TLDR: Picking a new marketing agency is a little like buying a new pair of running shoes. Make the right choice, you’ll manage to run further and faster than ever before. Get it wrong and you better like getting blisters. But vetting potential partners doesn’t have to be complicated – it’s all about getting to a shared expectation of what’s possible in what timeframe with the available budget.
There’s an age-old debate for B2B startups when it comes to getting the marketing machine off the ground.
Do we hire someone in-house? Or do we work with an agency?
Real answer – and a huge cop-out – is that it really depends.
What are your goals?
How quickly do you need to scale?
What do you already have in place?
How much budget do you have to spend?
There’s an article in me where I break down the pros and cons for both. Maybe I’ll even do a Twitter Chat? (Interested in co-hosting? Send me a DM) But for the purpose of this piece, let’s assume you’ve decided to outsource your efforts to get the ball rolling.
Great! But… how do you know if they’re going to be the right fit?
Here are the five questions I always ask before signing on any dotted line.
⚖️ Sidebar ⚖️
No agency is built equal. Requirements from content specialists will be massively different than those from PR professionals. Use the advice below as a starter for ten to get a feel for your potential new partners but you’ll need to drill down with questions related to their specific expertise.
Need some guidance? My inbox is always open.
“Who will I be working with and how much time can they give me?”
Lot’s of agencies will roll out the CEO/Founder to dazzle you with during the pitch process… but disappear off the map as soon as the contract is signed.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a major red flag is an agency head boasting about how many dozens of clients get their personal, undivided attention. It usually indicates a choke point for the firm getting quality work quickly out of the door.
But if you are starting the relationship based on the fact you want to work directly with the CEO – make sure that’s what is going to happen. And what your position in the pecking order is going to be.
“Tell me about a time you failed to deliver for a client and what you did to rectify it.”
I spend a lot of time scanning through marketing agency websites. You would be forgiven for thinking that the majority of them have discovered the fountain of youth or achieved some other great feat for humanity.
Dozens of accolades. Gushing testimonials from clients. Logos atop logos atop fricken logos.
Ask this question to bring a little reality to the room. No one likes to admit failure – least of all companies who are literally paid to bring success – yet it happens. And I would rather work with a firm that’s taken a few bruises but knows how to keep fighting versus one that has seemingly never weathered a storm.
“Can you share any referrals from similar companies to ours?”
Be very careful when choosing to work with an agency that has no direct or indirect experience working with companies similar to yours – either in terms of size, set-up or sector – unless you’re prepared to do some serious hand-holding upfront.
(which – considering you’re a startup and just needs results quick – I assume you are not)
Communication is just way easier when a firm has been around the block before. They will understand what you do, what strategies work/don’t work, and may even have some intel from organisations like yours that they can leverage to give you an edge.
All of this is especially true if you work in a complex, technical or specialist industry.
“Talk me through your process.”
This is really a dozen or so questions baked into one.
I’ve worked with agencies who expect to take the brief into a dark room somewhere and only come out once they have the finished article. Others want your feedback every step along the way.
You probably want to land somewhere in the middle.
Getting to grips with the agency’s process should yield answers to questions like:
- What does the onboarding process look like?
- How will the agency get the discovery info they need to start the work?
- What is the average length of a project, from conception to delivery?
- How many revisions of the work are you entitled to?
- What does day-to-day communication look like?
- How should feedback be provided?
- What tools will be used?
- How will the agency keep the work tightly aligned with your core objectives?
- Who do I call if there’s an issue?
As a starter for ten, write down what you intuitively expect from your new partner from the questions above and take these into the pitch meeting. It’ll give you a good sense on whether there is a natural fit.
And here it is. Perhaps the most important query for a cash-strapped startup looking to get its money’s worth. Similar to the previous question, there is a lot more lurking under the surface of these two seemingly harmless words.
It tells you about the agency’s pricing model – hourly, project, results-based or custom? Each has its pros and cons. Check out this article for more details.
Sounds too cheap? Maybe the agency is farming work overseas to be competitive. Not a problem necessarily, but something you should know about.
Sounds too expensive? Maybe it’s justified – ask for referrals – or maybe the company is mismanaging resources and burning cash flow.
You can also get a feel for whether you need to budget for things outside of the agency’s scope and even if they have recommendations on where to look.
Ultimately, there is often a battle of wills between both sides on who will provide financial figures first. Obviously, the agency doesn’t want to undersell their services, while the client wants to get away paying as little as possible. In my experience, it’s often best to just be straight up on what the total available budget is for the project less 30% and negotiate from there.
You can also think about asking for a ‘Bronze, Silver, Gold’ budget that gives you increased benefits in line with the cost. I know a lot of agencies hate doing this, but for a client, it’s a great way to evaluate how far your money will get you.
Building credibility with prospective customers is one of marketing’s most important jobs. Create plays in each of the four quadrants of credibility – self, press, client and work – and you’ll be doing better than 95% of your competitors.