Teddy Cheek

How to Work With a Marketing Agency (Without Getting Burned)

So you want to hire a marketing agency? I get it – the right marketing agency could be a total game-changer. 

But beware – that “right” agency is hard to find. 

Some agencies are awesome. Others could be awesome if they weren’t trying to juggle so many clients. But the truth is, most marketing agencies just plain suck. 

The worst part – you won’t know they suck until the contract is signed and it’s too late. If there’s one thing most agencies are really good at at, it’s pitching their services.

Hiring a marketing agency

SEO, publicity, social media, digital advertising, copywriting, design – I’ve spent over $300,000 on agencies and I’ve even led a digital marketing agency myself. 

Working with a good agency will be expensive, won’t be (and shouldn’t be) hands-off, and still won’t guarantee your success. 

marketing agency meme

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5 Reasons to hire a marketing agency

There are a lot of reasons not to hire a marketing agency – here are 5 reasons you should hire an agency:

  1. Bandwidth: You and your team are stretched to the max and are not in a position to hire a full-time employee. 
  2. You need a fresh perspective
  3. You need a second set of eyes to prevent mistakes: The stakes are high and you need a spotter. An agency can be great for spot-checking your strategy.
  4. The agency or consultant is willing to share relationships that you need: A common reason for hiring agencies (especially PR agencies) is that you can benefit from their established relationships.
  5. You lack the necessary expertise: You need someone with a very particular set of skills to increase your organization’s expertise in a defined area.

Should you hire an agency or a consultant?

If you are in need of expert advice, without an execution arm, you need a consultant. If you need expert advice and help executing, you likely need an agency.

Where to find a marketing agency

There is only one good way to find a good agency. Recommendations. To start your search, ask other marketers who they would recommend. Be very specific about what you are hoping to achieve. You can call colleagues, post on LinkedIn, or even cold call similar non-competitive businesses and ask if they have a recommendation. 

Trusted recommendations help you cut through the mess. And there’s a lot of mess – everyone and their brother with no marketing experience thinks they can start an agency. There are currently over 7,000 marketing agencies in the US and that number is growing 12% per year! Weird fact – there are more Google searches for “how to start a marketing agency” than there are for “hire a marketing agency.” 

how to start a marketing agency

But what if the agency reached out to you first?

If an agency reaches out to you and you like their pitch, try to find former clients of the agency to talk to. Of course you can ask for references but it’s better if you can find clients that they didn’t hand select to talk to.

How to choose a marketing agency

I recommend speaking to at least 3 agencies. Here’s how to select the right one.

  • See past the pitch: Some agencies put a lot of resources into their pitch. They design great looking decks. They do their homework and understand your pain points. They have 5 people on the sales call – each charming and brilliant. Sure, these might be great signs, but beware – some agencies have a strong pitch and a weak delivery. This is why talking to former clients is a necessity. 
  • Ask to speak with your Project Manager before signing: Agencies are famous for the ol’ bait and switch. Your sales calls will be with the founder or a sales ace, but when the project starts, they will loop you in with your project manager. Surprise! The project manager has just graduated and is excited about their very first client. 

    I once hired the biggest name in SEO’s agency. And the contract…over $10,000 per month. 3 weeks into the campaign, our project manager asked if we had a blog. Yes, our SEO “expert” asked us if we had a blog after completing an “audit” of our website. What a scrub.
marketing agency meme
  • It doesn’t matter if the founder is an expert: Most agencies have an expert, visionary founder. You probably won’t work with them. They might not even know you’re a client. Don’t select an agency because of a big name founder. 
  • You get what you pay for: Skill is not a commodity. Don’t pay top dollar because of a big name founder BUT don’t pick an agency because they are the cheapest option either. Most agencies charge a monthly retainer. Prices range wildly but expect to pay a minimum of a few thousand dollars per month.
  • I always negotiate marketing spends fiercely except agency fees: I always negotiate advertising contracts. Why? Because I’m getting the same billboard whether I pay $1k or $5k for it. But with the agencies, this isn’t the case. If you negotiate the price down too much, the agency will put less resources and less talent on your project.

How to evaluate a marketing agency

I’m going to make a prediction – your agency will try to deliver a big win quickly. Agencies always try to do something in the first few weeks that is surprisingly awesome and earns your trust. I always love that big early win, but a lot of agencies spend too much time patting themselves on the back afterwards. Now they feel they have a couple months before there’s pressure to do anything else of value. They can shift their focus back to their other clients now that you are happy. Of course you should celebrate the win, but don’t forget to ask “now what?”

Should agencies guarantee results?

Most agencies don’t guarantee results. And that’s good. I’m very suspicious of agencies that guarantee an outcome before getting into the weeds of my project. But equally bad is when agencies refuse to be held accountable to any results at all. “We are paid for effort,” they say. That may be true, but it’s amazing how often agencies are willing to say that to clients. I hate it. Set goals for the project that you and the agency both can agree to.

How to set goals with your marketing agency

Before signing the contract, create Key Performance Indicators with your agency. These Key Performance Indicators will make it abundantly clear if the campaign should be viewed as a success or failure. Without clear KPI’s an agency will do everything they can to convince you that the project is a success – after all, their business revolves around retaining clients.

I recommend having 1-2 KPIs that are “lead indicators” and 1-2 that are “lag indicators.”

Lead indicators: The actions you take to win the win. What you put in.
Lag indicators: The score of the game. What you get out.

Example lead indicator for a PR agency: Number of pitches made 
Example lag indicator for a PR agency: Number of stories secured

You likely can’t make hitting KPI’s a determining factor in whether the contract is fulfilled, but it keeps everyone honest about what success looks like. 

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, read my guide on marketing execution and goal-setting.

My 5 least favorite agency-isms

Many agencies do these 5 very annoying things. Be on the lookout! 

1. Vanity metrics: Vanity metrics are metrics that don’t matter – they aren’t actionable and don’t inform future strategy or decision-making. Something is always going up and to the right – your agency will find it, report on it, and take credit for it. (another reason why creating KPIs is so important)

Example – PR agencies often report the number of “impressions” or the number of people that saw the stories they landed in publications. The problem is how they calculate this impression number. Typically they use the number of total monthly visitors for every website that covers your story. So if Forbes gets 10 million visitors per month, they will report that your story on Forbes got 10 million impressions. This is nonsense. It’s likely your story is buried deep on Forbes.com and 2 people saw it. One such PR agency told me they’d earned us over 1 Billion impressions. That’s a big LOL from me.

By the way, if you hate vanity metrics, read my blog on how marketers can build credibility

2. They just don’t get it: Many agencies won’t understand your business or make an effort to. They understand SEO or social media best practices but not how to use SEO or social media to drive real business results. They lack real business credibility and insight. According to MyCodelessWebsite.com, the average agency only spends 20 hours forming each client’s marketing strategy.

3. They agree with everything you say to make you happy: Agencies want to retain clients. It’s how they make money. But I hate when agencies instantly cave when you bring up a counterpoint. “Sure, we can do it that way!” If you are hiring an agency, you want an expert opinion and a unique point of view.

4. Weeks of auditing: I hate when agencies say they need 1-2 months to audit your business before they really dive in and start doing work. 

5. Surprise Bills: One agency invited our team to dinner at their favorite restaurant, ordered a ton of stuff, and then sent me an invoice for the meal.

How to maximize a marketing agency

There are 3 things you need to get the most out of your marketing agency.

  1. Stay involved: You may have hired subject-matter experts, but they don’t know your business like you do. Your understanding of the business provides necessary context that will allow the agency to succeed.
  2. Trust the agency you choose: Agencies suck when they aren’t trusted. Once it’s clear that you don’t trust the agency, they will go into a death spiral. Their creativity will dry up and they will make tons of embarrassing mistakes as they play it safe and scared (dangerous combo). So once you’ve vetted the agency, and set goals, you have to trust them.

    Trusting your agency doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t express your point of view or that you won’t have to occasionally override their ideas. This is how an agency learns your business.
  3. Manage your internal team’s insecurity: Sometimes internal marketers feel insecure when an agency is hired. They’d never say this, but they might even want to see the agency fail because it makes them look like the real experts. Back in my agency days, it was always the lowest ranking member of my client’s marketing team that would attempt to sabotage our agency to prove their own brilliance. 

    If you’re the marketing leader, clearly explain the role of the agency and how the agency will benefit the internal team’s growth and development.

When to fire your marketing agency

Most agency relationships don’t last more than a year. They just don’t. There’s typically an expiration date. Here are 4 reasons to break up with your agency:

  1. Your agency has lost your trust: If the agency keeps dropping the ball and you don’t trust them, it’s time to fire them. 
  2. The agency has lost intensity: If it feels like your agency is losing intensity even though your monthly fees haven’t changed, tell them. If this isn’t quickly resolved and doesn’t stay resolved, it’s time to find a new partner.
  3. The agency is missing the goals you’ve agreed to: If you and the agency agreed to goals, and the agency isn’t hitting the goals or progressing towards them, it’s time to end the relationship.
  4. The agency gives you their b-team: I hate when a great agency acts like you are a priority during the sales process but then puts their b-team on your project. No thanks, I’m out.

Summing it all up

Although it may seem like it, I’m not against hiring agencies. I hire agencies often. Some agency engagements have been a smashing success. Others, not so much. Here’s what I wished I’d known 10 years ago that would have saved a ton of money.

  1. Ask yourself –  can you do the work more effectively with my internal team? If so, maybe an agency isn’t for you.
  2. Get referrals from other businesses and interview at least 3 agencies before hiring one.
  3. When interviewing agencies, make sure they will bring a fresh, expert perspective and don’t just agree with everything you say. 
  4. Make sure you like your project manager (not just the sales person) before signing anything.
  5. Don’t negotiate agency contracts to death. Make sure you are comfortable with the fees and that you’re not overextending yourself.
  6. Run from agencies that guarantee results. But do set goals together with your agency.
  7. Be prepared to stay involved in the project and to provide feedback.
  8. If you feel like you can’t trust the agency after 60 days, break up.

If you have questions about this article or are looking for advice, shoot me an email at teddy@teddycheek.com!

About Teddy Cheek

Hi, I’m Teddy

I’ve led marketing teams since 2013. I believe that good leadership is marketing’s only cheat code. More important than tactics or talent, it can send a team into hyperdrive. Fortunately for me, it’s a skill that can be developed. I hope my blog helps you build a dominant team and career you love.

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