Building an Agency Partnership: Part 2


As discussed in Part One of this blog series, when most young companies begin the daunting task of searching for a marketing agency partner, they often do not know where or how to start. There are a lot of options out there, and it can be extremely tough to understand how best to identify who could be a good fit and how to evaluate your options. There are a few criteria that can help to approach this process and determine with whom you want to work.

1. Once you decide that the timing is right and that you have the budget, the most important thing that you can do before hiring an agency is research. Do your homework and take the time to vet each candidate to ensure that you are making an informed decision. Below are some tips to understand how to evaluate candidates:  

Size is Important -  Depending on how you work and what you are looking for, the size of an agency can be a critical factor. A small 15 person agency may have a lot of the same principles as a 500 person agency, but they are going to interact with clients in a very different way. Make sure you think about what kind of relationship you want to have and who you want to have access to at the agency. Not all agencies are the same and size does matter.

Work Styles Vary -  It is fair to ask how an agency tends to interact with their clients. Everyone uses a slightly different methodology, and different personalities may fit better with a certain approach. Do not be afraid to request a meeting with a particular project/account manager, creative team or developer who would be assigned to your project. Sometimes the only way to know if you are a good fit is to sit down and get to know them. Seeing their space, meeting in person and feeling them out is important. You learn a lot by talking to someone face-to-face that you just can’t get via email or phone.

Capabilities Are Not Always Easy to See - Look at their portfolio, but also go further: ask specific questions, don’t just take what they say at face value. Go beyond listening to what they say they do, and make sure you feel comfortable with the quality and quantity of what they can show you. Try to feel out where their strengths are and make sure that they align with your potential scope.

Also, think about if it is critical for you to see something very similar to your project or if it is more about their process and capabilities. Some clients want experience in a particular vertical and others prefer to engage someone who has never done anything with any similar clients. Know what you are looking for and what has more value to you.

Dig Deeper Than Screenshots - No two marketing firms are going to be the same, so pay attention to the details and differences with each. They may seem similar just by looking at websites; that is why you need to sit down and talk in detail. Most agencies will take an hour to discuss your project, walk you through their past projects and explain their approach. How do they differentiate themselves?

If you are seriously interested in engaging with an agency, it is well within the norm to request references. Talk to their clients and ask them specific questions about what it is like to work with that potential partner. Certain things are probably not going to be possible or comfortable to ask directly. Also, not every project is perfect so ask what went wrong, how did they respond and how the project turned out.

2. Now that you have chosen a partner, you want to make sure you start your relationship off on the right foot. The key to doing so is trust. Below are tips to help you get things started right.  

Acknowledging Risk on Both Sides - You and your partner should both feel like you have skin in the game. Putting all the pressure on one side will not lead to success. As a client, you are making an investment and using valuable resources, and the agency needs to be on the hook to deliver. Without balance, chances are you will not succeed.  

Get on the Same Page with Contracts - Be extremely clear and upfront as often as you can. Review their proposal, contract or SOW, and make sure you know what you are getting. Don’t just enter into a project on good faith; get something specific that outlines a budget and what your deliverables will be. A contract is better for both sides ultimately and avoids confusion down the road. A lot happens in the sale process. Things change, and sometimes we have different interpretations or use slightly different language—that is why you need something that both you and the agency can keep as a record. The contract is going to help protect you and make sure that you don’t get something that you don’t want or need and wastes your time and money.

Accept That You Are a Valued Client - It is the job of your agency to be attentive and set expectations, but you can’t assume you are their only client. As a startup that can be tough, but often having to micromanage clients and do unnecessary hand-holding causes things to take even longer and can build animosity, as well as increase budget. Be active but find a balance. This may take some feeling out at first, but ask for feedback and check in with your partner. You should have an open dialogue about how you are working together and how to grow the relationship.

Commit to Your Decision - You hire an agency for a reason, and you have to give them the chance to show you what they can do. If you provide tons of constraints and micromanage the process, you aren’t going to get to see them achieve their potential. If you want a strategic partner, they need the opportunity to flex that muscle.

If you hire them and then don’t let them do what they are supposed to do, it is a waste of money.

Be Honest - Bring things up early and often. If you have feedback or have questions about the process or if you feel that something is not working, you need to speak up. Don’t just wait until something goes wrong. Being upfront and letting your agency know that you are happy/not happy with something is going to build a relationship and ensure that things move in the right direction.

If you are getting pressure on your end, tell them. Your agency is there to help you and make you look like a rockstar when you go back to your board or whoever it might be.

Most projects that fail tend to fail as a result of lack of communication. Agencies can’t read your mind. If you want to have a successful, mutually beneficial relationship where you feel you are fully engaged with your partner, honest communication is your biggest asset.

Remain Objective - You may have a specific vision for something, but that does not always mean that it is right. At the end of the day, you can always lean on data. If something looks great but doesn’t convert—who cares? Whether or not you like it can’t always be the bottom line.

Data should always be a part of the process because it is something you can use to choose the right direction. If something converts at three times the rate than other creative choices, it is tough to argue.  

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize - It can be easy to get sidetracked which is why goals should be identified early on, along with ways of measuring success. Everyone should be on the same page and working towards the same things. There should be some documentation stating this so that you can refer to it at any point in the process and say “Is this helping us achieve to x?”

3. What Should I Expect from an Agency?

Success - If you are engaged with an agency and both sides are doing their part, you should expect to see results. If nothing is changing, then something isn’t right, and you need to revisit the partnership.