What are the smart questions to ask as you’re hiring an agency? Read my POV in this post.
It’s the rare B2B marketing situation that calls for a major-league agency. The answers to most B2B challenges are relatively confined campaigns that target a defined audience with strategy and tactics that can be created and managed by a team of 10 or fewer.
The better ask is, “What are some examples of the business transformations you’ve helped your clients to achieve?” And, “What are the ideas you’ve brought to the table, how were they arrived at and do you have a process in place to repeat the performance?”
There’s a question written on the dry-erase wall in my office that reads, “What can we do that our clients cannot?” It serves as a reminder of the true value-add that a B2B growth agency like ours can deliver to our mostly SaaS client base. We bring decades of experience to bear on seemingly intractable problems, most often solved through a creative process and original insight into a business situation.
If you’re not seeking transformative change, the “how big” question makes a little more sense. If you want a low-cost production line (not unlike an internal shared services organization), it’s reasonable to ask, “What’s the capacity in widgets per hour?” But when you are meeting an agency for the first time, I strongly recommend you set aside the question of size match. And here’s why.
Expertise matters more than roster. Since the same talent pool is available to clients and agencies alike, why hire an agency at all? The simple answer is expertise. We have domain experience gained over decades that enables us to imagine solutions to problems from a deep and wide context. This is in contrast to most client execs who are very deeply knowledgeable about their businesses (they’re often referred to as subject matter experts), who don’t see the way that a marketing solution can accelerate accomplishment or turn around a difficult situation.
We will scale up to meet your needs. Any agency that’s been around for a while, and also any startup whose founder(s) have deep experience, has a big network of freelancers and pipelines of candidates circling the agency. The good agencies and their execs are talent magnets. And in today’s world where talent pools can be tapped remotely, staffing isn’t a real issue.
We won’t pitch business we cannot serve. Experienced agency leaders don’t pursue business that isn’t a reasonable fit. The smartest among us only pitch work that is good for you and us. The better the fit, the longer the relationship lasts, and that’s good for everyone. Exceptional agency leaders will refer you to a better resource if they cannot help you, so it pays to have an open book and open mind when you are in the hunt for a new agency partner.
So let’s revisit the questions that really matter:
Can you get the thinking you need to succeed from the agency?
Leadership at a specialized agency like ours (we focus on SaaS), has both the industry experience needed to understand how decisions are made by your prospects and the deep marketing chops that only come with time. So you want to dig deep on situations that are like the ones you face now.
Do you have a process to make the magic repeatable?
It goes against the grain of some marketers to try to contain the creative process. But, in my experience, having a methodology helps us to more quickly and reliably arrive at creative solutions that will make a difference in the outcome for a client. If an agency can’t explain their process, you’re stuck with hope, and that’s not a plan for success. A related question is, “Can I buy your strategy separate from execution?” And the answer to that should be “Yes.”
Will they integrate well with your team as it’s structured now and for the next year?
The agency team's capabilities should be complimentary to the skillset of the client-side team it will be working with. In addition, the agency team should be able to do things you cannot and have experience that your team lacks. They should also add bandwidth in areas that you can’t or don’t want to staff.
Can they scale up to deliver the services you need?
Many agencies these days staff flexibly, scaling up and down as client work comes and goes. Do they have capacity available when you need it, with the skills you need? If the current team is already working at or over 100 percent, how will they scale to meet their commitments to you?
Have they delivered the outcome you seek for other clients?
Some of the most important questions never get asked and answered during the agency search process. I always try to get to the heart of the matter. Is management seeking an exit or strategic buyer? Are we seeking a private equity investor to fund a management buyout and further growth? And now that we have the actual goal on the table, can the agency explain how its execs have contributed to these larger outcomes? (As a CMO or VP marketing, you’re likely measuring other things like brand awareness, market share, and traffic, leads and sales that will contribute to these outcomes.)
Are they good humans who you can imagine building a relationship with?
This is the number one thing I’m looking for in a prospective client. Life is just too short to work with people who are going to make things more difficult. As an agency principal, the number one thing I recruit for is character. Number two is desire to do the work. And number three is related experience. My recommendation to prospective clients is to weight the “good human” thing near the top; when the turd hits the fan, as it will, good humans work through the issues to make things right. When times are easy, everyone looks like a superstar. Hire an agency for how they’ll back you up when the going gets tough.
These questions get to the heart of the matter. The vanity measures of size, fancy office, etc., are just that… smoke that helps insecure people make a decision.