Many businesses see the process of finding the right marketing agency as pleasant as a colonoscopy. And just as messy.
Finding a small business marketing agency that checks all the boxes for your particular commercial needs can be a stressful and laborious experience. Whether you’ve appointed agencies in the past or this is your first time, there’s a bewildering array of choice. Go for a big name agency, or a smaller ’boutique’ style provider? Should you stay local, or widen your search? Can your small business justify the cost?
One of the main reasons finding the right agency seems as elusive as inserting a USB cable the right way round first time is that, at first glance, many agencies seem to be saying the same thing. They all boast they can help you grow market share, reputation, and sales. All have similar competences and offer outwardly-similar services. Lots of them have super-cool looking websites with flashy design, amazing work examples, gushing client testimonials, and maybe a free eBook or three.
So where do you start? How on earth do you sort out the wheat from the chaff? How are you meant to sniff out the heroes from the zeros and appoint an agency who gets what your business is about, offers the right blend of services – all for a price that won’t have you reaching for a Xanax? Here are some tips to help you evaluate prospective agencies and make the right choice.
Integrity, Professionalism, & Accountability
On a comforting note – unless you’re unlucky to find a total lemon – at the end of the day pretty much any agency is going to be able to provide the services your business needs. Sure, some will be more creative in their approach; or maybe offer a wider range of services. But in my book what’s absolutely crucial when evaluating any kind of business partner (marketing firm or otherwise) are more down-to-earth criteria.
What do I mean? I’m talking about an agency’s integrity, professionalism and accountability. For example if they say they’re going to call you tomorrow at 11am, that’s what they should do. If they end up calling at 11.30am without a good reason, to me that’s signaling they don’t value your time.
Other red flags? If you’ve been led to believe a particular marketing initiative was going to cost X while the invoice lists a bunch of hidden extras, that’s not cool. Similarly if no-one returns your call or email within one business day, they better have a darn good reason.
I see conflict of interest as a sign of integrity too. As a client I wouldn’t want to engage an agency that was working with a competitor – I’m sure you’d feel the same way. We’re sometimes placed in a position where we need to turn down a client project because their business is in conflict with one of our existing clients. I think most reputable agencies would do the same. However I have heard stories…
When they screw-up - and they will, eventually - how do they deal with it? Agencies are full of humans, so we can’t escape the basic fact that human beings occasionally make mistakes. What separates a good business from a great business is less about making a boo-boo, but more about how the boo-boo is addressed.
As a small business, you should be investing in an agency in ways more than just the supply of a set of services. To get the best from your agency, they need to be considered as a partner, a peer - rather than simply as a supplier. If you’re going to open-up your business to that level of intimacy you need a partner reflecting similar values and priorities to your own organization.
The Importance Of Communication
Marketing agencies are all about communication, so you’d think that this was a given, right? You’d be surprised. You’d think that this was a given, right?
Part of the success of working with an agency lies in efficient communication between everyone involved. That’s not just in terms of accessibility (see above) but in terms of understanding your business. It’s unrealistic to expect them to understand all the ins and outs of your product/service, business, and industry as a whole. However, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect everyone involved in the project to know enough to, for example, answer low-level sales questions.
If the agency isn’t taking the time to understand what’s happening below the waterline, they’re just going through the same motions as they are with every other client on their books. Your business deserves better than that.
For some small businesses - and indeed individuals - the physical location of the agency is an important factor. Supposing you’re planning a campaign with postcards mailed out to addresses with ten miles from your store in downtown Chicago. In such a case it may not make sense to appoint a marketing services provider based in San Francisco, or London, or even Sydney.
Conversely, supposing the best mix of capabilities, understanding, experience, and service comes from an agency based in a difference timezone – or different country? If you’re targeting a national or international audience, then you shouldn’t necessarily discount them just because of location. (Of course, since we’re based in Europe while 80% of our clients are in the US, I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?) As long as you get the quality, service, and value you’re expecting, where’s the issue?
Finding Business-Driven Marketing Agency
I’ve talked before about the importance of any marketing initiative to be based upon an underlying business strategy – rather than a marketing plan consisting of a bunch of tactics. If your agency isn’t helping you design strategy before embarking on whatever tactical plan makes most sense, things aren’t going to end well.
It’s not marketing unless it sells. Unless every marketing effort is geared around a commercial-driven action as it relates to the business strategy, no-one knows how well the plan is doing. Every action must be accountable to the strategy. If your agency’s idea of marketing is all about tactics (social media, ads, email blasts, etc.) without relating it back to the overall strategic plan, the chances of success are going to be more about luck than judgement.
If the first thing your agency does is plan Facebook ads, blog articles, email newsletters, or Instagram images; save yourself a bunch of money and stress by running in the opposite direction. They should be sitting down with you to find out what business goals the marketing plan is designed to address. They should be looking at the industry as a whole (as well as your place within it) to understand the general direction of travel and competitor landscape.
They should be segmenting new and existing customers by meaningful and tangible criteria. They should be analyzing your current customer acquisition processes. Only then should they be proposing a tactical plan that seeks to deliver on the strategic goals you’ve defined together.
For us, part of our business-first focus is about providing advice and recommendations to clients at a business level, rather than just a marketing one. Our clients seem to really like that about us. We’ve found that businesses of all sizes, but small businesses owners in particular, welcome having a confidant. A consigliere – a bit like Tom Hagen, Robert Duvall’s character in The Godfather movies. Perhaps it’s something as trivial as sending over a link to a pertinent news article or blog post. Or maybe it’s something more in-depth where a client looking for advice, guidance, or opinion in order to make an informed decision. It’s having someone who’s got your back.
Your appointed marketing firm should be constantly informing and educating you. Giving you ideas and insights about better marketing efficiencies, but a whole lot more too. Ultimately they should be pushing you. Providing you with new ideas and tactics that are maybe even a touch outside your comfort zone. They should care enough to disagree with you, if necessary. They should challenge you – and vice versa.
However, as with all things, we’re talking about looking at context. Originality and creativity is what many clients say they want, but part of the agency’s job is to understand the unspoken limits. The goal is to push the envelope, without tearing it up altogether.
Not Just An Agency, But A Business Partner
If you treat your marketing agency as little more than a ‘supplier’ than the ultimate success of your marketing efforts will be capped accordingly. At the same time if your agency acts in the way of a ‘supplier’ and you feel they’re simply going through the motions, that should set alarm bells ringing.
In my experience the most mutually-effective client/agency relationships are true partnerships. If there’s mutual respect, integrity, and recognition from both sides, there’s an odds-on chance you’ve found a long-term strategic business partner to help you realize your business goals.