Communications Strategy

What You Need to Know When Choosing a Marketing Agency

By Starr Million Baker


Before you hire a marketing agency, your company should have the following in place: a solid business plan, a strong customer base, a viable product or service, and a vision for the future. This list may sound elementary, but you’d be surprised how many companies jump to hire an agency before they’ve covered the basics.

Feel good about the fundamentals? Then let’s talk about the marketing issues that indicate it’s time to hire an agency partner:

  • You want to raise awareness of your offering to gain more customers while keeping the ones you have.
  • You need to communicate what your business is all about to your key audiences.
  • You’d like feedback from key stakeholders to evolve your offerings.
  • People are interested in what you’re doing and you want to build on that interest.
  • Your brand needs a face or messaging lift.
  • You’ve experienced a crisis and need to protect your brand.

If one or more of these sounds familiar, it’s time to seek out your agency. But where do you go from here? Knowing how agency relationships work and what your options are will help you choose the partner and arrangement that will work best for you.

What kind of contract should I sign?

  • Agency of record (AOR) – Ask yourself this: To accomplish my vision of the future, do I need an agency partner that will guide me with their expertise and knowledge of marketing communications? If achieving your marketing vision takes more than a single campaign or project, an AOR relationship where you have a long-term plan and multifaceted strategy is the way to go.
    • Retainer – While you might think AOR = monthly retainer, in recent years, retainer models of budgeting have become less popular. There may be comfort in having a consistent monthly spend, but the retainer model can be damaging to your agency relationship. For example, you might wonder, “Did they do everything they could?” While the agency thinks, “We did more than what they paid for.”
    • Monthly minimum – At INK, we prefer a monthly minimum in an AOR engagement where both parties agree to a minimum monthly budget target for staffing and planning purposes. If we have activities that fall beyond the monthly minimum, we’ll work them out with approval of additional scopes of work.
  • Project ­– Do you have a very defined project in mind (like crisis communications, a digital campaign for a product launch, a vertical market test, or a brand update and website makeover) that can be accomplished in a specific time? If your answer is yes, then a project-based engagement will work. Pro tip here: Starting with a project before settling into an AOR relationship is never a bad thing. We all date before we get married, right?
    • Fixed fee­ – In a project engagement, the price should be determined by the value of the outcome to the business and the expertise and hours worked by the people on the team.

Who do I need on my agency team?

The agency team assigned to your business should have a mix of industry expertise, craft expertise, program management, and business leadership. Don’t get caught up in titles; pay attention to the guidance you get from each person in the room. A quality agency team will include individual talents who come together to give your business their best ideas and attention.

There are a few red flags that signal you have the wrong team supporting your business. If you never hear from a senior person at the agency, if the turnover on your agency team negatively affects your program, or if you spend an exorbitant amount of time answering questions readily available on Google (see the next question to ask yourself about your agency engagement), it could be time to consider a new agency.

How much guidance does the agency need from me?

You should be working with an agency that, after the initial planning phase, is giving you the guidance. There is a time requirement from you to ensure a good agency partnership, but it should be spent on strategy approval, not babysitting. Here’s what we’d expect during a successful partnership:

  • Weekly status meetings (a half hour should do it) to 1) keep the program moving and 2) tell the agency about internal goings-on they wouldn’t know about otherwise.
  • Monthly planning meetings to help your teams align on short-term strategy and keep a pulse on program metrics.
  • Quarterly presentations to show you what’s working, what’s not, and how the long-term strategy and next-phase plan will evolve your program.

But do you need to call your agency partner every day and tell them what to do? No. If that ever happens, you need a new agency partner.

What should I be measuring?

This is my favorite question – and you’ll hate my answer: It depends. The KPIs you and your agency partner choose to measure together (note: your agency should guide you on the best practice here) depend solely on the objectives you are trying to reach. By focusing on the objective first, you not only ensure you and your agency are on the same page, but you can also better define what success looks like. When considering any KPI, ask yourself, “What business decision can we make using this metric?”

Here’s a list of KPIs you might consider to get the measurement conversation started:

  • Movement in share of voice against competitors
  • Quality of news articles, key message pull-through, tier of news outlet, followers, events, engagement, people talking about your company or product
  • Quantity of news article, online conversations, followers, media interviews, interview requests, speaking engagements, likes
  • Lead generation (to website, via social, via digital or search)
  • Lead conversion

While some KPIs, like followers or the quantity of articles, may seem like “vanity metrics,” when measured consistently and combined with other KPIs, they can alert you to success or ineffectiveness in your program a lot quicker than waiting to assess larger outcomes.

How much should all of this cost?

This is another “it depends” answer. At a macro level, there are industry benchmarks for the percent of revenue and percent of overall corporate budget for the marketing line item. B2B technology companies spend roughly 10% of revenue in this area.

When it comes to your business, think about what you’re trying to accomplish and the value of doing so. If you’re looking at marketing to acquire customers, perhaps a larger investment this year will pay off big next year. Or if you’re dealing with a crisis, you’ll need to put a thoughtful plan in place to remedy the issue and prevent the next one.

Different agencies also command more or less for their services. Starting out on a shoestring budget? You might need to look at one key objective to accomplish and one local, specialized firm to help you do it (or even a freelancer or consultant). But if you’re trying to increase brand awareness on a global scale through all available channels and mediums, you’ll need an experienced agency with a larger team to help you make that happen.

Where do I find the best agency for me?

Ask around. The agency world is a huge referral business. And search it – any agency worth its salt has an online presence to demonstrate how it has been successful for similar companies before.

Some companies insist on an agency with a local-to-them presence for the (occasional) in-person meeting experience. This may be a nice-to-have factor for you, but it should not be on your requirement list. Those in-person meetings do not need to be held all that frequently (see guidance point above re: frequency of communication), and a team that brings creative solutions to your business problems should win no matter their location.

Once you’ve answered these questions and considered your responses, it’s time to search out your agency partner. Phone a friend or ask the audience – they’ll point you in the right direction.