employees who work there. Remember, once again: if they can’t do it for themselves, they aren’t going to be able to do it for you.
4. How their internal team is represented online
Successful agencies have a solid team page that showcases the personalities of their employees. You should be able to read about the backgrounds of the copywriters, art directors, creative directors, and company principals. If they don’t have this at all, or it’s poorly done, they’re missing something important.
5. Rankings fixation
Stay away if they’re promising first-page Google rankings or they launch into a soliloquy about link building or guest posting. The truth is that search engines have gotten much better in recent years at detecting spammy link building and companies looking to manipulate rankings. Rather, Google values user experience and content that keeps users interested and engaged. You need patience to achieve SEO success. If an agency promises a quick fix, they’re either lying or cheating.
6. Promising fast results
The same goes for your marketing overall. Building a brand online or offline isn’t something that happens overnight. It requires a solid strategy followed by creative execution. So don’t get sucked in by false promises.
7. Whether they can point to long-term results
An agency worth its salt can point to long-term client results. Steer clear of a company that just focuses on the short term, especially if there’s no evidence they can hold onto a client for the long haul. They should be able to build successes on successes, not just blast one digital campaign out and fade away.
8. Whether they focus on the sale or the actual problem
Are they actively trying to learn about your business and asking probing questions about your goals and challenges, or just giving you the hard sell? Your first interaction should be about them determining whether their expertise matches your needs and if it’s even helpful to keep talking. You should have questions to ask, and so should they. A smart agency wants to work with good matches, not just whoever will sign a contract. And they’ll be honest with you if they don’t fit.
9. How they approach that first interaction
You probably wouldn’t hire someone who doesn’t come to the interview with questions, right? So if an agency treats you like just another target rather than asking some really intelligent questions about your business, tell them to pound sand.
10. How they speak of other agencies
Marketers are competitive, sure. But if someone repeatedly disparages other agencies, it’s a definite warning sign. Agencies compete for local talent and business, so legitimate ones aren’t going to burn bridges. An agency should be more about what they are than what others are not. And if they recognize you aren’t a good fit, a great agency will be able to point you towards someone who is.
11. Whether they have partners
It’s really tough to do it all. Think about all the different aspects of marketing: there’s traditional advertising, digital marketing, branding, email marketing, public relations, video marketing, CRO, UX, and much more. Unless you’re looking at a global agency, great agencies typically partner with other agencies that have complementary specialties. Again, if they can’t help you find the answer you need even if that means paying someone else, they probably aren’t worth it.
12. Whether they have bad reviews
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s still worth mentioning. Today’s agencies can’t hide unhappy customers. You can easily find bad reviews with a branded search or two. While nobody is perfect, take a pass if you see a disturbing pattern—particularly of unkept promises.
Next up: The Honeymoon Phase and Onboarding
You’ve picked your partner, but that’s just the start. Next we’ll talk about onboarding, from the first handshakes to discovery and strategy, and all the way through to your first actual work together. It’s all sunshine and roses as you get to know each other and set off on the path to marketing glory—at least at first.
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