I’m a small agency insider, I’ve also worked on the client side, so I have a good understanding of what a marketer needs in terms of their relationship with their agency, and how their agency can best partner with them to achieve their goals.
Here are some tips for marketers, as they engage existing or future agency partners, in order to get the most out of the relationship.
1. Try to Assess Management’s Leadership Style. Are they Bosses or Leaders?
I’m defining a small agency as an independent firm that has under 200 employees. A lot of these shops tend to have a single owner or group of founders at the helm.
Do the employees consider management leaders or bosses? Knowing the difference can be critical from the client side. Here are some common indicators of ineffective leadership:
- Has the Owner Ever Worked for Anyone Else?
- Owners who have never worked for anyone else may have limited exposure to different work environments, management styles, and industry practices. This lack of diverse experience could impact their ability to adapt to varied client needs.
- Exposure to different organizational structures provides valuable insights into various perspectives and approaches. An owner who has only experienced their own way of doing things might miss out on the benefits of learning from diverse work experiences.
- There's a risk of insularity when an owner has always been in control without exposure to external viewpoints. This could potentially limit the agency's ability to embrace new ideas, industry best practices, or feedback from team members.
- Over Reliance on Personal Experience: An owner who has never worked for anyone else might rely heavily on personal experiences and preferences. While this can bring a unique perspective, it may lead to a lack of exposure to alternative strategies and approaches.
- Limited Network: Building a professional network through various job experiences is a common benefit of working for different employers. An owner with a limited professional network might face challenges in terms of collaboration, partnerships, and business development.
- Lack of Communication
- Poor communication skills or a failure to communicate openly and transparently with team members can lead to confusion and mistrust.
- Over-controlling behavior, such as excessive monitoring of tasks and lack of trust in team members, can stifle creativity and productivity.
- Lack of Empathy
- Insensitivity towards team members' feelings, needs, and concerns can create a negative and unsupportive work environment and can cause drama. Both get in the way of your team delivering for you.
- Inconsistent Behavior
- Leaders who are unpredictable, moody, or demonstrate favoritism can create an unstable and unfair work environment.
- Resistance to Feedback
- A leader who is unwilling to accept feedback or criticism is less likely to learn and grow, potentially leading to stagnation or poor decision-making.
- Failure to Lead by Example
- A leader who doesn't embody the values and standards they expect from their team sets a negative precedent and erodes trust.
- Lack of Vision or Direction
- A leader who doesn't provide a clear vision or direction for the team can lead to confusion and aimlessness. Or they want to outsource this role to underlings because they lack the expertise necessary to have the vision and an actionable way to execute on that vision.
- Micromanaging Creativity and Innovation:
- Suppressing creativity by imposing rigid processes or stifling new ideas can hinder innovation and growth.
- Lack of Accountability:
- A leader who fails to hold themselves or their team members accountable for their actions or results can lead to a lack of responsibility and ownership.
- Unwillingness to Delegate:
- Inability or unwillingness to delegate tasks and responsibilities can lead to burnout and hinder the growth of team members.
- Ignoring or Dismissing Employee Well-Being:
- Neglecting the physical or mental well-being of team members can lead to burnout, reduced productivity, and high turnover.
- Resistance to Change:
- Leaders who are resistant to change or unwilling to adapt to new circumstances can hinder the progress and adaptability of the organization.
- Lack of Transparency and Trustworthiness:
- Being secretive, withholding information, or not acting with integrity erodes trust within the team and organization.
- High Turnover of Staff:
- A high turnover rate within the agency's team can be a red flag. Continuity and stability are important for the successful execution of your work.
Nobody is a perfect leader, and everyone can exhibit some of these traits from time to time. However, consistently displaying a majority of these signs may indicate a deeper issue with leadership effectiveness. Recognizing these signs early can help address and rectify the situation for the benefit of your future relationship.
2. They Care About Outcomes, Not Just Hours.
If your agency is regularly going over hours, or you feel nickel and dimed without a lot to show for their work, they either don’t know how to properly scope projects, they have too many people on the project, or they have people padding their hours. Any of these issues are not good for you as the client.
Prioritizing outcomes over billable hours is crucial for the success and sustainability of a small marketing agency for several reasons:
- Client Satisfaction and Retention
- Clients are primarily concerned with the results they achieve through their agency’s efforts. Focusing on outcomes ensures client satisfaction, which is essential for retaining clients and securing long-term relationships.
- Word-of-Mouth Referrals:
- Satisfied clients are more likely to recommend a good agency to others. Positive word-of-mouth referrals can be a powerful source of new business and growth. Happy clients who see tangible results are more likely to become brand advocates.
- Building a Reputation:
- Over time, a focus on outcomes contributes to building a positive reputation in the industry. Agencies known for achieving tangible results are more likely to attract top talent and forge partnerships with other businesses.
- Adaptability and Efficiency:
- Prioritizing outcomes encourages an agency to continually assess and adapt its strategies and tactics to meet client goals. This adaptability fosters efficiency and ensures that efforts are focused on what truly matters to the client's success.
- Measurable Success:
- Outcomes are typically measurable, allowing the agency to demonstrate the concrete impact of its work. This transparency builds trust with clients and provides them with clear evidence of the value they're receiving.
- Long-Term Revenue Growth:
- While billable hours contribute to short-term revenue, focusing on outcomes contributes to long-term revenue growth. Successful outcomes lead to client retention, repeat business, and the potential for upselling additional services as the client's needs evolve.
- Adapting to Client Budgets:
- Clients often have budget constraints, and they want to see a return on their investment. By focusing on outcomes, an agency can work within these constraints while still delivering value, fostering a collaborative and sustainable partnership.
- Personal Satisfaction and Morale:
- Team members at the agency are likely to find more satisfaction in delivering successful outcomes for clients rather than simply tracking billable hours. This can contribute to a positive work environment and higher employee morale.
An outcomes-focused approach not only benefits clients directly but also enhances the agency's reputation, client retention, and overall success in the competitive marketing industry.
3. Evaluate the Team’s Expertise
You don’t want your agency learning on the job, and with how quickly the market is moving some groups will take on work in areas they do not necessarily have the expertise to back up. Reviewing the expertise of a marketing agency's team is crucial for several reasons:
- Relevant Skills and Knowledge:
- Ensuring that the team possesses the necessary skills and knowledge relevant to your project or industry is vital. Each member's expertise contributes to the overall capability of the agency to address your specific marketing needs.
- Industry Understanding:
- Industry-specific knowledge is valuable in crafting marketing strategies that resonate with your target audience. An agency with experience in your industry is better equipped to understand market trends, consumer behavior, and competitive landscapes.
- Efficiency and Effectiveness:
- A team with expertise in various aspects of marketing can work more efficiently and effectively. Specialists in areas such as SEO, social media, commerce, content creation, and analytics can collaborate to create comprehensive and successful marketing campaigns.
- Innovation and Creativity:
- A diverse and experienced team is more likely to bring innovative and creative ideas to the table. Different perspectives and skills can lead to more imaginative solutions that set your marketing efforts apart from the competition.
- Adaptability to Trends:
- The digital marketing landscape is dynamic, with constant changes in technology, algorithms, and consumer behavior. A team with up-to-date expertise is better positioned to adapt to emerging trends and incorporate them into your marketing strategy.
- Problem-Solving Ability:
- Marketing projects often encounter challenges and obstacles. A team with diverse expertise is better equipped to handle unexpected issues and find effective solutions, ensuring that your campaigns stay on track.
- Quality of Work:
- The expertise of the team directly influences the quality of work produced. A team with a track record of successful category specific campaigns and satisfied clients is more likely to deliver high-quality results for your business.
- Measurable Results:
- A team with the right expertise can set and track key performance indicators (KPIs) accurately. This ensures that the marketing efforts are data-driven, and the team can demonstrate measurable results for your business.
- Client Confidence:
- Demonstrable expertise instills confidence in clients. Knowing that the team is skilled and experienced creates a sense of trust and reassurance that the agency is well-equipped to handle the challenges of your marketing campaign.
In summary, reviewing the team's expertise is a fundamental part of selecting a marketing agency. It directly impacts the quality of work, the ability to adapt to challenges, and the overall success of your marketing initiatives.
4. Ask to Talk to Their Clients
Agencies often make claims about their expertise, capabilities, and success stories. Speaking with clients allows you to verify these claims and ensures that the agency's track record aligns with their marketing pitch. They may even have case studies in the portfolio or logos on their website that represent work their team didn’t actually do, you’d be surprised! Don’t be afraid to ask more questions if the details are vague. Talking to an agency's clients before deciding to work with them is a critical step in the evaluation process, and it serves several important purposes:
- Real-world Feedback:
- Client testimonials and feedback provide real-world insights into the agency's performance. By speaking directly to current or past clients, you can gain a more accurate understanding of their experiences, challenges, and the outcomes achieved through the agency's services.
- Verification of Claims:
- Agencies often make claims about their expertise, capabilities, and success stories. Speaking with clients allows you to verify these claims and ensures that the agency's track record aligns with their marketing pitch. Inconsistencies or gaps in the agency's portfolio or case studies can be a concern. Ensure that the agency has relevant experience in your industry and a consistent track record of success.
- Outcome Validation:
- Client discussions help you validate the outcomes the agency claims to have achieved. It allows you to assess whether the results are tangible, measurable, and relevant to your business goals.
- Understanding Working Dynamics:
- Interacting with clients gives you insights into the working dynamics between the agency and its clients. You can assess the communication style, responsiveness, and overall satisfaction levels, providing a glimpse into what it might be like to work with the agency.
- Challenges and Problem-solving:
- Clients may share insights into challenges they faced during the collaboration and how the agency addressed them. This information is valuable in understanding the agency's problem-solving abilities and their commitment to overcoming obstacles.
- Consistency of Service:
- Consistency is key in marketing efforts. Talking to multiple clients allows you to gauge whether the agency consistently delivers quality services and results across different projects and industries.
- References for Specific Services:
- If you are interested in a specific service or aspect of the agency's offering, speaking to clients who have used that particular service can provide more targeted and relevant information.
- Long-term Relationship Insights:
- For many businesses, establishing a long-term relationship with a marketing agency is crucial. Speaking with clients who have worked with the agency over an extended period can provide insights into how the agency handles evolving strategies, changing business needs, and maintaining client relationships.
- Red Flags and Concerns:
- Clients may reveal any red flags or concerns they had during the collaboration. This information is crucial in making an informed decision and avoiding potential pitfalls. Another way to assess the strength of the team is to reference reviews on GlassDoor.
- In summary, talking to the agency's clients is a proactive step that helps you gather real-world information, validate claims, and assess the agency's suitability for your specific needs. It provides a more comprehensive understanding of what it's like to work with the agency and significantly informs your decision-making process.
5. Is the Client Mix Healthy?
If the agency relies heavily on a single major client for the majority of its revenue, it may be vulnerable to economic fluctuations or changes in that client's business priorities, therefore putting your business at risk. Marketers should assess whether the agency's financial stability is at risk if the major client reduces their business or chooses to work with another agency.
While having one major client doesn't necessarily indicate an issue, marketers should approach such a situation with some caution and consider certain factors:
- Resource Allocation:
- Agencies with only one major client might allocate a significant portion of their resources and attention to that client. Marketers should inquire about how the agency plans to balance resource allocation and ensure that their project receives adequate attention and effort.
- Diversification of Expertise:
- A concern arises if the agency's expertise is limited to a specific industry or client type. Marketers should evaluate whether the agency's skills and experience align with their own industry and marketing needs, or if they are too specialized.
- Potential for Conflicts of Interest:
- If the agency has a significant client in the same industry as yours, there may be concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Be transparent about your expectations and inquire about the agency's policies regarding working with competing businesses.
- Scalability and Capacity:
- Marketers should assess whether the agency has the scalability and capacity to take on additional clients. If they are primarily focused on serving one major client, they may need to demonstrate that they can effectively manage additional projects without compromising quality.
- Communication and Transparency:
- Open communication is crucial. Marketers should have a candid conversation with the agency about their client structure, how they manage potential conflicts of interest, and their plans for future growth and client diversification.
- Understanding of Your Business:
- Ensure that the agency understands the nuances of your business, industry, and target audience, even if their primary experience is with a single major client. This understanding is essential for crafting effective marketing strategies.
While having one major client doesn't inherently indicate a problem, it's important for marketers to assess the potential risks and benefits associated with this situation. Open communication and a thorough understanding of the agency's business model, strategic plans, and capacity can help marketers make informed decisions about whether the agency is the right fit for their needs.
Overall, identifying red flags and concerns before engaging with a small marketing agency is crucial to ensure a successful partnership.