Picking an agency is a momentous decision and usually comes at a time of change in the organization. Maybe you are a new marketing leader, or there’s a new CEO who has a different vision. Or maybe you’re just not achieving your goals with the agency you hired a while back and it's time for a change.
In putting this blog post together on how to select an agency, I'm assuming that you are reading this because you have two agencies that seem to “check the boxes,” but there’s no clear winner after you apply your scoring rubric. And your gut isn't helping you, either.
If you were a friend calling to ask my opinion, I’d tell you that if your gut is pulling you strongly toward one agency or the other and they both check most of your boxes, then read no further. In this as most decisions in life, your gut feel is probably right; it’s just hard to rationalize what your gut is telling you. Fortunately, most of your colleagues and even analytical superiors will accept gut feel as a swing vote.
For those of you without a strong gut feel, I offer the following 12 factors to consider when you're down to picking between two content marketing agencies.
1. How is the interpersonal fit? Can you imagine working with these people for the next two or three years? Are they committed to your success personally as well as professionally? How do you think the team will respond when things aren’t going well? Will they put in the overtime to make deadlines or correct an error? This is a relationship and you need it to work for you, after all; you are paying for the pleasure.
2. Is what you need done a core competency at the agency? Is the work you need done a passion for the agency principals and senior execs? The days of the “integrated marketing agency” are nearly over. Everyone is a specialist. So, are you going to a generalist for a specialty like content marketing? Is this an area the agency is investing in? Do they have thought leadership?
3. Does the agency have its own methodology to manage client marketing? Most successful agencies not only have a specialty, but also a repeatable process by which they manage their clients. Repeatable processes have outcomes that are predictable. It’s ok, btw, for their process to be based on something used more generally—graduates of some large agencies, like Ogilvy or BBDO will likely incorporate what they think are best practices from those firms in their business. Digging deeper, you want to know how they realize their process in a project management system. Can you live with their reports? Will they create reports for you, and will there be an extra cost associated with custom reports? (This is OK in my book, just good to know what that cost is.)
4. Is the agency certified on your marketing automation platform(s) of choice? Closely coupled with what they do are the automation platforms they use. If you are locked in with a specific platform and an agency isn't certified on it, this can be a deal breaker. Realistically this should have been on your initial screener, but we’ve certainly been brought into—and allowed ourselves to get too far into—reviews where the automation platform isn’t something we can or will work with.
5. The statement of work should leave little doubt as to what you are getting. For most of the work we do, the initial six months or so are well spelled out. This isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes you want to buy a time block or agile measure of resource per month at a specific price. That’s ok. But if there is a campaign and means of measuring activities and outcomes agreed, it should all be in writing. The agency with the less specific SOW might be the one that will be harder to manage to an outcome later.
6. Check their references and ask difficult questions. Even though you’ll never get references from clients that are unhappy, you can still learn a lot about the agency and what it's like to work with them. Ask about the relationship, reporting, their commitment to the reference’s success as an individual and what happens when deadlines are missed or budgets blown. How are disagreements managed? What would they change if they could? Would they—and do they—go out for drinks or dinner with the team that serves their account?
7. How did they find you, or you them? If they are an inbound marketing agency, do they practice what they preach? Are a significant number of their clients coming from inbound? This isn’t mandatory from my POV, but I do think it can be one of those things that contributes to a gut feel, especially on inbound. This kind of work is very process and detail-oriented. Agencies that get this right for themselves are likely to do so for you. Likewise, a sales enablement orientation at the agency might mean that many clients come via their prospecting and networking—also process-oriented when done right.
8. It's great if your agency knows your industry. But, it's not imperative by any means. We're in the business of learning new industries. And no matter what, you must be the keeper of the strategic flame except in unusual circumstances, such as if your agency team leader came out of your business, or has had deep client experience in your sector. Otherwise, be prepared to train the agency. It’s OK. We’ll do just fine together.
9. Will the pitch team service your account? It’s not uncommon for agencies to pitch you with the “A” team and then hand off servicing you to other team members who aren’t as experienced or dynamic. It’s also fine for agency leadership to lead the pitch, just be certain that you get to meet and interact with the proposed service team enough to decide if you want them on your account.
10. Is the agency geographically desirable, and is that important to what you’ll be doing together? For some clients and assignments, industry or practice area experience trumps location. That can certainly be true for inbound marketing – and in fact, we routinely serve clients out of our area. This is a personal preference as much as anything, though if your offices are in an area without a lot of professional services firms, this may not matter to you at all.
11. Is the agency staffed full-time or freelance, all in one place or virtual? Today’s workforce is dramatically different than it was just ten years ago. It's very likely that your account team will be a hybrid of full-time and freelance. The all-virtual model has its virtues, but you may wish to have a team that can coalesce and collaborate in real life. What benefits does the virtual agency offer you? If your business has many locations, it's possible that a virtual team’s footprint could match yours, and prove to be a great advantage. We operate as a hybrid; we have a full-time core, freelancers who are very regularly engaged and those we engage with from time-to-time as client needs dictate. Be sure you’re getting the team and service model you’re comfortable with.
12. Is the agency focused on revenue growth? We’re all about growth at Austin Lawrence. In fact, we call ourselves a growth agency because our focus is on content and engagement that drive more web traffic and compel site visitors to provide credentials to get that content, thereby becoming sales leads. If you have ambition to grow your business, make sure your agency shares that passion and has the skillset to help you achieve your goals.
We’d welcome the chance to talk with you about your business and how we might help you achieve your growth goals. Feel free to book a first meeting using this link to my calendar or call me at 203-391-3006.