14 Questions to Ask When Hiring a Marketing Agency

So, you’ve decided your up your marketing game. And who can blame you? In the land of COVID-19 effective marketing is now more important than ever—and let’s face it: these fundamental changes to the way our businesses operate are likely here to stay to some degree. Though it was true before, it’s particularly true now: effective marketing can mean the difference between business success and business failure. So, many companies are turning to those with expertise in all things marketing: agencies.

And who can blame you for turning to an agency? There are literally hundreds of thousands of marketing tools out there, and if you don’t know all the tools, all of the strategies, and all of the lingo, going at it alone can become complicated very quickly. Marketing agencies are experts on the latest marketing trends and technologies— they know what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t. Having spent a great deal of time in the “agency life,” I can tell you from first-hand experience that those working at an agency spend a great deal of their time staying up to date on trends, techniques, and strategies. So, unless you’re actively participating in the evolution of Martech, partnering with an agency may be the best route for you to go.

But that’s much easier said than done. Is it as easy as just phoning or emailing any agency and get the ball rolling? Not exactly.

When partnering with an agency, there are several important questions that need to be asked to ensure a great fit. Every agency is different, and it’s incumbent on you to ensure you select the best agency for your particular business.

So, what questions should you ask when hiring a marketing agency?

What (and How) Do They Charge?

This is one of the first questions you should ask. Some agencies only take clients with massive marketing budgets, others not so much. Some work hourly, some at a fixed rate. A few work with blended rates, and with others, you’ll pay significantly more to have top talent on your campaigns. Many agencies have spend minimums; other agencies don’t. No matter the price tag, it’s worth it to know upfront what and how you’re paying to see whether they’re a business match for you. It’s of little use to go through all the calls, emails, and pitch meetings before understanding that you simply can’t afford this particular agency.

If your marketing budget is tight, but you’re dead set on a particular agency, you may want to ask if it’s possible that they can change their workflow to fit in your budget and, if so, to what extent and what services will you miss out on. Remember, ultimately, although the inquiry is about understanding price, you’ll also want to consider the value you’ll get from the agency (more on understanding this later). Of course, you want the best value for the price you’re going to pay.

When it comes to price, it’s also important to remember to discuss payment terms and how change orders are priced. You’ll, for instance, want to know what you should pay and by when are there amounts that are payable upfront, and, for long-term projects, how often you’ll be receiving bills. You’ll also want to know how the agency will bill for expenses. For example, if the agency needs to license stock photography on your behalf, would that be billed at cost, or is there a mark-up?

Ultimately, this not only removes surprises for you, but it ensures the agency is aligned with your budgetary expectations as well, and everyone has price certainty that makes it easy to dive into the nitty-gritty.

What’s Their Specialty?

You wouldn’t hire an electrical contractor to fix your plumbing, right? Now, just like contractors specialize in specific things, so do marketing agencies. Even the “general” ones have some sort of niche they specialize in or dedicated teams for specific verticals.

Your first question might be whether they specialize in Business-to-Business marketing (B2B) or Business-to-Consumer (B2C) marketing. You may think that this is a simple question, but it’s actually very important because the two methods differ massively in their intent. B2C marketing is more transactional in nature, with purchases based on emotional decisions that drive a shorter sales cycle. In simple terms, B2C customers buy what they like and are traditionally more receptive and more easily attributed to marketing efforts.

With B2B marketing, the focus shifts to purchases that are more focused on return on investment. In other words, businesses slightly less about the aesthetics of a product and evaluate a product primarily on what works for them and drives their revenue growth. Considering this, the approach to branding, analytics, and campaign design will differ significantly. Traditionally, B2B marketing takes more time, more money, and significantly more experience than B2C campaigns to be successful.

If they do both, ask them in what proportion they do either. You’ll want an agency that specializes in your type of business. In other words, if your customers are all businesses, there’s little use in hiring an agency that specializes in B2C marketing. It’s a totally different ballgame.

Another important trait of any agency is what medium of marketing they specialize in. Do they specialize in outbound marketing by focusing on print and radio ads? Maybe they focus on inbound marketing campaigns that rely on content marketing? These are all things you need to know before starting any relationship with an agency, as they will largely inform your future campaigns.

How Much Experience Do They Have?

Like in any other job, this is a very important question. It’s vitally important that an agency can do the job, but also that the agency understands what to do when things don’t go to plan (spoiler: they almost never do). An agency’s project experience is an easy way to understand their level of comfort with a project, knowing that they have dealt with similar projects before. With experience comes knowledge of how things should really be done.

By knowing that your agency has dealt with similar projects before, you know they’ll be able to implement your marketing campaigns efficiently and on budget. If an agency lacks vital experience, it doesn’t mean you should immediately write them off, but you should absolutely pay significantly more attention to things like project scope, timelines, and financials.

So, ask about their experience. And no, just a certain number of years’ experience won’t do. You’ll want to ask specific questions about their experience. What big projects have they worked on? How big were the projects? What was their contribution to the project if they didn’t work alone? What’s the size and scope of their typical project? These are all important questions to ask.

How Transparent Are They?

You don’t want an agency that tells you how well your campaigns are doing. You need them to show you. So, it’s vital for a marketing agency to be transparent and not be afraid to share the data with you, whether it’s good or bad. So, ask how they do reporting, in what form, and how often before making your decision.

These days, many agencies offer a 24/7 dashboard where you’ll be able to see all the data from your campaigns at all times. This means the days of agencies leveraging unclear, and sometimes deceptive PowerPoint presentations simply won’t do. Ask your agency if they offer a dashboard or “clear data” approach to campaign management. If they’re hesitant to do this, they may not be the perfect fit for you.

How Do They Communicate?

Agency relationships are hard to begin with. Mix in poor communication and you’ve got a nightmare on your hands. So much so that insufficient or ineffective communication is the top reason why marketing agency engagements go wrong. You’ll want to know how your prospective agency communicates, for instance, via email, phone, or another (likely project management) platform. You’ll also want to know how often they communicate. Will there be weekly meetings, daily conference calls, or some other type of schedule?

You’ll also want to ask who you’ll be talking to. In many agencies, it’ll be a dedicated account manager or account executive. What if your account manager is not there? Who’ll you be talking to then? It’s important to know who the contact person or persons are so that you know who you’ll talk to when you have any questions, feedback, or complaints. More importantly, though, is that you’ll be able to assess your ability to work closely with that person.

What’s the culture like?

Fit is an important part of any professional relationship and here culture plays a big role. If your culture isn’t a fit with that of the agency, the relationship will end sooner rather than later, with both time and money lost.

But, one often overlooked component of agency culture is your participation in a project. Some agencies will expect you at the table. Some agencies don’t want to hear from you until the project is delivered. You’ll want to know what your prospective marketing agency looks for in a successful client relationship. In other words, ask them what’s expected of you.

Can you see meaningful references?

Similarly to understanding an agency’s experience, it’s always helpful to talk to a few references. If the agency doesn’t have any, or they won’t give you the information of the reference, something strange may be afoot.

When speaking to the references, don’t just ask them general questions about their experience. Did in deep and ask them specific questions about their working relationship. Consider asking about relationship specifics, like how they handled problems, the agency’s communication style, and perceived transparency.

When it comes to evaluating a marketing agency’s earlier work, it’s also helpful to see some case studies that outline earlier projects and what the results were. These not only show you what type of results the agency achieved in other projects but what type of results you might be able to expect on your project. In other words, you’ll have measured and actionable data that you can use in making your decision.

Who Else Are They Working For?

You’ll want to know what other companies an agency is working for, particularly if they’re working for another player in your industry.

Many agencies will work with other companies in your industry, but with different services or products. This is actually helpful, as the agency will understand the market, the consumer, and adjustments needed for your campaigns. You’ll also be able to see industry-specific results. Positive results with major players outside of your market sub-segment can mean they understand the dynamic.

And if they’re working with a direct competitor? In this case, you’ll have to decide whether they’d be a good fit considering the competing interests, but generally, it’s a good idea to avoid these types of relationships.

Do They Use Freelancers?

There’s nothing wrong with using freelancers for a project. There are skilled and incredibly experienced freelancers out there that deliver excellent, quality work that outpaces even the most experienced agency employees. Unfortunately, there are also some freelancers that deliver shoddy quality on a budget.

So, ask them if they use freelancers for their projects. If they do, what are these freelancers’ skills and experience?  Will you have a say in who works on the project? Do they use them for all projects, or from time to time during project crunches or when they need extra work done?

How Do They Deal With Failure?

It’s not only important to ask about an agency’s successes, but their failures as well. You’ll want to know what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what they did about it. This can go a long way in showing you how they’ll deal with your project if it hits a snag.

You can also ask about the last time the agency lost an account and why. This is a telling question about how an agency handles its sensitive accounts.

How do They deal With Revisions?

Although they’re the experts, you’ll still want some form of creative control throughout the engagement. Just think: what if the agency designs a plan and a campaign, but you realize that it’s completely out of place and doesn’t fit with your company values or your brand at all. Does that mean you’ll just have to accept the work?

An important part of creative control is revisions or edits that allow you to change something that you don’t like. Unfortunately, often you’re limited in the number of revisions or edits you have, and that’s totally understandable—agencies can’t revise a single project forever. Many times, agencies will give a revision allowance and then charge for each additional revision. So, it’s certainly worth it to ask how the agency works through revision requests.

What Steps Will They Take to Get to Know Your Business?

An important part of the creative process is understanding your brand, the core values, and what you portray to your customer. Without a deep and thorough understanding of this, any marketing campaign will be misaligned with what you’re seeking.

So, you’ll want to know what steps they’ll take to get to know your business, understand your value proposition, and see how those steps will influence their strategy. If there’s not much in the way of planning here, the agency may not be the best fit if you want the right image of your brand for your customers.

What Happens if You’re Not Happy With Someone On The Team?

It’s inevitable that people won’t get along or agree on some things, but what do you do when a member of your agency team isn’t producing work that’s up to par? How will the agency deal with this? Will they replace the team member, or will they keep the team member on?

This is important because any agency worth their salt should have concrete processes to deal with these types of customer requests. If there isn’t, it can cause unnecessary delays and wasted costs.

What Do You Need From an Agency?

What are you looking to get from your agency? It isn’t so much a question you’ll be asking a prospective agency, but rather one to ask yourself. This question is by far the most important question you need to ask yourself before even contacting different advertising agencies.

By asking this question, you’ll get a clear understanding of what you need the agency to do and, when your response is well-defined, you’ll know exactly what to expect, and you won’t be disappointed.

In simple terms, you’ll know exactly what type of agency to hire, and you won’t hire an agency that can’t do what you need. Or worse, you’ll hire an agency to do more than you actually need (as you can imagine, agencies are pretty good at the upsell!), and you’ll end up paying far more than you need to.

Final Thoughts

Hiring out marketing, or even certain functions of marketing, to a marketing agency can be a pivotal decision for a business and may largely inform future growth.

Hiring a marketing agency can be a time-consuming process. It can frustrate you, and it can be somewhat complicated. But, by planning and doing your research by asking these questions, you’ll be able to find the agency that’s best for your business.

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