Experts say the answer comes from a mix of intuition and data to back it up.
The decision to hire an agency is one that many marketers face at some point, whether it is to get a fresh perspective, lack of bandwidth, or need for specific expertise that only an agency can provide. Once you’ve hired an agency, gone through the on-boarding process, and evaluated their work, the relationship can either evolve, or deteriorate depending on many factors. Our last blog post on this topic discussed knowing when to hire an outside agency, and then maximizing the relationship between the agency and the in-house team, but how do you find a good match? And how do you know when the relationship isn’t working?
What to Consider
The path to a healthy company/agency relationship starts with the hiring process. So, what do you look for when you finally decide to outsource an important project or marketing activity? Brooke Hall Allen, CEO of What Works Studio, a Baltimore-based marketing agency, says “Great results occur when there is synergy between the players.” She said the two most important elements to consider are credibility and working dynamics. “You want to look for an agency that not only has a proven track record of success but is also inspirational and has goals and values that align with the organization’s.” Ryan Hall, Director of Brand Strategy at Fifteen4, a full-service marketing agency in Baltimore, echoes these remarks. He thinks the key to success is a combination of the agency’s proven track record and how well they can mesh with the internal marketing team that hired them.
Researching an agency in an important first step, and while Google is a good start, Brooke recommends taking a deeper dive of 20 or more websites and whittling it down to a list of 5-10 that catch your eye. She also recommends conducting pitch meetings before deciding on an agency. Taking it a step further, Ryan suggests test driving a new agency before committing. “There is nothing wrong with doing a project together to vet an agency before fully on-boarding them; It allows some flexibility,” he said.
What to Avoid
Sometimes weeding through a list of agencies can best be achieved by focusing on things you don’t want. What are some red flags that every company should avoid? Brook points to factors such as inexperience, lack of proven success, and lack of process. She said, “Things to look out for are:
1.) Number of years in business. If less than five years, there’s a chance that the leadership is inexperienced;
2.) Lack of compelling case studies on their website. If they can’t prove they’ve had successful results, then keep looking; and
3.) Lack of process. You should ask agencies you’re considering to describe their processes, and if they don’t have them or if they aren’t well-defined, move on.”
How Can You Tell if the Relationship is Not Working?
Hiring and on-boarding an agency does come with some growing pains, but how can you differentiate between working out the kinks and a full-on mismatch? Ryan says that problems commonly occur when an agency over-promises and under-delivers. He said, “Agencies are hungry and competing for business; Sometimes performance does not match what is sold.” Both Ryan and Brooke agree that communication is key. “Expectations should be set up front. What kind of reports are needed, amount of touch time… it all starts with communication,” Ryan said. In Brooke’s view, when the relationship is no longer working, it is usually obvious to both the company and the agency. “Of course, in most cases, the agency will want to continue working with the company, so if you’re not seeing the results you want, or the communication goes south, then you might want to start interviewing other agencies,” she said.
Sometimes friction can occur when the agency’s capabilities, values or experience are not aligned with their client’s. Brooke said, “It’s important to define who you want to work with so that you can turn down work and to keep track of client relationships that didn’t work out. Are there shared traits amongst client relationships that didn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped? If so, you can begin to exclude those types of clients from your sales pipeline. Focusing on the types of clients who yield the best working relationship is going to be better for everyone and it will help you grow faster.” Other times, it’s simply a clash of personalities. Ryan said, “Sometimes strong personalities come into play and the agency feels like they are not adding value.”
When it is Time to Cut Ties, What Can Companies and Agencies do to Ensure a Smooth and Professional Break-up?
Once again, communication is key. From an agency’s perspective, Brooke said she appreciates “honest feedback, good listening, and a policy of not taking anything personally. The more time you can give the agency from the break-up conversation to when you actually cut them loose financially is always appreciated and will give them more time to hand-off any ongoing projects thoughtfully.”
Though there isn’t an exact formula for ensuring an enduring and productive company/agency relationship, and many factors can affect the outcome – ineffective hiring, personality clashes, misrepresentations, or simply outgrowing each other – but both parties bear the responsibility to communicate openly and honestly to ensure success.
Here is Brooke and Ryan’s list of questions to ask when hiring an agency:
- How long has the agency been in business?
- Does the company have a track record of success?
- Do they have real metrics to back up their claims?
- Are their case studies remarkable?
- Have they proven they can deliver the results we’re looking for?
- Do the personalities at the agency mesh with me and my team?
- Do we connect with the people and the agency?
- Do we enjoy spending time with them?
- Do they inspire us?
- Do their values align with our company’s values?
- What are the agency’s capabilities?
- Are their capabilities aligned with our purpose?
- Will you enjoy working with them?
- What is our budget and their pricing structure? Make sure not to focus on deliverables and not just price – the agency could surprise you with addendums or giving you a junior team to meet the budget requirements.
For more insights into the internal marketing team and agency relationship, check out this post.