How to Pick a Digital Marketing Agency

This can be a touchy subject. For both brands as well as agencies. So we're going to try and be gentle on both.

For brands that have burnt their fingers in the past with agencies, the pain point often is that, they have not seen digital marketing really work for their businesses. There seems to be a lot of promise in the beginning but only excuses and very technical reasons as to why results have not come as agreed on.

For agencies, the challenge often is that brands want overnight results. Quick turn arounds for the cheapest buck and that can often be the reason agencies are pushed to strategies and tactics that focus on the short term. After 6 months of set-up, test and tweak, the brand does an eval and comes to the conclusion that either the agency doesn't know it's stuff or that digital marketing isn't for them. Both of which might not be necessarily be true.

So let's set the stage. Before a brand jumps into tying the knot with an agency, it needs to have some of it's fundamentals set in place. Some of these fundamentals are:

  1. The brand needs to know what it actually wants. Not all marketing lead to direct sales. Infact, marketing strategies that really grow a brand in the long term take time to work and rarely give immediate dividends. So if the brand wants awareness, it needs to have goals for what it defines as awareness. If a brand needs leads, it needs qualifiers by which it defines qualified leads. If a brand wants sales, it needs clarity on the number and type of sales.
  2. The brand needs an in-house marketing SPOC -* Ownership cannot be outsourced. Brands that look to completely outsource all their marketing initiatives to an agency run the risk of  their marketing being disconnected from the rest of the brand's vision. Hiring an agency is not an alternate to having an in-house marketing head. The agency is meant to come alongside the marketing head to achieve the goals that the brand wants to achieve.
  3. The brand needs to have a budget to invest - Marketing costs. The moment a brand goes into a marketing conversation with the priority of saving buck, it's set up for failure. This is not to say that a brand needs to have unlimited sums of money to invest, there is a science to balancing out marketing spend based on various factors like stage of growth, revenue, cost of sales and overheads. However, marketing needs to be treated with the importance is actually has in a brand's growth and that is reflected in the money it allots to it.

Now comes the other side of the conversation. We're going to bite the bullet and just say it: Most digital marketing agencies actually don't understand marketing. Just because an agency is a Google or Facebook partner doesn't qualify them as good marketers. In our agency hunt for a client of ours, we once went through an agency list of over a 100 digital marketing firms in India and boiled that list down to 5 that could actually pick up the strategy we were proposing. Having the ability to run ads, set-up landing pages and do some amount of analytics does not qualify any agency as competent.

So how does one go about picking a digital marketing agency? While in conversation with an agency, here are some ways a brand can vet and see if the agency is a good fit.

1. Take a look at the reports the agency gives its current client -

It all begins and ends with data. An agency that doesn't effectively measure life cycle of it's traffic through it's various marketing efforts isn't even worth having a conversation with. A good agency will have cohesive reports that showcases spend to results metrics, which campaigns attack which specific KPIs and the success rate of each campaign, which messages work on what audiences, what the behaviour flow of a particular marketing initiative is, a CAC campaign wise breakdown and so on. If you see an agency talk about life time value of a customer, give it serious consideration and if you see impressions on any dashboard, RUN!

2. Ask the agency to reveal their on boarding process -

A good agency will take the time to understand your business model and the people you serve. This is no small feat and takes structured and intentional exploration on the part of the agency. At fishHook, we take 2 months of studying the brand, it's vision, goals, people and personality before even penning out the first campaign idea. You'll be able to gauge if an agency will take the time to understand your business by the way they onboard clients. If the process the agency takes includes sending you a questionnaire about your audience over email, that a clear red flag. If however, their onboarding process includes gathering historic data from your brand and scheduling meetings to understand your personas / products, you are in good hands.

3. Look out for the money conversation -

This is a bit of a curve ball. A lot of agencies want to gauge pay-ability in the first meeting and there is nothing wrong with that. However this can sometimes be off putting for the brand that is agency shopping because it can seem like the agency doesn't really care about the brand but is only interested in getting a fat retainer. Sadly, this is often the actual case. Easiest way to tackle this issue is to get money out of the way right at the start. Be clear about what you can afford and see if the agency is still interested. If the agency sticks around, you know have a potential to take talks further. Quick note: If a particular agency is quoting a lot less than the other agencies you have met for the same amount of work, it's probably too good to be true.

4. Audit the agency themselves -

Take a close hard look at the agency's own marketing collaterals. Go through their website, social media and any other material you can get your hands on. The quality you see there is the ceiling for that agency. An agency is never going to give you higher quality than what they give themselves. So if the brand isn't sold on the quality of work it sees on the agency's own assets, it can be assured it isn't going to get any better.

5. Wait for an agency that will reject work -

An agency that claims to do everything is either learning to do something on your buck or is putting out sub quality work. We're not saying it's impossible to find an agency that can understand business fundamentals, brand strategy, inbound and outbound marketing, conversion rate optimisation, marketing automation, analytics and business intelligence. We just haven't found this goldmine of an agency yet. If you do find them, email me at shobith@fishhook.co so that I can come pay my respects. Meanwhile, living in the real world, odds are an agency might be good one or two things at most. Wait for an agency that won't take on every single piece of work you have and will clearly state what their core competency is. This also means the brands might need to shop in different places for different kinds of work which can be tedious. But that's part of what we do at fishHook, find partner agencies that are good at specific areas to match the needs to the clients we have.

6. Look for a social media agency that does more than boost posts -

Touchy subject again. The lines between managing social media and paid advertising can often get very blurred. Budgets often get borrowed from the paid advertising wing to boost traction on the social media wing. Managing social media is an art. It takes really understanding the brand's people, the platform and the conversations require to move the needle effectively. While shopping for a social media agency, a brand needs the see what how the agency has grown their previous clients' social media presence organically, the keyword being organically. We're not saying there isn't room for boosting posts within the domain of social media. But post boosts can often become a crutch that agencies lean on to inflate results. I once came across a brand that had spent $16,000 on boosting a single post, a post that lead to no tangible business results.

7. Pay attention to any agency that disagrees with you -

Brands in the marketing shopping for agencies are doing so because they don't have the competency in house. Which means the agencies need to be the experts instructing the brand on how to achieve it's goals. A good agency will listen to the strategies that a brand has, will take what's good but disagree with what won't work. You want to to find an agency you can trust to instruct you on the domain that it has an expertise on.

8. Don't be impressed by an agency's client logos, look into the work done -

Just because an agency has some big names on it's client list doesn't mean it's done solid work for these brands. Designing Airtel's annual employee satisfaction and happiness report doesn't qualify an agency to run your inbound marketing strategy. A brand needs to ask an agency about actuals of work done, time/effort/money spent and business results generated. By business results we mean the kind of work that has moved the needle on a macro goal the brand has. Reach on a video post does not count as a macro goal. What you are looking for is new active users, active followers, returning visitors, engagement that can be measured by time on pages, shares and comments, new leads, lower customer acquisition cost, increased life time value of a customer and so on.

9. Prioritise agencies that have experience in your industry -

While we aren't saying brands can't partner with agencies that has not worked in your specific industry, agencies that do have prior experience in your domain would be a better fit for you. Agencies that have worked in the same domain will have valuable insight into what kind of strategies work, what platforms are better suited to reach the right target audience and the kind of bank for the buck you can expect.

10. Finally, go with your gut -

Having put agencies through some of the filters mentioned above, sometimes you just might need to take the plunge. The proof of the pudding is after all in the eating. Until you actually step in and work with an agency, you won't be able to tell if the partnership works for you or not. Keep logical checks and balances to measure the partnership at specific intervals and test to see if the agreement works for both you and the agency in the long run. Finding an account manager you can go out for a beer with is a serious boon. Marketing is very to the heart of your brand growth and it would benefit your brand to have a great relationship with the team working on it.

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