Finding an agency that can act as a true partner is hard.
They all claim they can help you out no matter what their specific focus is. They all have case studies and recommendations. So, how do you choose the right digital marketing agency for your needs?
If you’re thinking about hiring an agency for the first time or about to switch to a new one, here’s what you should look for in a digital marketing agency.
The most important aspect of partnering with an agency is how well you communicate together. They could be the most brilliant marketers on the planet, but if you can’t reach them or they can’t talk to you the way you need, it’s worthless.
You’d think this would be a basic standard for any agency, but I’m floored by how many times I’ll hear a client talk about how another contractor or agency hasn’t responded to phone calls or emails after a few days. If your agency doesn’t get back to you within 24 hours on all emails or calls, it’s time for a new one.
Your agency may never know the ins and outs of your product or service as well as you do, but they should be able to talk about all the aspects of it in great detail. If they can’t answer the value proposition of your product, how can they sell it? If they can’t talk about your customer like it’s their own, how can they market it?
Your agency might get back to you quickly and seem attentive, but often you’re feeling like things are late or information is missing. This is probably because they’re not managing your expectations well. Look, sometimes issues pop up or things don’t go exactly as planned. However, if your agency isn’t getting out in front of it and letting you know why and what that means for the big picture, it means disorganization.
Transparency and Accountability
The biggest things I look for in a colleague are transparency and accountability. This builds trust and is the backbone of any long-term relationship. Why not hold your digital agency to the same standard?
Agencies are made up of humans and humans make mistakes – there’s no way around that. As much as we like to think we know everything, we can’t possibly predict the future or guarantee our work will affect the positive change we plan for.
The key is how your agency responds when a ball is dropped.
Do they try to tiptoe around it and make excuses that don’t quite feel right? Or do they own it, fix this issue, and use it as a learning experience to improve their work moving forward? Hopefully, it’s the latter, and it’s a form of optimization.
If they seem to be hiding something, then you can’t be sure they’re helping your business.
Goals and KPIs
Does your agency collaborate with you to develop Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and goals for your engagement? If not, then they’re not holding themselves accountable. They should document clear KPIs with quantifiable goals that align with your overall business objectives. If they depend on you for all their goals and KPIs, then they’re likely focused solely on tactics and not enough about results.
Business Reviews and Post Mortems
Your agency should push for business reviews on a regular basis. The agenda should look at the performance of the previous quarter and outline a roadmap for the upcoming quarter. This will give everyone a chance to see the big picture and not get bogged down in small tactics and deliverables.
A post-mortem is a bit like a business review but is more about short-term campaigns or entire accounts at large. They are generally less formal and are more about working out the kinks. These are also extremely useful but can happen on an as-needed basis.
We’ve covered all the things that make an agency a solid partner, but what about the substance in what they do? At the end of the day, no matter how well they communicate and how accountable they are, your digital marketing agency needs to master digital strategy.
How do you know if an agency is as good as they say they are?
T-Shaped Skill Set
Although you might be hiring an agency for a specific channel, they need to have a T-shaped skill set. Each expert you work with should be knowledgeable in all digital marketing channels. This is because no single channel operates independently. All digital marketing is part of an ecosystem, and in some way or another, each channel affects the others.
Take our marketing stack, for example. If their content team doesn’t know how to work with analytics, they won’t be able to see advanced user behavior. If their PR team doesn’t understand link building, then they may be wasting valuable effort. They don’t have to be certified masters of each channel, but even a dedicated channel agency should know how their channel works with all the others.
This is extremely important for whoever is managing your account at the agency. They have the bird’s-eye view on overall performance, and if they don’t understand the fundamentals, then it’s a ship without a captain. They should be considered a strategist as well.
Tactics vs. Strategy
Tactics mean nothing without the strategy to back them up. One of the surefire signs that your agency is phoning it in is when they rely on tactics without strategic reasons. Sure, keyword analysis is fine, but why? What will this get you? Don’t be intimidated by your experts, and always feel free to ask why. If they can’t answer this easily and clearly, then they don’t know why either.
As I mentioned before, all business reviews should include a roadmap. This roadmap should be a game plan of tactics, action items, and deliverables that they want to accomplish next. It should be strategy-driven, and every single item should have a purpose.
If your agency isn’t providing you with a roadmap, then they’re leaving you in the dark. They could be doing all the right things and making all the right moves, but if you’re often wondering what they’re up to, this leaves room for all sorts of potential issues. It’s a matter of accountability.
Your digital marketing agency should be a good partner for you. This means they should not only do the work you’ve asked them to do, but they should feel like part of your team. You should never feel like they’re just hired marketing mercenaries.
Does your agency take the time to teach you things? One of the aspects our clients love most about us is that we love to teach them about what we do. If there’s a new Google algorithm update that may not affect them, we still like to let them know about it and what it means. If we’ve read any good articles on something about their industry, we’ll share those with them, too.
One easy way to find out how much teaching an agency will likely do for you is through their thought leadership. Do they have a blog, and how active is it? Are their articles basic, or are they interesting? Is just one person responsible for all the articles, or do all of their strategists contribute?
Your agency shouldn’t be scared of new opportunities. They should vet them out properly but be excited to explore with you. If you’ve ever come to them with a new idea and they dismiss it without a solid reason, then you certainly won’t be able to grow with them. There is a fine line between being cautious and being stubborn.
Do you feel like your agency challenges you? Do they push back on occasion? Another telltale sign that your agency isn’t trying hard enough is that they do whatever you say without any pushback or questions.
Our best clients are the ones that we are able to openly disagree and debate with. We can do this because they trust us and respect what we have to say. As a Client Partner, the worst thing I can do is not vocalize potential pitfalls. Expressing these dangers shows I care. Your agency should care, too.
Provide You With Ownership
Does your agency claim ownership on the work they do for you? Shockingly enough, it happens, and it’s a major red flag.
The only reason that an agency would want to retain ownership of the work they’ve done is that they’re afraid you’ll leave, and they want to maintain leverage. This does not inspire confidence in their abilities. If they’re as good as they say they are, then they’ll have no problem handing everything off to you. If they don’t easily deliver everything to you, then imagine what it would be like if you decide to stop working with them.
(This obviously doesn’t apply to certain situations in which you’re accessing previously produced material or IP from your agency.)
The bottom line is that if you feel like your agency isn’t working with you, then they’re probably not doing a great job of working for you. Hold them to extremely high standards. Challenge them, and let them challenge you back. You’ll end up getting much more bang for your buck and hopefully have a long-term partner to help you get where you want to go.