How to narrow down a list of marketing agencies with a little bit of targeted research.
Researching specific agencies you're interested in working with can help you get a better sense of which ones you really want to talk with before you reach out.
HOW SHOULD YOU CREATE YOUR SHORTLIST OF AGENCIES TO CONTACT?
I’d recommend using a variety of methods: search engines, LinkedIn, referrals, and tracking back work that you like.
Search engines are a decent starting point, but if you want a complete list, you should vary your search terms based on what you’re looking for. About half of the search results will likely be garbage agencies — I swear this is the case regardless of geography. Disregard them and try to build up a decent list to start from.
If you’re looking for a niche or specialist agency, this might be your primary discovery method.
LinkedIn can help you discover agencies and get a sense of how large they are. If you have a decent network, you could also ask for recommendations and referrals here. If you’re an active Twitter user, you might get some good feedback from your network. I’m not sure the quality of feedback the average person would get from their Facebook friends, but then again, I don’t use Facebook for business.
This may be obvious, but don’t forget to reach out to your colleagues at other companies to see who they’ve used and if they’d recommend them.
Tracking Back Work
Find work you admire and find out who did it. Assuming it’s not a competitor, you could reach out to the company directly. They may have done it in-house anyway. It’s not 100% guaranteed, but you can also try a search along the lines of “company abc web design portfolio” and see if the agency added it to their portfolio.
HOW SHOULD YOU EVALUATE AGENCIES PRIOR TO CONTACTING THEM?
Prior to reaching out, you should be able to answer a few questions about any agency that catches your eye:
Is their portfolio ‘good’?
Now the definition of good is going to depend on your specific need and interest. Does the work on their portfolio indicate that they tend to have ongoing relationships with clients? Do they talk strategy or just execution? Do they have experience in a variety of mediums, or are they really great but only at one thing?
Make sure to go deep here. There’s a trend with some agencies to only show a few pieces on their portfolio. If I were looking for an
agency, I’d prefer one that can show a lot of work in a lot of styles. Also, note that the top pieces will tend to be that agency’s best work. Make sure to dig deeper and see if there’s a noticeable decline in quality further down in their portfolio.
Make sure to look beyond the quality of the agency’s own website and branding. Many agencies outsource their own marketing and website design, and some shops even just use a template. Evaluate the work they’ve done for clients, not work they’ve done for themselves.
What kinds of clients do they work with?
While every agency does their best to flaunt the names and logos of their big-name clients, you should cross reference their client list with their portfolio. Many agencies willfully mislead on their client lists by listing big name clients that they did little work for, or work for only a single franchise/location.
Also, get a feel for the size of clients they typically work with. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule stating you should work with agencies who only work with companies the same size as yours. The common logic is that an agency that usually works with companies larger than yours will be more expensive and more talented, but as one of their ‘smaller clients’ you might not get priority treatment. On the other hand, an agency that typically works with companies smaller than yours might give you undivided attention and work hard to ensure you’re happy, but then suffer on the professionalism side as their internal processes and procedures are less formal. This, of course, is generalizing. The larger point is to evaluate the agency through the lens of their experience, clientele, and size and compare it with what you’re looking for in an agency.
Check references pre-contact?
It’s a little unorthodox to track down a contact for an agency’s client before talking to the agency, but I don’t mind it. The few times this has happened, the initial conversation with the prospective client is good because they feel they already have a good read on us. A 20-minute conversation might save you a lot of time avoiding hours of sales meetings, internal reviews of proposals, etc.
Do your best to get a sense of the agency and the people in it. Some of this can be inferred from their website and through light LinkedIn stalking. Feel free to Facebook stalk too, though that always feels weird to me for business purposes. I’m always suspicious of agencies who don’t have team bios or at least leadership bios.
Doing online research is a great way to put together a shortlist of marketing agencies. As you do this, make sure you are thinking about which agencies you want to work with the most and prioritize reaching out to those first.