Well, it’s finally decided: You need outside marketing help. Congratulations! It was a feat in and of itself to arrive at that decision. Suddenly, though, things are even more complicated. You find yourself swimming in a sea of possible partners, some of whom are surely beating down your door to get your business. They’re using big marketing words, chomping at the bit to show you their work, and trying to sell you on why they’re all-around better than the next guy.
Frankly, you can’t tell one from the next. What do you do?
Well, for starters, you aren’t buying a ream of paper. You’re buying into a relationship that, done right, should last a decade or more, and result in tremendous value-add to your company. And since you’re buying a relationship (and not a commodity), a great place to start is by determining what qualities make for the utmost compatibility with your group.
It isn’t an easy question to answer. But over the years, we’ve observed there are a definite set of attributes—seven altogether—that should be vetted for. So, when procuring outsourced marketing help, your due diligence should drive to ascertain the extent to which the candidate partner offers…
The measure of accountability isn’t a proactive approach to reporting; that’s a minimum requirement. Instead, the question to ask is: When something goes wrong, how do you respond? The right agency partner will offer, in writing, an always-make-good approach for the multitude of scenarios in which workmanship isn’t, or results aren’t, up to par based on the expectations you set for them. They’ll also have stated sign-off processes along the way, so it’s clear who has ownership of, and responsibility for, what. Furthermore, they’ll be prepared to customize their processes to match yours, so you can have peace-of-mind that the agency is continuously optimizing itself to meet your expectations.
Who’s proofing this copy? Who’s analyzing our website’s user paths? Who’s preparing that briefing book of media contacts? While agencies are very good at laying out their capabilities, they’re not always very good at answering the critical questions about who on the team is responsible for what.
Don’t assume that uber-specific job titles, or team members with narrowly defined functions, are evidence that a candidate agency will take an all-bases-covered approach to your account. Nor should you assume that you, as a card-carrying, invoice-paying client, automatically get access to everyone on the agency’s team. On the contrary, we’ve heard horror stories of companies hiring agencies who, for the duration of the interview/review, positioned themselves as “THE [Insert Your Industry Here] MARKETING AGENCY,” only to discover after contracts are signed that, for their budget, they don’t even get the ‘B’ team.
Ask to understand who, specifically, is working on your account, particularly if you intend to go with a larger agency. Boutique agencies—those with 15 or fewer team members, like Simpatico, a Pennsylvania Digital Marketing Agency and Full-Service Consultancy—tend to take an all-hands on deck approach, and roll out the client welcome mat with a very clear message of mi equipo, su equipo.
5. Cross-Channel Clout
According to industry analyst Brian Regienczuk, there are 120,000 ad agencies in the US alone—a sweeping assessment that includes “everything from [so-called] digital agencies, PR firms, design studios, and even [market] research firms.” It’s probably safe to bet the number is higher still, since anybody with a MacBook Pro and a Creative Cloud subscription these days wants to dub their enterprise an agency.
For that reason, whenever consulting on agency reviews, we generally advise clients to not even count a candidate marketing partner as an agency unless the firm is multidisciplinaryin capabilities. That means it already has demonstrable experience with greater than five  go-to-market tactics (i.e., search engine marketing or optimization, social media, PR, list growth and mining, digital display, out-of-home, Guerrilla, events, etc.) An agency must also offer a variety of in-house executional competencies, ranging from digital graphic design and video production to media vendor management and the day-to-day brokerage required by channel partners such as Google AdWords.
The ideal candidate, by the way, will have the capacity to offer and/or coordinate all of the above above—that’s called an Integrated Marketing Communications, or “IMC” agency (and it’s what Simpatico does best). Those candidates who don’t have interest in your whole marketing picture are more accurately classified as freelancers or specialists, and, however valuable, probably have limitations in their offering and the value they can add.
Finally, it’ll be obvious who’s who based on the growth trajectory and reputation of the candidate agency. Ask for an account of creative accolades, contracts awarded, and alliances with credentialed partners. Simpatico, for example, was recently voted a Top Philadelphia Marketing Consultant by marketing referral service UpCity, has consistently won out against vertically concentrated agencies thanks to the breadth of our experience, and is in partnership with AdTaxi, one of a select handful of Google Premier Search Partners in the world.
4. Flexibility in Function
Predictability in business is like the power play in hockey: no sooner have you found a rhythm than the rhythm changes all over again. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business owner, or a corporate marketing leader, you need an outsourced marketing partner who understands that. Expensive specialists have little use when economic conditions are throwing your forecasts off, or when some as-yet-unidentified competitor starts stealing your marketshare. The right agency partner will have an on-your-side approach, and that means readiness to shift their function on a moment’s notice—from design to competitive reconnaissance, or from long-game strategy to next-meeting sales support—in order to remain relevant and useful.
3. Clear-as-Glass Processes
Industry standard toolkits are built for collaboration. Google Apps, Adobe Creative Cloud, and a host of marketing automation tools come standard with version control, revision history tracking, role management and task delegation, and countless real-time reporting and analytics features. Is it important to know what tools the candidate agency uses? In a check-the-boxes kind of way, yes.
But it should be more important to you to know how your outsourced marketing partner does its strategic calculus. In other words, you need to know how it arrives at the recommendations that’ll ultimately drive your marketing program, and inform its success or failure. In each of our initial meetings, we bring prospective clients up-to-speed on our Evidence-Based Design™methodology, and how it’s used to ensure our team, at all levels on the org chart, are making informed, defensible choices on your behalf.
Don’t get me wrong: With all the imitators and outright plagiarists to contend with, agencies are entitled to their secret sauce, whatever it happens to be. But wherever internal and outsourced teams need to cooperate with one another to get the job done, you, the client, are as entitled to know how the agency works through certain types of challenges, because that’s going to directly impact how you, as a business owner or marketing leader, can even decide if what’s being proposed makes any sense at all.
Having sat in the seat of corporate marketing, I know too well the pain of being stuck in a contract with an unreachable partner.
Once, while on deadline for the first deployment of a mission-critical email marketing campaign, our internal development team needed creative assets, pronto, to make the initial send deadline. It took all of the inside brand management team to page anybody from our agency partner’s team, two states away, who could give us the files we needed. Worse, said team had been apprised of our deadlines in plenty of time.
Sometimes, you just need an immediate answer from your agency. While no agency offers an 1-800-customer-service approach to client relations, you should seek out a partner who will answer when you call, or who will at least agree (in writing, as Simpatico does) to return your messages within 24 hours. And you should certainly expect your agency has got a system in place to not only manage and meet your deadlines, but support you as those deadlines approach—provided, of course, you’re doing your part to include them during the lead-up.
1. Matching Values
If you’re going to hire outsourced marketing help, whatever matters most to your company should also matter to the agency. You wouldn’t hire a sales rep who couldn’t get behind your product, service or solution; it’s reasonable to expect the same of your marketing partner. Pretty simple, right?
Well, yes—on the surface. But whether your agency’s values align with yours isn’t merely a question of whether they’d buy what you’re selling. Remember, your agency is an extension of your team. If you expect them play an integrated, day-to-day role, then you need to make clear to them that they’ll be held to the exact same standards as anyone else in your company. Moreover, you need to understand what those standards are.
If, for example, everyone in your company is judged by very specific, very measurable goals, what good does it do to hire an agency whose competencies end at content production capabilities? Ask them to lay out their attribution model, or to at least describe how they’d go about creating one for you. Likewise, there must be cultural compatibility across the organizations. Imagine the most successful people on your team are lone wolves who thrive when left to their own devices, and can provide now-and-then status reports. In that case, you ought to make clear to your agency that you’d rather reign them in—and therefore expect them to be proactive, and take risks—than have them sitting around waiting for their next set of orders.
To be sure, this step has more to do with you than it does with the agency. It requires consensus among your leadership team about what’s important. It requires you to firmly understand all the things that, in principle, make your company tick.
If there’s even a remote possibility that different leaders in your organization will give different answers about these things, then before even contacting outsourced marketing candidates, assemble your executives to develop a Mission, Vision and Values Statement. Having one will not only ensure your Executive Leadership Team is aligned, it’ll save your marketing budget untold sums in reworks down the line.
Oh, and it should go without saying, but while there’s a lot of problems that marketing can solve, fractures among management is not one of them. Simpatico collaborates with a network of Executive Coaches and Consultants with incredible qualifications who can help steer your management team if you find yours in such a position. Be wary of agencies who purport to solve managerial differences via marketing; conflict resolution, particularly at the top of your org chart, is its own discipline.
Also posted on LinkedIn