There are a few specific traits that can give you valuable hints about whether a marketing agency is a good fit for your organization.
Once you contact an agency, it's important to really pay attention during the sales process. By listening carefully, you can get an idea of who they are, how they do business, and what the working relationship will be like.
WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR IN AN AGENCY DURING THE SALES PROCESS?
Candor/sincerity/honesty, transparency, culture fit, professionalism, good references, willingness to challenge assumptions, willingness to listen, experience with the task at hand, talent, and results focused are all traits that come to mind. Some are buzz-wordy, so let’s take them one at a time:
In a perfect world, the sales process is an opportunity for both parties to learn about one another and determine if they’re a great fit. The only way this really works is if they are forthright and honest with each other. An agency should be comfortable discussing why they’re awesome, sure, but also why they might not be. This type of candor should stretch across the board. If a digital agency favors a certain content management system, they should be able to not only sell it, but also discuss both its advantages and disadvantages compared to alternative platforms. The agency should be comfortable providing balanced and direct answers to questions like, “What opportunities and challenges do you foresee for us when working together?”
Is it clear what the agency’s business model is? Are their processes and procedures communicated? Do they dance around a possible skill set or familiarity with technology that they don’t have experience with? Transparency is a close cousin to candor. I draw the distinction between them as candor being a personal trait and transparency being more institutional—are your interactions with the organizations writ large, clear, understandable, and on the level?
This comes from your gut—do you want to work with these people? This could be due to their style of dress, how they speak, and if you can laugh with them. At the same time, it could be deeper—in the sense that your style of working and approach jibes with theirs.
Professionalism is an interesting term. How do you define it in a way that actually means something? What does it mean to be a professional? These questions are part of a bigger discussion. Used here in a somewhat less formal sense, I’m referring to whether the organization and its employees act in a way that is consistent with an organization that has its shit together.
A lot of this is basic. Do they call on time? Do they arrive at meetings on time? Do they get out a proposal or follow up when they say they will? Do they seem to have clear procedures and policies in place? You might want to throw professional attire onto this list. As the owner of a ‘hip, young agency,’ I’m biased. We tend to keep the dress code pretty casual.
Most references provided by the agency are obviously hand picked, but you can still get valuable information from following up with them. Ask questions like, “What could have been done better?” and so forth. Additionally, agencies list many of their clients and much of their work on their websites. See if you’re connected, say via LinkedIn, and feel free to reach out to a couple clients the agency hasn’t offered up to see if their experience is in line with the ones provided by the agency.
WILLINGNESS TO CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS
A good agency shouldn’t steamroll all of your ideas, but they also shouldn’t accept all of your requirements as gospel. It’s their job to bring ideas to the table and challenge your ideas when their expertise can provide additional insight. Additionally, they should be able to accept and work around intrinsic obstacles—businesses are complex, and political realities can trump good ideas. Sometimes these obstacles need to be respected, and sometimes they need to be challenged. A good agency should be able to navigate this.
WILLINGNESS TO LISTEN
Too many agencies treat sales meetings as one-way conversations by going through an hour-long presentation and parading out a dozen examples of work. As I’ve said, the sales process should be geared toward building a mutually beneficial relationship. A big part of that process is allowing the prospective client to drive the conversation with their needs, pain points, and what they’re looking for on behalf of their company. Look for an agency that is thoughtful and spends their time listening and learning instead of bragging.
EXPERIENCE WITH THE TASK AT HAND
Technology moves at an ever-increasing pace, and the number of platforms has exploded over the last decade. (Just check out this graphic of the Marketing Technology space—3,874 different platforms! In 2011, that same graphic had 150 platforms on it.) All this is to say that it’s not always realistic to expect your current or potential agency to have significant expertise and history with every past, current, and future technology that should be leveraged by your company. However, you should always make sure you know the extent of their experience on any given endeavor. This is true for capabilities (brand development, web development), platforms (CMS, marketing automation software), and specific technical skills (programming languages, print production).
Even if your agency doesn’t have a ton experience in an area, it may make sense to give them an assignment out of their comfort zone anyway.
For example, your digital agency might not have a ton of history doing print product catalogs—but they know your brand, have talented designers with print backgrounds, and you trust them. Your understanding of their experience should absolutely come into play in that decision-making process. At S4, we love getting assignments out of our comfort zone when it makes sense for our clients. However, we know when to say no and work with partners on behalf of our clients if that’s what’s best for them and the project.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT:
Many agencies have an unwritten policy of saying they can do anything and figuring it out later. This can work out if it’s a small or simple project. The more complex or large the task, though, the bigger the recipe for disaster— especially on the tech side. I’ve seen way too many agencies get into messes selling a development project thinking they can simply outsource the development and handle the project management. I have never seen a non-technical agency or company directly manage and outsource a development project successfully. Never. But agencies try all the time. Sometimes they’re transparent and honest with the client, but often they represent that they have a particular skill in-house when they don’t. Then they use a contractor’s experience and past projects as their own, or straight-up lie to get the work. Push for clear answers and, if you suspect that they aren’t being completely forthright, either move on or at least get something in writing attesting to who will be performing their work and what their relationship is to the agency.
This can be a tough one to evaluate based on the nature of the engagement. I’ve added it to this list because I’ve seen a ton of agencies (especially old-school, traditional ad agencies) know how to talk a big game but produce just plain bad outputs.
For most companies, your job is to pick the agency that will produce the best outcomes while taking costs into account. However, that knowledge isn’t directly accessible or projectable, even by the agency.
Agency-produced case studies and results for past clients can provide a partial picture, but success metrics for self-marketing purposes can be massaged and cherry picked, and case studies are obviously selected based on their success. So looking for ‘talent’, as mushy and subjective a term as it is, serves to answer the question: How good are they really?”
SOME QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER WHEN EVALUATING FOR TALENT:
Are the qualities that I like about the company’s work—such as design, copywriting, user experience, and so on—being produced by in-house talent at the agency or is it being outsourced? Are the employees that produced work that I liked the most still at the agency, and will any of them be on my account?
Do they have more than a single resource at various roles? It’s not uncommon for small agencies or agencies working out of their comfort zone (i.e. traditional agency taking on a digital project) to only have a single designer or front or back-end developer. Isolated professionals tend to have reduced exposure to new ideas and technologies and have higher tendencies to build flawed processes as their colleagues lack the technical knowledge to question them. I’ve seen this result in very backwards practices within agencies.
Make sure to thoroughly evaluate the agency’s portfolio. Sadly, I’ve seen too many agencies outsource or use a template for their own website while charging for and producing sub-par work for their clients.
Being ‘results-focused’ and ‘data-driven’ gets a lot of lip service these days. When we talk with prospective clients, our first questions usually are "What are your goals?" and "How do we measure success towards them?" Being results-focused means dissecting goals into success metrics that can be measured as a proxy for progress towards the goals and subgoals, benchmarking those metrics, and then regularly reporting on progress. This isn’t always easy and many agencies are content to make their ‘success metric’ be your general satisfaction—if you’re not mad, they must be doing a great job.
Additionally, much of the challenge of really demonstrating results can come from the fact that you have to go deep into the business’s operations to get the full picture. An agency may be able to report that an AdWords campaign delivered 20 leads in a given month but to know the whole picture you need insight into lead quality, close rate, and eventual sales value. Without that information, the agency really can’t demonstrate the actual value of the campaign and use that information to inform decision making going forward.
So ask agencies to go a little deeper on their definition of demonstrating results— if they think that results equal increased search traffic in and of itself, then I’d move on.
By paying attention during the sales process, you can learn a lot about the agencies you are considering. Careful evaluation of the traits outlined in this post can give you an excellent sense of how an agency will work with you on your project.