8 Steps to choosing the Right Digital Marketing Agency

Table of Contents

8 Steps to choosing the Right Digital Marketing Agency

“Marketing is an investment, It’s an investment in people and time and money that must be nurtured and worked at in order to be optimized.”

I spent $5000/month on an agency and got nothing out of it!

I was part of the marketing team at an ed-tech firm and this is what I learned from my experience. Investing on the wrong digital marketing agency can drain your funds and resources as they lead you down a path to nowhere.

We were a fast growing ed-tech company based out of Singapore. And after the Series-A round, the marketing team was asked to hire a digital marketing agency to scale our operations. And we did outsource some of our operations.

…….And this is where we made our First Mistake.

Marketing operations can no longer be segregated into ‘watertight compartments’. The different marketing teams need to coordinate, co-work and learn from each other’s experiments/experiences. Ex: The Content team needs to sit with the PPC & SEO team to get a better understanding of the needs of the customers. We failed to anticipate the problems with coordination.

We ended up outsourcing Website Development (revamp), Content Writing/Promotion and Social Media Marketing to this marketing agency, retaining PPC and SEO in-house. (These were the basic capabilities we had built over the last 2 years)

Second Mistake

We chose creativity over industry experience. What we needed was marketers who would write lead-generation content. Content that is grounded in solid keyword research. And the website should have been turned into a lead- capture engine. In hindsight, this is what we should have done. But what we ended up doing was produce creative & entertaining content that got us Facebook followers but not serious customers!

Third Mistake

We never saw the agency as part of our team. Except for a few meetings, there was hardly any coordination. This resulted in a clear disconnect between the business needs and the content that was being produced. So, by the end of a 8-month ride we ended up with:

(i) A fancy website which made us look like a creative ad agency, rather than an ed-tech company.

(ii) A solid list of Facebook and Twitter followers. (Not even 2% of which converted)

(iii) Loads of entertaining content.
Confusing Outputs for Outcomes

We were more focused on setting targets and deadlines for the agency and never really worked as a team. All we cared about was blogs/week, shares/blog and that’s it! I realized the gravity of this mistake only after watching this insightful speech by Wil Reynolds of SEER Interactive.

The takeaway is that you need to do a lot of homework even before you start searching for an agency. Use this blog post as a checklist for choosing the right digital marketing agency. All the best! 🙂

Download the step-by-step infographic here.

Step I: Clearly define your Needs & Expectations

“They way you should think about this is that you’re picking a strategic partner that will be an extension of their team for the next several years.”

Working with an advertising agency, especially for the first time, should not be an impulse decision. You should plan for a rigorous preparation process, to avoid wasting your time. Even before beginning the search, you need to think critically about what role a digital marketing agency would play into your business objectives. Whatever the reason – whether you’re planning for accelerated growth, redesigning your brand, or branching into new territories – it should be fully formed before you even start searching for agencies.

  • Consider the time you are willing to dedicate to this partnership
  • The money you’re willing to invest
  • The skills your team already possesses and the skills your team lacks

Preparation is critically important. If it’s not done thoroughly and honestly, the search is going to end up in misfire!

I. List your Marketing Requirements

Depending on your marketing needs, make a clear list of services you would an agency to take up. Your marketing team needs to take a decision on what activities to be done in-house and what needs to be outsourced. Another important factor that you need to consider is regarding coordination between your in-house marketing team and the agency. For example: If you are keeping SEO in-house and outsourcing Content Marketing, then how are the two teams going to coordinate with each other. Here’s a list of capabilities that an agency can offer your firm:

  • Website strategy, design and development
  • Blogging and content creation
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Email marketing
  • Social media marketing (SMM)
  • Search engine marketing (SEM)
  • Marketing automation
  • Analytics
  • Online advertising (PPC, Google AdWords, Facebook Ads, etc.)

Along with these capabilities, also be very clear about the verifiable objective/goal of the marketing activity that you want to outsource. This objective could be:

  • Branding & Awareness
  • Traffic
  • Leads
  • Sales
  • App downloads

It is always better to link a marketing activity with an objective/goal.

II. Get ready for a Long-Term Partnership

Look at the whole deal as if you were adding more team members to your company. You will have to cooperate for a long time, and I always encourage a transparent and open relationship in order to get the best results. Most importantly, you need to make sure that everyone is on the same page. The agency you hire has to understand your ideas, give you the necessary feedback, and at the same time, care for your campaign and make the decisions they think are right. In the end, it’s their expertise and knowledge that counts. They are the ones who will tailor your campaign, not you.

III. Decide on the Agency type

Digital marketing agencies come in all different shapes and sizes. It’s important to find one that fits well with your business goals and, just as important, your budget.

So, what makes digital marketing companies different?

A. General vs Specialized Services

Many agencies have certain specialty services that they excel at. For example, a website design agency might say they offer marketing services in addition. Or a traditional marketing agency will tell you that they have a digital marketing branch. While you shouldn’t immediately dismiss these agencies, you may not want to pull the trigger and go with them. Digital marketing is an incredibly complex, ever-changing industry. You want the agency that handles your business to be up to date on the latest trends and unfortunately, if digital is only a side-service, they might not be.

The decision again depends on your marketing requirements, if you are specifically looking to outsource a few specialized activities, then you can consider hiring an agency that excels in that particular skill set. Ex: Content Writing.

In contrast, if you are planning on outsourcing your entire marketing, then a multi skilled approach may be best, as improving your marketing takes a variety of strategies.

The first thing you need to do before searching for agencies is to take a call on this. Are you going for a full stack marketing agency or a specialized agency?

B. Creative vs Industry Niche

I think this case study will help you understand this, more than me explaining it:

Ford Motors Case Study

When Ford Motors was looking for an experiential advertising agency to help promote the 2012 Ford Focus, they turned to Wexley not because they had auto experience, for the simple reason that they were the most creative.

If Ford had just been looking for automotive experience, they would have gotten some agency very different. Ford was looking for creative experience and a creative event and that’s why they chose Wexley.

The point is that, agencies with experience in your industry can definitely move fast, but can you expect a completely out-of-the-box perspective from them? A creative agency, might help you in stand out / get noticed from the rest of the firms in your industry. Think about it!

C. Global Reach vs Local Reach

Agencies with a global reach will help you target audience in pretty much any region or country in the world. These agencies have several offices spread across the world. They invest in understanding the local audience and typically hire the best local talent. If you are looking for an agency to help you launch a product/service globally or nationally, you need to hire such an agency.

On the other hand there are Local agencies which are invested in the local community. They can pretty much help you activate every marketing channel in the region. (online/offline). If your target audience is restricted to a particular location, then these are the sort of agencies you need to select.

D. Large Agency vs Boutique Agency

According to recent findings by the Horn Group and Kelton Research, two-thirds of chief marketing officers prefer agencies with 50 or fewer staff members, citing reasons such as:

  • Fewer hoops to jump through, which makes execution faster
  • More consistency in account teams
  • More intimate partnership, regardless of budget

In a boutique agency the creative directors work directly with every campaign.

“When our team comes in to pitch a piece of business, our clients know that same team is going to handle their business,” says Peirolo. “They also know that our owners and executive creative directors Ian and Cal, touch every piece of creative that comes out of here.”

As appealing and popular as boutique agencies sound, large agencies offer some persuasive counter arguments about why they’re the best option for your  business. Big agencies obviously have big advantages, be the multi-skilled talent that they can attract & retain, be it their investment in new technology, be it their connections with the media houses or for that matter their global reach! They have the potential to take you to a whole new level.

A larger agency may be able to afford large advertising budgets and shiny salesmen to seal you into contracts but with more clients may mean less time focused on digital marketing for your business. On the other hand, a smaller agency, especially a smaller local agency will more likely understand your needs better providing you with more attention.

And while proponents on each side of the agency spectrum maintain arguments that their sized agency is the better option, finding right fit for your agency depends on how prepared you are to meet with agencies on your short list.

All of this again boils down to the same question, what agency fits the needs of your company best? I would suggest that you resolve / reconcile these contrasting views before starting to search for a digital marketing agency.

IV. Understand the Nature of Relationship

Choosing a digital marketing agency is like getting married. Don’t laugh…I am serious!

Marriage is hard. Marriages fail. But the ones that last are the ones where both parties are committed to it and work at it. Where everyone chooses every day to stay the course, to grow, to learn and be better together than they would be alone.

So, take your time to ensure that your ideas and values are similar, that your processes are aligned and you believe in the agency’s ability to execute on the strategies you define together. You need to get all the information you need to be ready to make that commitment. And once you do, you need to trust them.

And trusting them would mean allowing them the time they need to do research, plan, strategize, execute and measure. You don’t need to say ‘til death or bankruptcy do us part, but you have to be prepared to stick it out long enough for a campaign to fully unfold.

A. Accountability

Make sure that you go into the relationship understanding the specifics you want on paper like deliverables, metrics, reporting and goals. You should set time frames for campaign progress reviews and make sure that on-going evaluation leaves room to change course or re-prioritize as events and performance dictate. This is how accountability is established and healthy expectations are formed.

B. Share the workload

Marriages thrive on teamwork. An agency and a client should find a way to distribute the to-dos. Yes, you hire a company to do the bulk of the marketing work, but there are resources and talents you have that need to be utilized.

C. Give them timely feedback

An agency, no matter how good, will rely on you to provide insight into the world you know so well. The agency needs feedback on how well their efforts are aligning with the subtleties that define your team and your brand. They can never have the perspective that you do and so you need to invest time in giving them feedback.

All of that means being willing to commit, working together and figuring it out when we’re not completely aligned. No marriage or business partnership is ever perfect. But perseverance is never about perfection. It’s about the will to fight for something that has potential. Something that is built on a deep understanding and mutual respect. The best partner is someone who makes you the best version of yourself. A good agency can do that for you.

Once you have clearly defined your needs & expectations, it’s time to start searching for the right digital marketing agency, that understands your needs and also fits into your budget. I posted this question to a selected list of industry experts to understand their view. John Surdakowski of Avex Designs was kind enough to respond back with a great mail! This is the content of the mail:

John Surdakowski of Avex says….

“In fact, if you can keep a few simple ideas in mind, you’re virtually guaranteed to make a good decision that will help your company to grow for years to come.”

Choosing a good creative team to work with doesn’t have to be impossible. In fact, if you can keep a few simple ideas in mind, you’re virtually guaranteed to make a good decision that will help your company to grow for years to come. Here are a handful of tips I would recommend to anyone looking for help with the online side of their business…

Begin Your Search in the Right Places

Your first priority should be to find a digital agency that understands your business and can help you achieve a positive return on investment year after year. That means selecting a team of accomplished and experienced professionals who grasp the challenges you’re trying to face. Conversely, it disqualifies the hundreds of companies who offer cheap “web design” based on widely available templates.

Study Creative Samples

Web design samples can be informative and misleading all at the same time. On the one hand, samples show you something about a creative team’s work and vision. But on the other hand, they don’t tell you anything about what happened behind the scenes, what kind of direction a client provided, or whether a vendor was easy to work with. Obviously, you want to choose a digital agency who can help you get the finished product you want, but you shouldn’t base your decision solely on a handful of static designs.

Don’t Ignore Case Studies and Recommendations

When it gets to the things web design samples don’t show you, case studies and client testimonials should be more instructive. By examining these with a close eye, you should be able to tell which creative agencies price their work fairly, are open to client input, and consistently meet deadlines. Once your project begins, these factors will be just as important as pure artistic talent.

Look Over the Fine Print

Before you sign on the dotted line, you’ll want to examine the proposals and contracts sent to you by a digital agency to find out the total project costs, what is included in the scope of work, and any conditions you are subject to as a client. In other words, you want to look over the fine print and make sure you fully understand everything you’re agreeing to before you hand over a deposit.

Once you consider these criteria, the list of vendors who seem like a good fit for your business will shrink dramatically and you’ll have a much easier time choosing the right one. Or, if you want to skip ahead and just hire the best, call or email the Avex Designs team today for a free consultation!

                            John Surdakowski is CEO at Avex Designs, one of the fastest growing Digital Agencies in New York.

Step II: Find an agency that understands your Needs

“Do they have clients in the same industry as yours? To have the optimal experience with an agency confirm that they truly know your industry inside and out.”

Obviously, Google is your starting point for a long list. You can be specific about geography (if that’s important to you), types of services you’re seeking and you can then use a clipping service like Evernote to save a long list of possible agency websites to review in more detail at a later date.

Search “digital marketing [your state]”. The agencies that are on the first page have clearly invested time and energy into ranking their website for that search term, which shows you right off the bat that they know what they’re doing.

And with Evernote you can add initial impressions and notes to each saved website / page.

I. How effective is their website?

The most comprehensive and honest example of how a marketing agency conducts business is their own blog, website and social media presence. Before skimming through their portfolio, visit the marketing agency’s own blog. That should give you a crystal clear image of their ideas and practices. If the blog is well kept, well designed and well informed with loads of useful articles that are frequently shared across the internet, the marketing agency is well versed in their business and would prove to be a handsome addition to your company. Apart from their blog and website, also evaluate their social media presence.

A. What is their core competency?

Often, an agency will highlight what their core competencies are right there on their site and won’t mention the services they’re weaker in. Use these core competencies as your guide. If you’re looking for an agency that’s strong in branding and design, then look for them to specifically talk about that on their site. Similarly, if an agency is strong in SEO or social media, you should be able to locate that prominently displayed on their site.

B. Check out their Portfolio

Similar to their website, an agency’s portfolio should be an up-to-date and complete showcase of the type of work they do and their creative capabilities. It could also be beneficial to check out what type of work they’ve done for clients of your industry to see if they understand the scope. Have a good look at the work they have produced. Ask yourself:

  • Are they versatile?
  • Has the agency proved that they are capable of working within brand guidelines and with very different types of clients?

You probably want to avoid using an agency that has ‘an agency style’  and all work they produce looks very similar, the designs / creativity needs to be right for you and your brand. All companies are different and should be marketing in different ways.

C. Case Studies & Recommendations

One of the ways of identifying how effective an agency is at online marketing is to look at their case studies, testimonials, and to ask for a client recommendation. I’m a firm believer in ‘show me, don’t tell me’, so case studies are a great way to catch out the agencies who only know how to talk the talk. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that virtually every Internet marketing agency will have case studies. What’s important to look out for is how relevant those case studies are to your specific situation – and how many case studies the company has in proportion to their total number of clients.

D. Supplemental content

Check out any white papers, case studies, blog posts, webinars, etc. that they offer (especially related to their core competencies). This is where digital marketing agencies are able to showcase their expertise and thought leadership. Remember to actually look through some of it to see the tone and language they use. It’s more than just having it to say they have it.

E. Tools and Certifications

Most of the agencies will have a Google Partners logo, a Bing Accredited Professional logo or a Hubspot certified partner logo on their website. This will obviously vary by service offering. Some agencies will also have logos of their tool belt, some of these tools are paid tools and others can be free tools. This will give you an idea about how advanced their marketing tools & techniques are. Even if they don’t have this information on their website, make it a point to ask the agency about the tools they are using.

F. Awards & Press Coverage

Agencies make it a point to talk about the Awards they’ve won, on their website. Dig into the Awards and press coverage to find out the more about the award winning work and the category. This will give you a better idea of their core competency.

G. Location

Admittedly a lot of communication can be conducted over the phone and Skype, so location may not be a deciding factor when choosing an agency, but don’t underestimate the advantage of regular face to face contact. If your preferred agency is not the most local agency then ask how they would accommodate regular meetings to keep the flow and momentum of the project alive.

II. Does the Agency specialize in your niche?

Do they have clients in the same industry as yours? All agencies are different. Some serve large clients, some serve small, some only serve niche industries. To have the optimal experience with an agency you will want to confirm that they truly know your industry inside and out. Having clients in the same industry (or even in the same vertical) can allow the marketing company to transition from the research phase of the marketing process to the implementation phase much quicker. Meaning, they can start getting you results faster.

  • Does their website include client logos and testimonials?
  • Do they have experience in your field? With similar-sized companies?
  • Are their reviews positive?
  • Do their testimonials seem authentic?
  • Have they won awards in your category?

III. Get peer help!

Agencies come in all shapes, sizes & colors and they are constantly changing. Instead of plunging in blindly, enlist the help of your peers. The fact is, even if you did a selection process three years ago, half those agencies are going to be very different today! So find people you trust who have been through the process recently to keep you up to date with the dynamics of the industry.

Don’t hesitate to ask colleagues or ex-colleagues who may be working with an agency or industry contacts who they have used previously and they would be happy to recommend.

IV. Inquire with other firms in your niche

Find out companies in your industry/niche that are successful and determine what agency they are working with. Sometimes this can be as simple as going to the bottom of their website and searching for a line that says “Marketed by…” or “SEO by…”. If you can’t find it on their website, call up the companies and ask to be referred to the agency they’re using.

V. Cross check with Agency Trade Associations

Other search methods include reaching out to local media outlets – newspapers, broadcast stations, and radio stations – to see what agencies they work with most often. Also try using the resources of advertising agency trade associations, like the 4A’s. The 4A’s Agency Search is one example that allows you to narrow your search based on location, types of services, industry expertise, and other important distinctions among hundreds of agencies.

VI. Ask on LinkedIn groups for recommendations

Group members will be happy to share their thoughts if you explain briefly the type of agency service you are looking for, any brief parameters. (e.g: location, services etc..)

VII. What does the League Tables say?

Examples of good league tables include the eConsultancy’s Top 100 digital agencies. Note that these tables will typically include the larger agencies as they are ranked by turnover.

Note: Use recommended lists & supplier directories with caution

While there are some good supplier directories out there, such as the Econsultancy ones, there are many that just require agencies to pay a submission fee to be featured in, which obviously discredits any kind of recommendation. Others are very cliquey and only ‘let in’ agencies who are on good terms with the owners of the supplier directory.

If you’re using supplier directories to find an agency, do some homework on the agencies you shortlist to make sure they walk the walk.

VIII. Check out the Industry / Trade Association websites

The Industry Association websites, often have a membership directory, searchable by agency type.

IX. Search the Intermediaries

Intermediaries, apart from offering an agency search service may also look at agency benchmarking, account / relationship coaching etc. It is usually the agencies who pay a fee to be registered with the Intermediary. Some example intermediaries are:

A. Agency Spotter

They also have a nice LinkedIn feature: if you login to the site with your Linkedin profile you can see how you might be connected to the agency you are looking at (so you can see what your connections already think of the agency).

B. Find Good

C. Creative Brief

Creative Brief is free for brands and you can do a basic agency search as a guest but you need to register to unlock some additional functionality. (review any saved searches etc.)

X. Call for expressions of interest (RFPs)

You could put out a notice via your local /regional digital trade body outlining briefly what kind of service you are looking for and how prospective agencies can get in touch for more information.

You could also do the same on your Twitter account, with a link back to a landing page on your website detailing the overall pitch parameters and timescales etc. Note though that an open call could yield large numbers of enquiries and you’ll have to evaluate them all.

By the end of this phase you should have arrived at clear outline of the agency features. Use this outline to shortlist agencies for the next phase:

Digital Marketing Agency outline:

  • We serve clients in _____________ Locations.
  • Our people are experts in evolving technologies like _______.
  • We build strategies to meet business objectives.
  • Real Time Reporting for our clients – see your ad spend and where it is performing.
  • We work with marketing budgets starting at $xyz per month, delivering ROI.
  • We are experts in Facebook advertising, and award winners in Google Adwords and Google Display.

To save yourself time and hassle, do your research on the shortlisted agencies before you pick up the phone and call a salesperson. As we all know, salespeople can be a bit overzealous in describing their company’s capabilities when a commission is on the line.

Step III: Research

“Dig deep into examples of how they’ve helped their clients achieve success. Look for real, lasting results, and pay attention to the strategy which drove those results.”

Once you have a list of probable agencies, it’s time to dive deep into the profiles these shortlisted agencies.

I. Do they have a Google Partners status?

While accreditation from the other search engines – Bing, Yahoo!, etc. – should not be overlooked, Google has developed an amazing database of their partner agencies. It shows how many people at the agency are certified and in what categories – search advertising, display advertising, mobile advertising, video ads, shopping and Google Analytics IQ – as well as minimum monthly budgets the agencies work with. It is a great tool for finding agencies that are backed by the legitimacy and trust factor of Google.

This also gives you the details of their marketing budget, see if that fits into your budget.

Note: Be the highest paying client, not the lowest!

It’s quite often the case in agencies that the highest paying clients receive the best service and access to most senior staff. Being a low-paying client in a huge agency means that you’re unlikely to have senior staff working on your campaign. Conversely, being a higher paying client in a smaller boutique agency usually ensures that you will have the senior and more experienced staff working on your campaign.

II. Check out Review Sites

There are dozens of sites and reporting groups that can give a company insight into the experiences that others have had in using an agency’s services. Listings: RAR+ , etc.. And you can go even deeper than just ranking and analyst sites. Google and other companies offer reviews right in the search rankings for many agencies. Do some digging and see what others are saying about the agency and their capabilities.

You could even go one step further and find the staff on LinkedIn. Do they have good references?

III. Look up the agency on BBB

Look up the agency on the Better Business Bureau website. Every BBB Accredited Business is listed on their website and identified with the Accredited Business seal. These reviews include a link to the agency’s website, a map to its location and all contact information about the agency.

IV. Talk to their clients

Having a brief conversation with their clients (gathered from their website) can help mitigate some of the risk of hiring a new agency.

Find the contact information for each business and ask them the following questions…

  • Were they ever late in completing any projects/campaigns?
  • Why did you end the relationship with the agency?
  • What were the pros and cons of working with the agency?

V. Dig deep into their Case Studies

Case studies give you real-life examples of what an agency can do. So if you can’t find any case studies on an agency’s website, make sure you ask them for examples of how they’ve helped their clients achieve success. Look for real, lasting results, and pay attention to the strategy which drove those results. Was the agency thinking outside the box and developing custom strategy for the client, or did they apply a cookie cutter program that barely moved the needle? If an agency can’t provide any case studies, that should be a major red flag.

VI. What does the Employees say?

Unhappy employees indicate an unhappy culture, make sure that the agency you hire has cultural compatibility with your firm. Company review sites like Glassdoor.com and Jobitorial.com, can provide a window-shopping experience into the work culture of an ad agency.

Note that an unsatisfied employee (or ex-employee), is more likely to actively look for a place to vent his frustrations about his company than a happy employee looking to sing its praises, and for that reason, many online review sites skew negatively. Understand that every company has a few dissatisfied employees—even consistently top-rated places to work, like Google—so consider everything you’re reading with a critical eye.

VII. Check out their Twitter Reviews

Another lesser used channel for reviews is Twitter. When you’re looking for completely unfiltered feedback on an agency, search their name on Twitter and see what people are saying about them. You see, an agency can delete comments on Facebook that they don’t want shown to customers, but on Twitter there’s no way for an agency to remove tweets that talk about them. This allows a company to see if there are any major red flags with an agency. However, I would recommend going through the Twitter results with a level of discernment. There are times where competitors will try and slander an agency. Look at the tweeter and see if they have any history or track record. If they’re an account whose only action was to bash a company, then I wouldn’t put much weight into their opinion.

On the same note, you can also see how an agency handles upset customers. If they ignore the complaint and don’t respond in any way, then maybe their customer service isn’t up to snuff. But if you see them work out a difficult situation with a customer, then I’d highly recommend still looking into them. That shows they’re willing to go the extra mile.

VIII. Pricing

Most businesses are on a tight budget and want to spend their money wisely. Though striking a good deal is highly important, the reality is that you won’t be able to get top quality services unless you pay top dollar. An agency with low prices is probably a bad one. A good rule of thumb is to immediately cross out the cheapest ones you find. Trying to cut corners when choosing the right digital marketing service is always a bad idea.

If you want to find a person or a team to handle all of your marketing efforts for just a couple of hundred dollars per month, then be prepared to see unsatisfactory results. One good option is to look for a reputable agency and negotiate for a lower initial fee.

This research should help you arrive at the agency that ahs a consistent approach, a strong methodology, and most importantly, a good track record!

Step IV: Send a Request for Proposal (RFP)

“No one knows more about your business and your customers than you do, and it’s critical that you pass that knowledge on to any potential advertising partner through your RFP.”

After you identify the potential agencies, send them a RFP. A request for proposal (RFP) is the most common way companies share a little bit about themselves and your advertising objectives, as well as any financial requirements or contractual stipulations that make your request unique.

When expressing your vision, try to be realistic. The realistic scope and direction of your advertising stems from a clear understanding of your business model and your customers demographics. No one knows more about your business and your customers than you do, and it’s critical that you pass that knowledge on to any potential advertising partner through your RFP.

The approach to documenting your needs can vary from listing a few key points written in an email to a detailed Request for Proposal. A good RFP will outline the following:

  • Business and brand background and positioning
  • Summary of desired work and objectives (include any special expectations and considerations)
  • Details on targeted consumers (and customers and/or distribution and retail systems if appropriate)
  • Budget
  • Timelines for responding to the brief and for the program
  • Contact details for any clarification or discussion

Some clients prefer not to provide budget information, however a budget is necessary in guiding the agency to develop feasible solutions to the company’s marketing challenges.

When selecting agencies to respond to the Request for Proposal, be available to discuss it with each agency. Remember, the more details you communicate about your project, the more likely the proposals will fit your needs.

Step V: Send them an assignment

“An audit is a great way to understand the marketing capabilities of an agency. This also provides you with insights into improvements you should be making to your marketing.”

Along with the RFP you should also provide the shortlisted agencies with a brief of the services and ask them to come up with a broad Strategy Report as well as an Audit Report. This will show you the range of creativity and skills of a digital marketing agency’s team and how it will benefit your business.

I. Ask for a free Audit Report

An audit is a great way to understand the marketing capabilities of an agency. This also provides you with insights into improvements you should be making to your marketing. It’s a win-win. The more an agency uncovers during an audit, the more they probably want to work with you, and the more likely it’ll be that they pay closer attention to detail in managing your account should you become their client.

II. Ask them to devise a Broad Strategy

Taking your marketing goals into consideration, ask the agencies to come up with a research based proposal that outlines a high-level strategy they believe will help meet your online marketing goals. This presents a great opportunity to dig into why they feel their approach will yield positive results by asking the following questions:

A. Why do they feel their strategy will help meet your goals and objectives?

This question will offer an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the research behind their recommended strategies. It will also present the digital marketing agency an opportunity to share results obtained from similar strategies implemented on other client campaigns.

B. Is it sustainable?

Tactics used by many digital marketing agencies, SEO vendors in particular, still focus on short term results with no long term plan in place. While some strategies can lead to improved traffic and rankings in the short term, there needs to be a long term plan in place for continued success online.

C. When can you expect to start seeing results?

Results don’t happen overnight. This is an important question that can help to set the right expectations.

D. What resources will they need from you to carry out a successful campaign?

This will help you coordinate internal resources to ensure there aren’t any bottlenecks that could impede progress

E. What role and responsibilities will be expected of you?

Hiring a digital marketing agency or consultant is a partnership that requires consistent communication, feedback and coordination. Because a new consultant or agency will act as an extension of your marketing team, collaboration with your other internal team members, vendors or departments will be crucial.

Give each agency a reasonable RFP due date of at least two weeks before calling for an evaluation.

Step VI: Evaluate their assignment

“If they are making unrealistic claims that seem too good to be true, then stay away from the agency!”

Plan to review agency proposals & assignments in-person or via video/ teleconference, allowing the agency to present the proposal and not just email it to you to read. Criteria for evaluating proposals should be identified in advance and consistently applied to each agency. This typically includes agency expertise, topline concepts, ability to execute, how the program will be measured, budget analysis, expectations, suggestions and recommendations for your project.

While this usually comes once you actually speak to the potential vendor, there are a few signs you can look out for that you want to stay away from. If they are making unrealistic claims that seem too good to be true, it most likely is. The right digital marketing agency not only understands and acknowledges that, but also makes it clear that achieving realistic goals takes time.

Step VII: Go Meet the Team

“Being thorough and asking the right questions (in person) will help you make the most informed decision possible when hiring an agency.”

I. Understand the Team

If your research is thorough, you should now be left with a handful of agencies. The next thing you do is go meet with an agency at their office.

These meetings allow you to really see how an agency works from both a creative and a business sense. It is important to make sure you ask any questions or express any concerns to get all the answers and assurance you need before making a final decision.

So, do visit the shortlisted agencies personally and meet the team. Don’t just restrict yourself to meeting the sales people or upper management, go around the place to get a sense of how the agency works. And if possible, strike informal conversations with the team members.

What is the agency’s vibe?

Are the people good communicators?

Are they friendly?

Do they seem like they enjoy speaking with you and helping you, or do they seem annoyed and frustrated?

Note: When consulting with a marketing agency, there is no such thing as a dumb question. After all, it’s your brand’s success that is at stake here.

Paying attention to these often overlooked intangibles will help give you a much clearer picture of what working with the agency will be like.

A. It’s like the extension of your team!

They way you should think about hiring an agency is that you’re picking a strategic partner that will be an extension of their team for the next several years!

So, while assessing the abilities of the agency you’re meeting with, also take the time to assess the people in the room. In any meetings with a prospective advertising agency, stress the importance of meeting with the actual team who will work on your campaign to determine if you have the chemistry to make this partnership work though good times and bad. Regardless of how reputable an agency might be, the success of a campaign can very much be dependent on who manages your account.

Before officially hiring, make sure you are introduced personally to the team your company is going to be assigned. Nothing gives off a more true impression than talking to the people, getting to know their backgrounds and expertise, and showing interest in their previous work portfolio.

Because, there will come times when creative work is not on the mark and you have to give feedback, and there will be times when budgets come under pressure and you have to work through that. That is exactly when you need that chemistry. They might have the best creative in the world but if these aren’t our kind of people, we would seriously reconsider the option.

Use the following questions to help you understand who will be responsible for setting and driving strategy:

  • Who will be managing my account?
  • What are their qualifications/experience?
  • How long have they been with the company?
  • Can you send me a link to their LinkedIn profile?
  • Can I see their performance metrics?

Asking all of the above questions should help you paint a fairly accurate picture of who will ultimately be responsible for the success of your campaign.

As a rule of thumb, your marketing team should be experts in the following, be it individually or collectively:

  • Web development
  • Graphic design
  • Writing and editing
  • Marketing automation
  • Project management

The last thing you want is the agency using an intern or freelance virtual assistant to answer your questions. If you’re going to be paying you deserve to have somebody manage your account who has extensive experience with marketing.

B. What experience do they have?

Ask the team what outside experience they’ve had. Diversity of thought is very important in marketing, and those innovative ideas are often sparked by previous experience. Outside experience is also important in helping to develop empathy, as your account team must have a solid understanding of the challenges you face every day in order to provide valuable solutions. Teams & agencies that have experience working on both sides of the client-agency relationship will often have a great advantage in providing real life solutions.

How much combined experience do they have?

Experience comes in many forms but a digital marketing team that covers a wide array of skills over a decent amount of time (at least a few years) will help you as there should be at least one person in the agency who can answer your questions at any given time. It also means the team probably share their experience with each other creating a powerful combination to achieve results.

C. How passionate is the team?

Ask your potential agency partners what gets them excited about your business and about working with you. Ask them what industry innovations they find fascinating. Since people love talking about things they find exciting, this will help develop a personal connection and comfort level. It will also give you great insights into what would motivate them as your account team to help you succeed. If their answers focus on things that benefit them – ego, awards, making more money, etc. – you will know that they are driven by personal gain and your success is an afterthought. But if they are driven by passion – curiosity, genuine interest in your business, desire to be on the cutting-edge of innovation, etc. – they are more likely to help you succeed. What do I not mean by this? Don’t ask them if they are passionate about keyword bidding or title tag optimization. Because anyone who says they are is either a liar or crazy.

D. How ethical is the team?

An agency that employs grey hat techniques such as “buying” backlinks and using blog networks to post your content may gain quicker results but does this fit with your long term business goals? The last thing you want is Google penalizing you for it.

  • Is the team thinking short term?
  • Are they looking for quick results and shortcuts?

If in the name of growth hacking, the team is taking up unethical methods, reject the agency!  Understand their work process to ensure that their methods are ethical.

E. Lastly…….are they local?

A local internet marketing company will be easier to contact and also may have strong relationships with other local websites and businesses helping you with your local SEO promotion.

The sort of people you would hire yourself…..

Ok, so the point I am trying to make is don’t just meet the boss, the head of “this” and “that,” and sign the deal. Look under the hood!  Question whether they have a solid layer of account and project management – smart and experienced people who will be there to communicate effectively with you day in, day out. The sort of people you would hire yourself.

As the market diversifies and more agencies jump in, you must  question whether the people within their agency are the right fit for you and your business. Do they understand your values, motivations, and business goals, and do they have the skill sets to help you live up to them?

Early on, make sure you meet those who could be on your team. Have an idea of what questions you want to ask so that you feel comfortable they are up to the task and will meet the values of your brand.

II. Understand their capabilities

Once your basic questions are addressed, it’s time for more creative conversations. Often, first meetings between advertisers and clients are called ‘capabilities meetings’  because advertising agencies demonstrate what they are creatively capable of. While it’s important to keep an open mind about everything presented to you, take all your options with a grain of salt.

All advertising agencies can do pretty much any kind of work for any kind of client. But the truth is they shine only on certain things more than others. It’s really important to make sure they’re really clear about what they’re strongest at and why they think those particular skills are going to be right for you.

A. How well can they leverage their capabilities?

There will be different types of agencies ranging from multi-skilled teams adept in everything from SEO, content marketing and PPC management to more specialised agencies that focus on one or two skill-sets such as social media management or digital consulting.

Usually betting on a multi skilled approach may be safest as improving your marketing requires a variety of strategies. But I would say that this is exactly the question you should be posting to the agency. And let them come up with a marketing strategy. See how they plan to leverage their specializations to meet your marketing goals.

This exercise should give you a clear picture of their core strengths and capabilities.

B. Find out more about their certifications

Certified marketing agencies and professionals are required to pass a series of tests on digital marketing channels before becoming officially certified. When hiring a certified agency, you’re hiring professionals who understand the ins and outs of a particular marketing channel and know how to quickly give you results & improve your ROI. Plus, certified agencies are always up to date on the latest technologies and marketing trends that can help your business rise above competitors.

Certified agencies & professionals are also expert at identifying and tackling your most complicated marketing roadblocks based on reporting and trends, and can recommend strategies that generate leads and conversions. It is always advisable to partner with an certified agency. Make sure that the agency has these certifications:

  • AMA Certified Professional Marketer
  • Google AdWords Certification
  • Google Analytics Certification
  • Bing Ads Certification
  • Facebook Ads ‘Blueprint’ Certification
  • HubSpot Certifications

C. Are they ready with the latest technologies?

Digital marketing relies a great deal on the use of the latest technologies and staying updated with new tools and techniques. Ensure that the marketing agency you are looking to work with has a high level of technical expertise. Their equipment and software should be up-to-date and they should be aware of means of accessing the advanced features of the various digital marketing channels.

D. Is their marketing stack up to date?

Back in 2011 a ‘Marketing Stack’ was mainly something for the top agencies and CMO’s of  international corporations to debate and choose between. Jump forward to today and every agency has a marketing stack of its own.  (even if they don’t realise it yet) With a customer database, an email marketing solution and a website powered by a CMS you already have a three tiered stack!

A good ‘marketing stack’ comprises of tools and resources that analyze everything from back end data (customer information) to front end behavior (ads viewed, emails opened, blogs frequented, purchases made). The stack provides a single view of your prospects, and an automated process to convert them.

So, if your agency is not invested in a Marketing Stack, that indicates that they are not yet in a position to use all the data that your customers are giving to you. All the information you need to nurture and convert them from leads to customers and from customers to advocates. Going forward, this could severely restrict your firm’s growth.  Check out the various marketing stacks and ask the agency about it:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)—this is where you organize your customer information, and into which you import externally generated information that you purchase or generate through marketing activities.
  • Tag Management Platform—With over a thousand marketing technologies out there, you need a TMS to help you deploy all of those tags on all of your sites pages, easily and efficiently.
  • Content Management System (CMS)—a way to create and organize your online content around your products and services and the keywords your customers use to find stuff you make.
  • Inbound Marketing—a program to capture the traffic coming to your site using landing pages with registration forms for white papers, webinars, case studies and other assets to generate leads.
  • Outbound Marketing—direct email solutions, ad delivery platforms, social networking monitoring and response solutions and other tools to generate leads.
  • Marketing Automation—a toolset that automates all these activities and campaigns, sorts leads based on selected criteria, and nurtures leads through the sales funnel and updates your CRM.
  • Customer Management—once a customer, you show them a different kind of love that lets them know you’re looking out for them with what they’re likely to want and need next.
  • Analytics – A dashboard that lets you view and virtually live the awesome results your stack is delivering.

E. How good are they with analytics?

Many marketing agencies lack in working out a very fundamental facet of marketing: analytics. You don’t want to set yourself up with people who are not fully equipped with the capabilities of measuring and reporting the performance of your business back to you. Before hiring the services of an marketing agency, make sure they give you the details of their analytics plan. Reputable agencies will gladly lay out their plans. When they do, look out for the following key metrics:

  • Website traffic
  • Subscribers
  • Leads produced
  • Sales
  • Attribution

It’s important to work with people who value numbers as much as you do.

F. How well do they understand the digital media landscape?

An agency that keeps up to speed with new innovations and technology are more likely to ensure that any new opportunities that may benefit your business are proposed to you for consideration. If you work with an agency which isn’t quite up to date with things, new opportunities that could benefit your business might get missed, and you may miss certain objectives set out in your marketing plan.

The easiest way you can check if they keep up to date with new innovation and technology is through their blog and social media channels. Check how often they are updated, and if the content published is about the industry and how it is evolving.

A blog with helpful information reveals just how much of a thought leader the agency are in the industry. If you find the articles informative then you may be onto a winner. An agency that shares their passion with their community are also more likely to share their passion with you.

G. How do they keep up with trends?

Find out which blogs they read and if they have any certifications. Do they seem like they know what they’re talking about? Can they reference popular journals and articles in the industry?

H. Do they have a collaboration framework in place?

Finally, Get a better understanding of the marketing technology the agency has at its disposal and how you will interface with it. Marketing technology is a must-have – it can help you identify new audience segments, measure engagement, and attribute action and revenue to your marketing programs.

If you are planning to use a technology in conjunction with the agency, look carefully at the user interface. If you and your team are using the program daily, you want to ensure it is simple to use and the results are easy to understand. If you have your own marketing technology platforms that will play a role in measuring or assisting with the work your agency does, ask about its experience with the platform and/or how the agency’s campaign will plug into or complement it.

III. Understand their process

A. Find out the agency’s process in helping you meet your marketing goals?

Instead of asking about how they are going to help you accomplish your goals, be more exploratory in your question by asking about the process.

Sure, it’s easier for an agency to answer back that they are going to help you come up with a sound marketing strategy if you ask how. On the other hand, asking about the process itself will yield more insights on the details of the strategy.

If an agency cannot articulate their process in detail including the tools required and the frequency of interaction with your team, consider that a red flag.

Any successful agency will have a strong process in place to ensure repeatable success. It takes prolonged experimentation and expertise to arrive at a successful process. Check out the essential elements of a good agency process:

1. Understanding / Gathering client requirement

A marketing agency should have a clear process in place for gathering the expectations, requirements and goals of a client. In order to gather this information the agency has to make sure that all necessary team members can meet with the client prior to commencing work. And to drive the discussion in the right direction, the agency needs to put in place a templated question sheet. Once this process is complete, the team should submit a summarized campaign notes and receive a sign off from the client indicating approval.

2. Clear delegation of roles

Your work is more likely to get done on time when agency people know their roles. Clear expectations and responsibilities help with individual output and set up the entire team to collaborate and communicate with the right person. Managers and project coordinators need to assign tasks, set deadlines, and have a system for tracking progress.

3. Organized work environment

Having a process in place that keeps the physical and digital workspaces organized is one that is often overlooked by agencies and clients. Working in a clutter-free environment will make it easier to focus on the tasks at hand and will keep you from making simple mistakes (such as misplacing a document) that can significantly throw off a deadline. Keep your desk organized, and schedule regular dates for agency-wide cleaning and organization.

4. Review and Approval Process

In any marketing campaign, there are bound to be multiple documents that need to be reviewed and approved by various members of the team. If there is no set process in place dictating how to review documents, provide feedback and implement changes and who maintains authority over each stage of production, this could become a major area of gridlock. Make sure that the agency has a review and approval process that works. See if they are willing to adjust the steps as necessary to meet your needs.

5. A Project Management Tool in place

To take a marketing campaign from creative inception to client delivery to launch requires a team of people performing numerous jobs. It can be easy to lose track of what tasks have been completed, what still needs to be done, and who is working on each aspect of the campaign. Automated development through a project management tool helps you create a workflow chart that tracks all areas of the marketing campaign while also allowing anyone to view the various stages of project development. As an added benefit, a project management tool can help to clarify roles and responsibilities and allow managers to move around projects based on an individual’s capacity.

6. Data Dashboards

So how do you know if any of these processes actually work? How can you determine if they’re helping improve productivity? The best way to measure your team’s success is by having a reliable data management process in place. By collecting data from past and present campaigns (through Google Analytics, heat maps, client surveys, and other tools), agency team can analyze this information to look for areas of inefficiency and ways to improve client and business process.

7. Task Prioritization

Prioritizing may seem obvious, but when all of your to-dos are coming from competing clients and accounts, it’s necessary to have a process in place that allows you to differentiate between important and urgent tasks. The agency needs to store all their tasks in a central place, prioritize a day’s work, and track time. This will help the agency stay organized and feel less overwhelmed when the requests pour in.

8. Client Management

When you deliver creative material to clients for review, teams often  see their production come to a temporary standstill. Believe it or not, despite the fact that these materials are often costing the client a pretty penny, it isn’t their first priority. To aid production on the their end, The agency needs to have a process in place that will streamline client interaction. Ensure that your client knows exactly what is needed from them to move forward and on what timetable. Make sure that you are properly guided through this process.

9. Execution

Every successful agency will have a process in place that sees things through to completion. This is to make sure that everyone knows their responsibilities when it comes time to launch of the completed campaign. Internal teams and client-facing teams should be in communication with each other and work together. This part is important, as it’s easy for two different departments to forget that they’re working towards the same goals.

Whether it’s onboarding a new client, delivering the first draft of a project for client revisions, or launching a campaign, a clear process should guide each step of the client relationship. This approach will turn an agency into a productivity powerhouse and ensure that the projects are completed on time. Make sure that the agency has a clear process in place.

IV. Understand how they run their own business

Ask the agency about their own marketing strategy, website traffic and how they generate leads. If they are running a successful marketing firm, they would have no problem showing you their insights. And if you see that they are failing in their own business, you can be sure that they will do nothing extraordinary.

A. What Digital Marketing Strategies did they implement for their own brand?

Once you understand their work process the next thing you do is take a step back from your business marketing goals and ask a prospective agency about theirs.

  • How did they decide to take on a specific strategy?
  • Do they keep up with the trends?
  • What have been the results of their own marketing efforts?
  • What key lessons have they learned from using their tactics to their business?

A digital marketing agency who practices what they preach is a good sign that they’re a keeper. They should be able to demonstrate that they are their marketing practices’ best case study.

B. What’s the agency’s culture like?

A distinctive culture is probably the most powerful way in which an agency can establish “Chemistry” and display a real point of difference.

You should seek potential partners, that not just stand out from the pack but also offer a good fit between your teams. The “chemistry” factor cannot be neglected. When I say that an agency is nothing short of an extension of your team, then it is obvious that you look out for agencies which have a similar culture as yours.

How well an agency can articulate its organizational culture is definitely a source of competitive advantage. How well the agency is positioned vis-à-vis its competitive set — with a clear communication of its value proposition — is essentia. An agency’s true points of differentiation are often grounded in its vision, service standards, creativity and other behaviors that are reinforced either formally or informally within the shop itself.

C. What size clients do they deal with?

If you’re a small to medium sized business that chooses an agency that deals with larger clients and larger budgets there is a high probability they will put less time and energy into your project. Bear this in mind.

V. Understand their success

When it comes to understanding the success of an ad agency, your key indicators should be Longevity and Retention of clients.

  • Do they have a roster of clients that have gone the distance?
  • Over and above a great pitch, can they actually execute over time – managing the ups and downs of a program, remaining agile to address any challenges?
  • What I’m saying is, can they deliver?
  • How many clients do they currently work with?

You will only gain this knowledge by checking with the agency’s clients, looking at those that have renewed contracts or signed on for additional campaigns. Play the devil’s advocate – find clients who are not listed or provided as references.

A. Ask for references

Before you take the evaluation any further, ask to speak to or email some references. And don’t accept canned testimonials as a reference. Those can be falsified and there isn’t a way to ensure that they’re accurate. Instead, get a few names, phone numbers, and emails and reach out and have a brief conversation with their past and present clients.

And when you do speak with a reference, don’t just ask if the agency is good. Because, clearly they wouldn’t send you to someone that would say otherwise, but rather ask the reference what challenges you encountered and what you should expect. You should also let the reference know that you’re not digging for dirt, but rather you want to be prepared for anything. It’s important to understand what the experience of working with an agency will be like. Are they pleasant? Responsive? Do they get involved, or are they far removed from the clients they work with? Referrals can bring to light these more qualitative and personal experiences.

Use the following questions to provide insight into what you could expect from a partnership:

  • What they like and what they feel can be improved?
  • How was the responsiveness of their point of contact?
  • What types of results were delivered?
  • How long did it take to see results?

B. Dig into their Case studies

Although you’ve read the best case studies on their website, make it a point to ask for a case study demonstration. Keep in mind that case studies are not meant to exhibit their experience in your industry, but the creative team’s overall style.

Instead of just looking at the numbers, try understanding the strategy behind the success. You could use the following questions to gain more insight:

  • What were the target numbers?
  • What was your strategy to achieve the target?
  • How many people worked on this campaign?
  • How long did it take to execute this campaign?
  • Time spent on testing the campaign?

What results did they get for previous clients?

Make sure the results are inline with your goals. It could be finding out improvements in conversion rates, visitor count, reducing PPC costs, obtaining links, social shares etc.

C. Look at their strategic capabilities

According to the recent surveys, most agencies do not have a documented success strategy, and this will be reflected in their return on marketing initiatives. Therefore, it is critical to find a marketing agency that has strong strategic capabilities. This means more than just having a head of strategy – the agency should have a consistent approach, a strong methodology, and most importantly, a good track record.

After looking at their case studies, get in touch with their clients.

  • How have they helped other brands develop successful content strategies?
  • What kind of approach have they taken?
  • How does that translate to how they could help engage your audience, enhance your marketing strategy, and achieve your business goals?

D. Ask them about a time that they failed

The reality is that not all strategies or campaigns meet the desired outcome. Asking for an example of a time a strategy failed and what they’ve learned from that experience shows that they’re willing to own up to mistakes and learn from them.

E. Time-frames look too good to be true?

Driving more visitors, leads or sales to your online store or business definitely takes time. If the digital marketing agency is promising to get you x amount of visitors in x amount of time, be very cautious.

An agency that knows their stuff will be setting out short, medium and long term strategies and the potential results to go with each of these time-frames. They should be able to provide a clear picture of your industry, it’s competitiveness of the keywords you want to target and how well your competitors are doing.

F. Check out their reliance on systems for repeatable success

Marketing agencies that lack documented processes and automated system are bound to a dreadful fate. To avoid the hassle of inconsistent services and results from your marketing agency, make sure the agency  you shortlist to work with does the following:

  • Complete projects within the given time and budget
  • Focus on detail and quality
  • Do not feed you impractical and unrealistic goals
  • Produce meaningful results that can be measured
  • Keep you in the loop with successes, setbacks, shifts in strategy, etc.

G. What sets them apart from their competition?

There’s no shortage of choices when it comes to choosing a digital marketing agency or consultant. Find out what sets them apart and why they are the best fit for your business.

H. What are their weaknesses?

This can be an uncomfortable question to ask but a question that can reap insightful answers. An web marketing agency that is even aware of their weaknesses could be a good choice.

I. What is their track record like For businesses like yours?

Always go for an agency which has dealt with businesses within your niche. By opting for an agency with industry-specific experience as your brand, setting goals and executing campaigns is easier & quicker because are already adept in understanding what makes your target audiences tick.

VI. Understand their deliverables

The single biggest factor which could break or make a deal with an agency is Accountability. The agency should have all the necessary infrastructure and processes in place to demonstrate tangible results and act on the best opportunities for generating a return on your marketing investment. Especially, since the results are now readily available, because direct and digital media allow for intricate levels of measurement to gauge program performance. That’s why you need to carefully scrutinize the agency’s ability to have a culture of accountability and the proven ability to deliver measurable results.

A. How does the agency measure the success of the marketing campaigns they’re recommending?

Marketing is more than just creating the best call-to-action on your landing page or picking the right font size for your homepage. The marketing agency you work with should be able to support their recommendations with data.

When talking with a prospective agency, ask questions on benchmarks, metrics, and analytics. Additionally, they should communicate these jargon-heavy words to you in easy-to-understand chunks.

Aside from asking on what should be measured, inquire on how often the report on progress should be made towards these metrics. Also, what adjustments can be made if data indicates that the campaign is not working?

B. How will the agency consistently focus & report on results?

Request a definitive timeline of when to anticipate reports and campaign updates. They should be able to schedule regular, ongoing meetings with you if they’re well organized and truly on top of their game.

The digital agency also needs to be able to define the “KPIs,” or key performance indicators, that they’ll use to determine whether their efforts are tracking towards achieving your overall goals. For example, if your goal is to increase sales from your email database then some of the KPIs your agency should be tracking and reporting on to you include deliverability rate, open rate, and click through rate.

Any reputable agency will be more than willing to pull out a sample report showing the list of business metrics they use to measure results in any given channel. A sophisticated one may also be able to offer you a real-time dashboard in the cloud that you can access any time.

Note that this process of reporting needs to be be customised to your business needs- not just a set schedule of the agencies standard communications.

C. How often do they report?

A usual reporting schedule is on a per month basis. If you need to keep track more than this you should specifically request it. An agency that reports only once every three months or even greater may be a sign that they are overrun leaving no time to work on your project.

I would recommend that you specifically request the agency for a live dashboard so as to keep a track of all your KPIs.

D. To what extent do they plan to work with your team?

For your campaigns to truly deliver, the agency of your choice should be able and eager to train your in-house team on meeting goals and mapping KPIs. This could include training your team to use automation platforms or interpreting data from the analytics software that they recommend.

Furthermore, an agency who is truly involved in helping you grow your business understands that your team’s subject matter expertise is a critical piece of the puzzle.

  • How will they communicate with your subject matter experts?
  • How often will they communicate?
  • Lastly, ask them about team member/s whom you need to interact with often. What is the availability of this employee?

E. How many hours per week will they spend on your account?

Be specific. Although it’s difficult for an agency to pinpoint the exact amount of time they will be working on your account a rough ballpark figure can help you work if you’re getting value for money.

F. Know more about their customer service

Many digital marketing agencies are great at providing the services you pay for. But do they do anything additional to delight their clients afterwards? Unfortunately, the answer is “no” more often than not. If you value great customer service, seek out an agency that makes sure you’re taken care of, and then some. Your team should always feel like people, not just a number.

G. What is their availability?

Most agencies are 9 PM – 5 PM but some go above and beyond to answer your emails or calls out of hours which can be a lifesaver if you have an SEO emergency!

H. How quick are response times?

Are you left hanging on the phone for 15 minutes on your first call? Not a good sign. Sure, they’re probably busy but too busy to deal with you. Find an agency that answers the phone quickly, respond to emails quickly and can provide support in a digital emergency.

I. Do they provide after-care?

You’re now receiving more visitors after the completion of a 6 month SEO project only to realise there is another keyword you would like to target. A few tweaks of your meta information would do it but you have no idea how. Will your agency do it for you, gratis?

J. When will you see results?

Marketing efforts usually take time to yield positive results. However, once you’ve built a mean marketing machine, you’re in it for the long haul. Think of it as a long-term investment with compounding interest. So be wary of digital marketing agencies who promise that you can expect substantial ROI in a short span of time.

VII. Understand their pricing model

It goes without saying that you want to find a digital marketing agency that provides value for money. That said, you want find an agency that suits the size of your business too. Ad agencies have different pricing models, which obviously depend the client requirement.

You might ask, “Why does the pricing structure matter? If client and agency deem the fee fair for work performed, why does it matter how that fee is computed?”

Incentives drive behavior, and fee structures (not just amounts) influence how an agency serves its clients. In fact, it is so obvious and evident that you can guess an agency’s pricing structure just by looking at their results.

I’d suggest a sensible way for a marketing agency to charge for their services is “capped percent of ad spend.” To understand why,  let’s consider the strengths and weaknesses of other models:

A. What is the agency’s preferred pricing model?

There are a wide range of agency costing and budgeting options for you to understand. The pricing model will vary by both type of agency and client engagement as you seek to agree what is a practical, mutually beneficial remuneration mix. Whichever model(s) you use, the agency should ensure that all elements of activity are captured.

Model 1: Percentage of spend

The most popular pricing model among agencies is % of Spend and the rates range from 5% to 20% of spend. Most agencies prefer this model because of the simplicity in marketing it, simplicity in tracking it and aligned interests.

Theoretically, this model should incentivize an agency to build out and maintain a robust keyword and copy portfolio, capturing value from the long tail. So the better the agency delivers, more will be the client spend. This way both the parties benefit. This also acts as a good indicator of size and complexity. Of course, you have a minimum base fee with which you need to start.

But Percent of Ad Spend isn’t perfect.  You could ask me that the agency could deliberately avoid a highspender just to show a good ROI. Possible! You just need to be vigilant. Also this model gives no incentive to reduce CPA! Sometimes this aspect disincentivizes clients from spending more and also breeds distrust unnecessarily.

This model being so popular, the primary reason why a few agencies look beyond this is because it doesn’t take into consideration the amount of time that needs to be spent on campaigns. While some agencies work on a hybrid model using % spend for ongoing management and hourly flat fees for one-time projects/consulting!

Model 2: Bill by hour

Agencies usually go with this model when they are working with small businesses. This is will deter the client from demanding long calls or make ad hoc data requests. So, if your agency has a bill by hour payment model, then ensure that you get extra time for customer service and reporting.

Most marketers feel that this model motivates to become more efficient while still doing a good job. Others feel that it gives no room for personal skill expansion. The perception changes from agency to agency.

Model 3: Flat fee

This is the simplest of all the agency pricing models. The client pays the agency a consistent flat monthly fee, regardless of ad spend or sales.

Simplicity is a key advantage to the flat fee approach, and it certainly provides the advertiser economies of scale. But it has disadvantages. Going into the deal, neither agency nor client has a firm sense of the true work required. One side is likely to guess wrong, leaving either advertiser or agency disgruntled about pricing. And certain agencies might view a flat fee as a disincentive to hustle. I wouldn’t recommend this model as it is devoid of an incentive structure.

Model 4: Capped Percentage of Spend

I believe the Percentage Ad Spend, Capped, with fast out offers the best pricing model for hiring a agency. Client pays agency a monthly management fee calculated as a percentage of ad spend. Client and agency also agree on a monthly minimum fee cap to protect the agency if the ad spend is very small, and a monthly maximum fee cap to protect the client if the ad spend is very large.

Choosing different values for the min cap, the max cap, and the percentage allow agencies to signal potential clients where they’re positioned in the market place. For example, dividing the monthly min cap by the percentage yields the typical minimum suggested monthly ad spend for target clients.

Model 5: Percentage of revenue

First, under this approach, the agency earns the bulk of their monthly fee via sales on the your brand name. The agency didn’t create the client’s brand equity. These sales don’t reflect the agency’s effort, and brand search is often non-incremental—so why should these brand clicks drive the invoice?

Another problem with revenue share fees is ‘Revenue Attribution’. Here’s the scenario. Searcher clicks a paid link to client’s site, doesn’t buy today but instead signs up for client’s email list, then buys two days later from link in first email received. If the agency and email agency are using different tracking cookies, likely both will “claim” that order. Now, whether that PPC click or that email should get credit for that order is an important and subtle marketing question. It is hard enough for an agency to help clients suss out multi-channel allocation, and I’d suggest an agency can’t provide impartial guidance on this critical topic when their compensation depends on the outcome.

From my experience, revenue share encourages agencies to act like affiliates (stifling data sharing), and revenue share can lead some agencies to “skim” (only tackling low-hanging opportunities). I would suggest you to flatly reject this pricing model.

Model 6: A hybrid model

Most agencies believe that a one size fits all pricing model is increasingly getting obsolete. And that the agency needs to evolve a customized pricing model based on client size, requirement, service and time period.

My recommendation would be that, never consider “Pricing’ as the most important aspect of picking an agency. What matters far more is performance. Compared to an average agency, a great agency can often produce double digit increases in profitable sales, just by building better campaigns and managing them better. For most advertisers, a difference of a few thousand dollars in management fees each month is completely dwarfed by your Google bill, by your resulting sales—and by the gain in profits you could realize from well-built campaigns and smart bidding. Always prioritize ‘Performance’ over ‘Pricing’.

B. What is the agency’s preferred contract period?

The simple logic is that if the contract rate is inversely proportional to the contract period. If the contract period is low then the agency would like to have at least a 6 month commitment.

Usually the agencies ask for a 3-6 month contract to begin (100% required for new builds) to give time for data gathering & operations to take full effect. It typically takes 1 month for developing strategy & restructure and another 2 months to optimize. Either way you should be ready for a minimum 3 month contract.

In the last couple of years most of the boutique agencies seem to be working out a new ‘earn your continued trust’ model! This is a ‘No Contract’ month-on-month subscription model, where their existence would depend on their good performance and client satisfaction.

C. Are they flexible enough?

Working with a new marketing agency can be an expensive venture. Make sure that you are not tied into any long term contracts before you are able to test the service that they provide. If the agency is confident in their service, and that you will keep coming back to them, they should be more than happy to work on a project by project basis.

Essentially, finding the perfect Digital Marketing Agency to work with will depend on whether they are a good fit for your business type, if they have been successful in the past and if they are experts within the sector they operate in. If you are considering the services of a Digital Marketing Agency and want to discuss your options why not get in touch?

If you run the shortlisted agencies through all the above criteria, you should be able to arrive the agency which is a good fit for you. It is now time now ask the big questions:

Question 1: What should be the budget for the initial campaign?

Question 2: When can we start?

Question 3: What would be the estimated return of investment?

Question 4: What are the deliverables you should expect?

Question 5: What goes into the final contract?

Question 6: When do we sign the contract?

Question 7: What happens if you don’t want to finish the contract?

Step VIII: Signing the Service Agreement

Before the creative discussion begins, certain legal technicalities such as confidentiality, idea ownership, fees, and non-compete clauses need to be addressed and negotiated. You need to ensure that a really solid legally documented confidentiality agreement and conditions, also be steadfast on the legal issues most important to your company.

I. Stay away from restrictive contracts

While contracts are important for protecting both the client and the agency, a good marketing company won’t try to lock you into a contract that doesn’t meet your needs. Many contracts will create a relationship that is longer or more restrictive than necessary. Plus, a company that has you locked into a contract may not be as diligent about impressing you with their results. You can expect a bad marketing company to really pick up their efforts about ten months into a one-year contract in the hopes that they can snag you for another year.

II. Be very clear with the deliverables

Avoid contracts that quote a fee without specifically mentioning the deliverables they’ll be providing.

  • What reports will you get from the agency?
  • How often will you get reports from the agency?
  • Will you get access to a live dashboard? (To monitor the performance of your campaigns)
  • Do you get an access to their project management software? This would give you transparency on the status of your works.
  • What about status meetings with your team?

III. Anatomy of a typical Agency – Client Agreement

A contract is essential to govern the provision of services to the Client by an Agency. Make sure that you have the provision to make amendments to the contract from time to time, of course with the consent of both parties. Note that in the event of any conflict between the parties, the terms of the Agreement shall control.

(i) Agency Obligations and deliverables

(ii) Client Obligations and deliverables

(iii) Confidential Information; Non-Solicitation

(iv) Rights, Ownership and Usage

(v) Approval of work

(vi)  Legal Clearances and Indemnification

(vii) Client Representative

(viii)  Liability of Agency  

(ix) Additional Services, Project Changes

(x) Expenses

(xi)  Time of Payment and Late-Payment Charges

(xii)  Term and Termination

I hope this document is helpful and will hopefully serve as your checklist for choosing the right digital marketing agency for your business! All the  best! 🙂

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