It’s difficult to cut through the noise to reach your targeted audience. Your customers are inundated with bland marketing messages from multiple brands, and they’ve ultimately become desensitized to advertising. This is a shame, since all you want to do is have authentic conversations. You have something of value to offer, but it feels like you have to scream for their attention. The good news is that a “scream” isn’t necessary. With the right marketing strategy, you can find unique ways to connect with your customers without competing for volume.
So how do you stand out?
First, you must find the right marketing team. Their strategic decisions will determine how, when, and where your company engages with target customers. While many companies utilize both in-house hires and an outside marketing agency, smaller companies and startups often must choose between one or the other.
It’s never an easy decision. Being internal gives your team more control but requires much more overhead. On the other hand, an agency can provide you an experienced team and a different perspective. Ultimately, you’re looking for the ultimate balance.
We, of course, believe in the internal and external approach. Here are the reasons why.
Reasons to hire a strategic marketing agency:
- You are not happy with your current marketing results and need a change.
- You are having a hard time discerning between strategic and tactical ways to grow your business.
- You do not have enough staff on hand to handle the work for marketing your business (as we mentioned, it’s usually less expensive to hire a marketing agency than a full-time employee with benefits. See here for an infographic reflecting more on this point).
- Your company doesn’t prioritize marketing and needs a partner to help grow its internal and external brand presence.
- Your sales and lead count need to increase.
- You need to upgrade your company’s visual appearance and brand.
- You need an outsider perspective to provide ideas to your internal team.
- You need to better understand what your customers want to see from your brand. Are there any opportunities you’re leaving on the table?
- You are having a hard time producing regular and interesting content through your media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogging, email newsletter, etc.).
- You don’t have the resources to scale and grow an in-house marketing team.
We know that there is no right answer on whether or not to hire an external agency. Some companies may view it as a luxury. We, however, view ourselves as a strategic partner invested in a relationship. How else would we be able to claim the things that we’re able to do?
Now, let’s say you’re committed to hiring a marketing agency.
What are the steps to find the right partner?
We like to recommend the “first date” technique: start small before diving into any type of ongoing relationship or retainer. We understand that sometimes this approach doesn’t work, like when you’re looking for an immediate engagement, so we included our steps to hiring the right agency for both project and relationship based agreements.
4 Steps to Hiring the Right Agency:
Step One – Before engaging, make sure you are ready to answer the following questions:
- Do you have a clear specific goal in mind that an agency can help with? Are there easily identifiable ROI + KPI metrics?
- Do you have a clear timeline, budget, and internal team able to work with the agency?
- Do you have a clear timeline for when you are going to make a decision?
- Do you know why you want to engage with an agency? Is the problem you are looking to solve a symptom of a bigger problem the agency may need to face (i.e., we find that sometimes a new website doesn’t fix an internal staffing or sales problem)?
- Do you have enough time to engage with an agency (provide content, participate in check-ins, give subject matter insights, give detailed feedback)?
- Do you have a list of agencies that are representative of the problem you’re trying to solve? Am I limiting my search due to location? Do the agencies I have on my list offer enough outsider perspective to help me with my problem?
- Do you have a set criteria on how you are going to evaluate a proposal? Who are the parties accountable on your end in selecting an agency partner and maintaining the relationship?
- Do you know what currently works and does not work in your business’ marketing?
If you are able to answer all the above questions with confidence, it’s time to move on and engage with an agency!
Step Two – When you are ready to engage, write a clear RFP:
When you are ready engage, it’s time to either:
- Build an RFP and send it out to agency partners: Always have clear objectives, summary of work requested, target demographic, timeline (for actual project and when you are making decisions), and budget. Agencies always want budgets included as this will give them a level playing field of knowledge. It also provides YOU, the client, with the opportunity to make the decision on the best proposal for your intended price. Here is a great whitepaper showcasing how to create an RFP and RFI for first-timers.
- Request a Discovery Session: If you are already familiar with several agencies and just want to narrow your search, it’s not uncommon to request a small project from each agency to test their processes and fit with your organization. Having a small budget allocated toward different agencies for a small deliverable or research into your brand can help you “test drive” the agency before you invest time and money into the relationship.
At this point, either you select an agency through the discovery session (we encourage you to still vet the agency using the questions below) or you interview agencies that responded appropriately to your RFP. Below are questions we recommend all companies ask their prospective agencies.
The right agency for you should be able to answer each question directly and ask you great questions about your business in return.
Step Three – Interview agencies with these questions:
Agencies that make it through the RFP or discovery processes should be able to answer the following questions:
- How does the agency discern between strategy and tactics in their engagements, and how do they connect each in their work?
- Do they clearly understand the problems in your business, and can they provide some potential solutions?
- How does the agency market themselves, and how do they follow their own processes in their business? This is important, as you want an agency that practices what they preach!
- What experience do they have in or related to your industry?
- What is their culture like, as well as the talent they hire? Are there many unique personalities and perspectives provided on the team? Will this team’s culture mesh well with yours?
- What are their specialties, and what do they not do? It’s important to consider if you need a “do-it all” agency or a specialized agency (for instance, Big Fish Presentations focuses solely on presentation experiences).
- How do they measure success for each engagement and ongoing relationship?
- Who do they have in their network that can assist in this project if extra help is needed?
- Ask the agency about their pricing model. Is it hourly? Per project? Incentivized based on results?
- Ask the agency for case studies and references. Do these case studies have clear objectives and solutions?
- Will they outsource any of your work, and how they will hold the outsourced party accountable?
- Who will be working on your account, and what does each person bring to the table?
- What are their project management and kick-off processes? How much engagement will be required from your team?
- What kind of marketing tools and software do they use in making sure the relationship/project is a success?
- What is the average time to see an ROI from your requested engagement?
- Ask the agency if they can provide a simplified one-pager of their engagement and the factors that will lead to its success. You want an agency that can simply summarize your needs. This clarity shows understanding.
- What factors is your company responsible for to ensure success in the engagement?
- Ask the agency to list the factors outside of their control that can affect the ROI of the engagement/project.
- What is their target customer discovery process like? Do they have any examples of creating personas? Can they showcase a clear example of how they used the personas to impact an engagement/project?
- If engaging in a finite project, and not a relationship, ask the agency what their handoff process is like, from vendor to client.
- How much content will you have to produce, and how that will affect the timeline?
- What is their research process like? What kind of tools do they use? If they don’t have the tools, how will they find the data they need to ensure your project is a success?
- Will they regularly report metrics? Will they translate the metrics to clear suggestions on how you can improve?
- Do they work with any competitors to your company, and if so, will they sign an NDA? Do you need them to include a non-compete clause?
- What are their routine check-ins, and can they be scheduled ahead of time for consistent accountability?
- Ask the agency for their standard contract terms for your engagement. What requests can affect their fee structure?
Your questions may vary on the type of engagement (whether you’re looking for a social media engagement, website rebuild, strategic marketing plan), but the above are general baseline questions you should always ask.
Based on the agencies’ responses, you will most likely emerge with a favorite. If you have multiple favorites, however, here are some questions your team can ask to make the selection easier:
Step Four – Make a final selection:
Sometimes you’re lucky and have multiple qualified agencies responding well to your interview questions. The hardest part from here is selecting the one that will vibe best with your team. At this point, ask these questions, and a winner should emerge.
- Which agency answered the above questions best?
- Which agency has a culture that would mesh well with yours?
- Which agency can respect your timeline, budget, and goals?
- Which agency asked the best questions?
- Which agency can easily reiterate the problem they are trying to solve for your business and the solution they can bring?
- Which agency has a clear project management process that fits your willing level of engagement?
- Which agency can easily report metrics and offer insights/recommendations that are understandable to your team?
- Would the agency you are planning to hire be considered a thought leader in their respective space?
- Which agency would not be afraid to challenge you and push back if you were planning to do something that would inhibit your goals?
- Which agency would value constructive feedback from your company?
So, in summary:
It doesn’t have to be that hard to decide who you would like to partner up with. If the technical questions are overwhelming you and your team, nail it down to at least these final points.
We found from experience that if these five points check out, the relationship is more likely to succeed:
- There’s a clear process from the agency on creating an overarching strategy, breakdown to tactics, to measuring ROI.
- Your team vibes well with the agency, and their team has a real passion to help your company.
- The team you’re working with is experienced in your needs.
- The agency has a healthy balance in challenging you with crazy ideas and presenting solid strategies to solve your problem.
- You know, in your gut, that your business will be better if you grow together with this agency.
Good luck, and we hope this guide can help you select your next agency partner!
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