Everyone knows it's important to ask questions during a sales meeting with a marketing agency, but are you asking the right questions?
I’m regularly surprised by the lack of incisive questions asked in sales meetings. While, as I’ve said before, sales meetings should be taken as an opportunity to build a relationship and not as a negotiation, I do think you should ask questions that might be a little uncomfortable for the agency. I’m not suggesting you grill someone like in an employment interview, but you want to force the agency to go off script a little.
QUESTIONS TO ASK AN AGENCY DURING A SALES MEETING.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN BUSINESS? WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THE AGENCY?
These are softball questions, but it’s good to start with the basics. This might be oversimplifying, but new agencies typically struggle with balancing workload, consistency, and reliability. However, they are hungry and cost effective. Established agencies are usually more expensive, but tend to be more reliable. I’m obviously biased here, but agencies that got their start pre-internet tend to still, all these years later, have trouble figuring out digital. Again, those are trends. You should always evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
In addition, learning the history of the agency can be illuminating. You should ask questions like, “Where did they start?”, “What services did they grow into?”, and so on. It’s also worth asking if the agency has grown or shrunk significantly in the last couple of years. In my opinion, it’s risky to work with an agency in either situation. While a growing agency may be more willing to brag on their growth, I’ll note from personal experience that it might not be the one you want to work with. About four years ago, S4 grew from 5 to 18 employees. The pace of hiring made it difficult for us to keep our processes, quality, and service up to the standards our clients had come to expect. In retrospect, I would have forced slower growth and maintained high quality.
WHO IS YOUR BIGGEST CLIENT, AND WHAT PROPORTION OF YOUR REVENUE COMES FROM THEM?
Agencies that are overleveraged on one or two clients put themselves in a dangerous position, and they know it. They lose their main client, and layoffs happen immediately. Often this means that the agency is forced to do whatever it takes to keep that client happy. This impacts your importance as a client, but also tends to foster a yes-man culture even beyond those working with their main client.
WHAT SERVICES DO YOU NOT OFFER?
This is an interesting question because it forces the agency to talk outside their list of positives and defend their specialization. Digging deeper into why they don’t offer a particular service can lead to a fruitful conversation about the partners they have who offer those services. I recommend following that up with asking about their history with their partners and what projects they’ve worked on together.
WHAT SERVICES DO YOU OUTSOURCE TO CONTRACTORS?
How much do you outsource, to whom, and where are they? Do you have a policy of communicating to clients when you use a resource that is outside the agency?
These are big questions, and I recommend going deep on them. Too many agencies will sell whatever they can on the belief that they can bring in contractors to fulfill right away. The reality is that this is rarely the case. Most situations I’ve seen when a project or relationship explodes spectacularly are because the agency sold a project they had no idea how to fulfill internally. This is not to say contractors can’t be used very successfully. They can, but the client should be fully informed and on board about it. In addition, the agency should have internal experience managing the skillsets they’re outsourcing. If a traditional ad agency wants to outsource app development, run. If a PHP shop wants to use contractors for a Ruby on Rails project, run.
Moreover, make sure you trust your agency and that you will be notified, contractually, if they bring in outside resources. In a fully transparent environment, this can work great. But if the agency is pretending they have in-house resources for things they don’t, you’re in trouble.
OF THE SERVICES YOU OFFER, WHICH DO YOU FEEL ARE YOUR STRONGEST? YOUR WEAKEST?
Again, this forces an agency to stop selling and try to provide an honest answer. I know I said this isn’t a interview for employment, but this is akin to asking a candidate to talk about their weaknesses. Might force them to think on the spot. “We are too much of a perfectionist,” isn’t a valid answer.
HOW OFTEN ARE YOUR PROJECTS COMPLETED ON TIME AND ON BUDGET?
As the owner of an agency that has had a time and materials business model for the bulk of its existence, I am shocked that I’ve only heard this question a few times in the sales process. It’s a difficult question, sure. Many projects go over budget because scope has increased and the client is super happy about the work. Many timelines aren’t met because of client delays. But this question forces the agency to defend themselves. Honestly, if they say they always hit these targets, they’re probably lying. Look for a nuanced answer.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MOST SUCCESSFUL PROJECTS/RELATIONSHIPS, AND HOW DID/DO YOU MEASURE SUCCESS IN THESE CASES?
This throws the agency a bone and allows them to brag on their awesome work...given they can back it up with data. Push on the measurement. Many projects seem successful because the client is happy, but the actual measurable result is unknown. If an agency throws out preliminary metrics (impressions, traffic, etc.), push to see if they connected their work with measurable revenue and ROI.
DESCRIBE A PROJECT OR RELATIONSHIP THAT WASN’T SUCCESSFUL AND ITS OUTCOME.
Super tough question. If they’re too direct, they’ll end up bad mouthing a past client, which is as bad as bad mouthing your past employer in an interview. Go too soft, and you’re admitting your own inadequacies. The right answer recognizes that both parties could have fostered a better working relationship or involves the agency firing a client early when it was clear they were not a good fit.
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN A LEGAL DISPUTE WITH A CLIENT OR OTHER PARTY? ARE YOU CURRENTLY IN ANY LEGAL DISPUTES?
I’ve never seen these questions before, but given what I know of other agencies, they are absolutely questions you should ask. Not only can legal issues indicate deeper problems in the agency, but current legal issues can take overriding precedence over all other concerns at an agency. At S4, we’ve never faced mediation, arbitration, or litigation, but I know agencies who have. It may not be a deal-breaker, but as a prospective client you have a right to know.
WHO WOULD I BE WORKING WITH ON A REGULAR BASIS?
This isn’t always known early in the sales cycle, but it’s a legitimate question to ask. It’s especially true if you’re talking with a salesperson or a partner. You may love who you’re talking to, but they may hand you off to people you don’t once the ink is dry. If possible, meet the team. Obviously, this could be a burden if you’re not bringing in a lot of work, but it’s important to get a sense of who you’ll be working with. Ask about their experience. Even if a company’s done amazing work, it doesn’t mean you won’t get assigned to their entry-level designer.
HOW DOES THE SCOPE AND SIZE OF THE ENGAGEMENT WE’RE DISCUSSING STACK UP TO YOUR OTHER CLIENTS AND PROJECTS?
It’s not a bad idea to know how you’ll be perceived in regards to the agency’s other clients. If you’re bigger than most of their other clients, you’ll likely receive more attention, but you may push their limits. If you’re smaller, you might get more attention but be relegated to the B team depending on the agency’s structure. At S4, we realized this tendency and stopped hiring entry-level staff. It felt like we were selling based on our top talent’s work and then assigning smaller projects to employees with less experience. Now we work in cross-functional teams that are balanced in terms of talent and experience.
HOW MUCH TURNOVER DO YOU HAVE ON STAFF?
This is similar to diving deep into an agency’s history. If there’s been turnover due to growth or shrinking, it might reveal something about their culture. A few of the struggles of running an agency are keeping clients happy, employees engaged, and the agency profitable. Sometimes, it seems like these three responsibilities are points on a triangle that run counter to one another. In a smoothly functioning agency, they shouldn’t.
One of the best ways to guage whether you are going to have a productive working relationship with an agency is to have an honest conversation driven by probing questions. Hopefully, these questions will help you gain some valuable insight into your target agency's inner workings so you can make the best decision for your project.