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Marketing agencies

Why read this? : We explore the different ways marketing agencies support your marketing activities. Learn how the agency management process helps you identify, select and engage the right types of agency. Read this for insights, ideas and inspiration about how to get more out of marketing agencies.

Marketing agencies

How this guide raises your game :-

1. Go through each step of the marketing agency management process.

2. Learn the ins and outs of hiring and working with marketing agencies.

3. Get tips on the best way to manage ongoing relationships with marketing agencies.

It’s almost impossible to do everything yourself in marketing. The breadth and depth needed to do marketing well means you need help at some point. 

You lead the process in key areas like brand identity, the marketing plan and your brand activation. But you usually need expert support from marketing agencies to help you create and action your ideas.  

This guide covers how you sort through the many different types of marketing agencies and how to get the great work out of the ones which best meet your needs.

Close up of two hands in a handshake

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Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains marketing agencies quiz and see how much you know about marketing agencies already.

The marketing agency management process

The marketing agency management process covers each step in finding and working with a new agency. 

Following these steps helps you find the right agency to meet your needs, then shows how to set up and build a good relationship with them :- 

  1. Define needs – identify why you need an agency and what type of agency you need. 
  2. Research or pitch – find and select an agency.
  3. Brief – communicate what you want them to do.
  4. Activation – Deliver the activity and establish your working relationship with the agency.
  5. Evaluation – Measure what the agency has done.
Marketing agencies management process

Step 1 - Define needs

Two different needs can prompt you to look at new marketing agencies.

First, sometimes your market research shows an opportunity that you don’t have the expertise or time to go after on your own.

Or, there’s some sort of issue on your brand that you can’t solve yourself. In both cases, you need to bring in new expertise by using an agency. 

So, the first step is to define your need.

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

This need might be broad and ongoing or it might be specific and project-driven. Broad needs could include skills like communication, design or research. Specific needs might focus on a packaging refresh, a website design or a new logo. A generalist agency works better for broad needs and a specialist agency works better for specific needs. 

So write down clearly and simply why you need an agency. This helps you work out what type of agency to look for. The need normally covers one or more of :-

Step 2 - Research or pitch

Once you’ve identified the business need and type of agency, you look for agencies that meet that need. We’ve assumed the need is big enough that you need more than freelancer support, such as per our graphic design for your business guide. Hiring marketing agencies normally means your marketing need is big and ongoing. 

Develop a 'long' list

Start by creating a long list of potential agencies.

Look at marketing agencies in your area. Location is often a big factor with agencies.

It usually makes more sense to find an agency with offices you can easily travel to. It’s more practical as you’ll spend a lot of time together.

You want less travel time and to be able to regularly meet face-to-face. Face-to-face meetings help build the relationship. Not every meeting will be face-to-face, but some will need to be. And you don’t want to waste time with too much travelling.  

Mobile phone showing Google, with the word "analytics" in the search bar

Researching marketing agencies

Look over the websites of the agencies that sound like they might meet your needs. Good agencies have good websites. They’re easy to understand. It’s clear what expertise they offer. The website often gives you an idea of their working style and culture. Reading their website should give you a gut feeling about whether they’re worth contacting. 

You should also try to match the size of your business and the size of the agency. 

If you’re a small business, and the agency employs hundreds of people, will your business get the focus it needs? And if you’re a big company with many needs, will a small agency cope with the volume of work?

Beyond their website, look at their social media channels. Are they active on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example?

Agency websites and social channels are where they try to show the ‘best’ version of themselves.

Read their content and posts. Try to get an idea of how the agency actually works.

The words "Welcome to Linked In" embossed on an office glass window

Try to work out their working style. Think about how it might fit with your need and how you like to work.

For example, does your need involve detailed analysis? Lots of focus and precision? Maybe you need help sorting out your marketing data? In that case, an agency that only talks “high level” won’t work. But they may be a better fit if your need is about bold, breakthrough work. And in that case, a steady, dependable data agency won’t work. 

Ask your network

Think also about using your own network of contacts to identify good marketing agencies. Who do you know that’s hired or worked with marketing agencies in the past? Can they recommend someone? This word of mouth is helpful because it’s impartial. You get a more realistic, honest view of whether an agency can meet your needs.

Aim to get your long list to 5-10 agencies who potentially might fit your needs. 

Initial contact

Make initial contact by phone or email. Explain in a few short points what you’re looking for :-

  • Who you are and what your business is.
  • Why you’re looking for an agency.
  • A rough estimate of your budget and the length of the activity.
  • Why you think they might be a good fit.

The first meeting

At this first stage, you want to find out if the marketing agencies you approach are interested in working with you. They may not be.

In the spirit of honesty, be clear you’re talking to several agencies. It won’t surprise them.

If they say they’re still interested, arrange a first face-to-face meeting.

At this meeting, the aim is to get a better feel for the way the agency works. And also for them to get a better feel of whether you will be a great client for them.

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

It’s generally better for you to host this first meeting. You’ll be more confident and comfortable when you can control the environment and set the agenda.

Aim to keep this first meeting short and informal. For example, share a few background slides on your business. Expand on the reason you’re looking for an agency. Answer any questions the agency has. But that’s usually enough.

On their side, ask them to go through their credentials presentation. This is a summary deck to introduce and showcase the agency. It should talk about what they do, and what they stand for.

The RFI and pitch

After these first meetings, ask yourself which marketing agencies feel like they have the most potential. Which have the right mix of expertise and working style to meet your needs? This helps you create a short list of agencies you’ll ask to pitch for the business.

The “pitch” is a more detailed review of agency capabilities. As part of the pitch process, you ask the agencies to complete a Request For Information (RFI) document. And to present their response to your marketing challenge.

This will be a lot of work for them. So, only ask the agencies you feel confident about. If you’re uncertain about an agency, don’t include them in the pitch. 

It’s likely your shortlist will be 3-5 agencies. Make it clear, they’ll be pitching against other agencies. This is normal, and they’ll expect this. Some agencies may drop out at this point. This is fine. If the interest isn’t there, it’s better to find out early. 

RFI

The type of information you ask for in an RFI document depends on your business context. That’s usually down to the value of the work on offer, and the level of detail you need to make decisions.

The RFI aims to formally capture relevant and more detailed information about the agency. As you’re sharing information, you should both sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

If you don’t have one of these already, ask the agency. They may well have one they use. This is a confidentiality agreement which prevents either party from sharing information with outsiders. It protects both your interests. Check with a legal professional for advice if you’re unsure or unclear about NDAs.

As you can see from this checklist, the RFI can be very detailed. And while none of these items are mandatory, there are a couple of areas we’d highlight.

Client conflicts

The agency should flag if there are any conflicts.

For example, if they work for, or have any indirect link to your competitors. That could be something like a family member of one of the agency’s team works for the competitor. 

It’s your call if any conflict is big enough to stop you from working together. But ideally, there’s no conflict of interest.

A checklist of 10 items to use with a marketing agency RFI including contact details, agency profile, expertise questions and references

Details of other client relationships / wins / losses

Obviously, the agency wants to protect the confidentiality of their other clients.

But, an idea of who else they work with in non-competing categories is helpful. It helps you go check out the work they’ve done with that client. You get an idea of the quality of their delivery.

And based on the reputation of those other clients, you get a feel for the quality level of the agency. High-quality clients usually mean a high-quality agency.

Case study / examples

Again, the agency will want to protect confidentiality. But if those clients are in non-competitive categories, and the agency is proposing a similar process on your marketing challenge, they should be able to show you examples of the work and the impact it had. 

The pitch

While the RFI is written, the pitch itself is face-to-face. In this meeting, you ask the agency to convince you they’re the right agency to meet your needs.

The pitch can be formal or informal. That’s up to you. It usually involves going back to the question of why you need an agency. In the pitch, you ask them to show you why they’re best placed to solve your problem.

Before the pitch, share the criteria you’ll use to evaluate the pitches with each agency. For example, how important is the creativity of the idea? Or the thoroughness of their strategy process? Or the quality of their activation?

Detail the timeline, and when they should expect to hear your response. “We’re seeing three agencies this week. You’re the second one. We make our decision on Tuesday next week”, for example. Clear direction and process help you make sure you see the agency at its best during the pitch. 

Appointing an agency

After you review the RFI documents and the pitches, make your decision.

Let the agencies who didn’t win know as soon as you can. Give them constructive feedback if they ask for it. It’s worth maintaining a professional relationship with them. You never know. You may still end up working with them in the future. 

Reconnect with your chosen agency and close off the process with a formal contractual agreement. It’s important to make sure you take appropriate legal advice. Make sure a legal professional checks and validates the agreement on your side. 

We aren’t legal professionals, but we’ve worked on many client – agency agreements. This checklist highlights the most common items you find in such agreements.

There are a couple of areas to pay special attention to (though all are important).

Fees / charges / invoicing / payment

Examine these carefully. Make sure the set-up of the money side meets your expectations. In general, the larger the business, the more generous the payment terms. But this isn’t set in stone. Be clear on when you need to pay, and try to avoid payments in advance, where possible.

A checklist of 13 items which should be included in a marketing agency agreement including obligations of both parties, fees, termination clauses and confidentiality and IP clauses

Termination and cancellation 

These critical terms relate to either failure to deliver the service promised or what’s called material breach. This is where one party does something which irrevocably breaks the agreement. Of course, you never go into an agreement with the intent to use these clauses. But they’re there to protect both parties. Review them carefully so you’re clear about what happens if something goes wrong.

Indemnification and liability

The agency by definition becomes a representative for your business. They make recommendations and carry out brand activation on your behalf. And yet, obviously, you don’t have direct control over what they do. Or the outcomes of what they do. So indemnification and liability clauses should be in place, so both parties are protected. 

Step 3 - The induction and the brief

Once all the legal agreements are signed, you’re FINALLY able to start working with your new agency. 

It’s now worth sharing any extra information you didn’t want to share before the pitch. Make sure everyone who’ll be working with the agency gets to meet the key agency people. Don’t limit it to the marketing team. Think about the finance, IT, customer service and sales teams who may have to work with them.

The brief

Your next step is to formally brief the agency on the marketing plan and the brand activation work you require.

How you do this depends on your business context and the nature of the work. It may be you ask the agency to map out a whole marketing plan for the year ahead.

Or you have more specific need. To develop an advertising campaign, a PR activity or build a website, for example.

As we’ve covered what’s involved in those activities in other guides, we’ll now move on to how the agency is actually set up to manage your business. And what should happen on a day-to-day basis. 

Communication brief template with 5 sections - brand, objectives, Communications, Rationale and Project - including additional copy about how to complete

Agency team structure

Your marketing agency may be one person who supports you with specific technical skills. But more likely, it’ll be a team of people with different skills. The most common skills / roles you find in marketing agencies involve account management, strategy and planning and creative development. 

Account Management

The Account Manager or Account Manager team are your first and main point of contact with the agency.

Their role is to be the connection between you, as the “Account” and the rest of the agency team. 

For you, their role is to be your voice in all internal agency meetings and to make sure your brief and requirements are met. They look after your interests.

For the agency, their role is to make sure you as the client are kept happy and satisfied and your needs are being met. They look after the agency’s interests with you.  

Close up of two hands in a handshake

In some businesses, this is also called client services. That gives a clearer idea of the role’s purpose. They manage the relationship between you and the agency by servicing you as the client.

In smaller agencies, they can also directly run projects. In larger agencies, this is usually given to dedicated project managers. This part of the role involves securing resources, managing timelines and keeping projects on track.

The Account Manager role is crucial. After all, they’re who you’ll speak to most often. They’re an extension of your business. Think about the appointment of an Account Manager as much as if you were hiring that person as an employee. There’s 3 key questions to understand if they’re the right person :-

  • do they understand your business and goal?
  • would you trust them to spend your money wisely?
  • does their working style match up with yours?

Do they understand your business and goal?

The best Account Managers understand marketing and business factors. Brand activation costs money. You want to make sure what you spend with the agency will drive the biggest return for your business. (Not the biggest return for the agency).

Think about the key drivers of your brand and category. Make sure they understand your target audience, your positioning, your brand identity and your competitive strategy.

Good Account Managers take the time to research these areas. They’ll have opinions about how to improve them to help grow your business. If the Account Manager doesn’t do this or gives you generic responses, that’s a watch out. 

Would you trust them to spend your money wisely?

As we said earlier, once you appoint an agency, part of the agreement is that they incur costs on your behalf. You agree on fees, budgets and other financial agreements with them. Whenever money’s involved, it’s vital to be clear and transparent up-front.

As in all walks of life, you get what you pay for.

When you hire an expert, you should expect to pay a fair rate for their work. 

This covers the level of expertise they provide, the quality of the work and the time neededed to deliver the work.

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

Account managers should give you detailed estimates and quotes on work. You need to know when you commit spend to a project, you’ll get good value from that investment.

Ideally, the spend should be linked to the project goal and agency KPIs so you can track the return on your investment.

Extras and incidentals

Look out for extras and incidentals marketing agencies typically bill to clients. If the agency has a fancy office in a popular part of town, think about how they can afford to pay for that. It’s from the money they make from clients. Clients like you. 

Look out for extras that creep in like taxis to meetings and courier charges for delivery. Enjoy the food and drinks agencies feel obliged to offer. But bear in mind, that though you won’t see a bill, you’re paying for it as part of their fees. As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. 

You should be confident your Account Manager has a handle on where the agency adds value. And knows where to focus your investment to grow your business. 

Does their working style match up with yours?

Lastly, you should cover the “people” aspect of the Account Manager role.

As you spend the most time with this person, you must feel there’s a good ‘fit’ between your style and their style.

This doesn’t mean having identical views on everything. In fact, differences of opinion and conflict can be part of a healthy working relationship. 

But if you’re a detail person, and your Account Manager likes to write PowerPoint slides with one sentence per page in big font (a favourite of marketing agencies), that’s going to annoy you in the long-run.

Account Management

If you like to work fast and hit deadlines, an Account Manager who only wants to deliver the highest quality work all the time is also going to be a challenge.

Great Account Managers are worth their weight in gold, but it’s a challenging role. The best ones tend to stand out, get promoted and then go do something else. There’s a high turnover in account management. Check out this article for more on being an account manager. 

Strategy and Planning

The separation of ‘strategists’ and ‘planners’ from other agency roles is odd. After all, EVERYONE should be strategic, right? (Read this article for more on this).

However, specialist strategists and planners in marketing agencies do carry out some specific helpful tasks. 

For example, they help bring together different strategic frameworks e.g. for building your brand identity. They’re a good source of market research questions too, as they work with your marketing data.

There are 3 key questions to ask them :-

Board level view of a chessboard as you are playing black and your opponent is moving their white queen
  • what new expertise do they bring?
  • can they show this expertise in clear and meaningful ways?
  • do their recommendations deliver against your business goals?

What new expertise do they bring?

If the account manager’s role is to understand your business, then the strategy and planning team need to bring some extra expertise. For example, if the focus is on advertising, are they strong on the advertising development process? Do they bring insights into how to make advertising distinctive and impactful? If it’s digital marketing, do they bring expertise in areas like digital media, websites, e-Commerce and marketing technology?

Can they share examples of how they’ve shared their thinking with other clients? This helps you feel more confident they can do the same for you. When this team works well, they bring new ideas, thoughts and ways of working that can be transformational. But they can also be a costly addition to your fees and may leave you feeling confused and overwhelmed with PowerPoint slides.

Can they show this expertise in clear and meaningful ways?

This brings us to the next key question. Can they make expert recommendations in ways that are clear and meaningful? They’ll ask you to make important decisions about your brand activation. It’s important they can frame these recommendations in a way that makes sense to you.

For example, if they use a model or a framework to explain a recommendation, are they clear why they chose it? Does it have strong supporting evidence? Has it been used in a similar situation so you feel like it’s more likely to work for you?

In our experience, the strategy and planning team are often seen as the ‘brains’ of the agency. They can be a rich source of ideas, innovation and great thinking. But this perception can to their heads. They may overlook the core job at hand. Selling more of your products.

If you start to feel lost with a strategy and planning team, go back to the brief. Check what you’re seeing and hearing meets the goal and objectives you set.

Do their recommendations deliver against your business goals?

Which brings us to our final question for this team.

Part of their role is to keep an eye on the latest trends in the market and in marketing. For example, new insights into how advertising works or how to use behavioural science. New methods to improve media planning or customer experience. But sometimes, these clever new answers are force-fitted to your brief, without really answering your actual questions. 

We’ve seen many strategy and planning agency people get carried away with their own cleverness. It’s not unusual for agency strategists to forget they’re there to help you grow your business. Be wary of strategists who come in and present the latest conceptual framework, but who can’t tell you how much it’ll drive sales. No customer ever bought a conceptual framework. They buy the benefits you offer. Make sure the strategy team deliver work that does that.

Creative / technical

The final group at the marketing agency will be the ones who do the “work” the customer sees. 

When it’s a communication task, this will normally be the creative team who’ll be the writers and designers for what your brand looks like, says and does. 

When it’s digital marketing, this will normally be the team of visual designers and developers who make your online idea come to life. 

Creative teams will draw, write, photograph, video record, edit and generally ‘create’ brand assets for you so that your brand comes to life for consumers.

Image of two scruffily dressed creative types in front of a screen showing a tin of beans, and a headline that says "Best F**kng beans ever". One creative is saying - whaddya mean, female 25 to 44 grocery buyers might not like it?

Illustrations, icons, logos, articles, social media posts, brand imagery, advertisements, editorials, events – the list of what the creative team can do for you is only limited by the scope of your and their combined imaginations.

There are 2 key questions for creative teams :-

  • can they produce creative work to fit your brand goals?
  • will their creative style work for your style of marketing?

Can they produce creative work which fits with your brand goals?

Creative teams can often see themselves as more focussing on the ‘art’ of creation than the ‘business’ of selling.

This can lead to innovative ideas, but those ideas may not always meet the objectives of the brief. Always refer back to the brief when you evaluate new creative ideas

Will the ideas appeal to the target audience? If the idea won’t influence your target audience to think or do something different, then it won’t help you grow your brand. 

Is the benefit and the brand identity clear? If customers don’t recognise the idea as coming from you, it won’t lead to more sales.

Image of two smartly dressed creative type in front of a screen showing a tin of beans, the word beans changed to being, and the text more important than beans, dialogue says "but darling it's a work of art"

Will their creative style work for your style of marketing?

When you find a creative team that ‘gets’ your target audience and brand identity, it feels amazing. Whether it’s advertising, websites, e-Commerce or whatever, you can look forward to a stream of high-quality, impactful creative work that takes your brand to another level.

But when they don’t, it’s hard work. Some of the most challenging meetings you can have with a marketing agency are where there isn’t a good fit between your view of the brand and marketing and the views of the creative team.

Read our article on the different styles of creative teams like the creative rebels and the creative luvvies. And, find out how creative reviews can often go wrong when these types meet clients. 

A final word on agency culture

Culture in a business is often defined as “how things get done around here”. So far in this guide, we’ve set out many questions you can ask to help you find the best marketing agency to meet your needs.

But the client – agency relationship is a two-way street. Whatever tough questions you ask the agency, you need to be prepared to show a similar level of integrity and transparency about your own business. 

You hire marketing agencies because they bring something new and different to support your brand. They help you achieve your business goals. But at the end of the day, marketing agencies are a collection of individuals. You also have to make sure you’re well set up to manage the people as well as the business side of the arrangement. 

Step 4 - Activation

Once you start to work together, it’s important to plan how you’re going to manage the client – agency relationship.

It can feel like marketing agencies go out of their way to be your ‘friend’ at work. Particularly account managers.

But always remember your relationship is based on a commercial transaction. Your relationship with the marketing agency exists to deliver a business goal. 

As the client, your agency is paid to bring their expertise to help you to improve and deliver against your brand strategy. Not to be your friend. That’s why it’s important to set goals and build a way of working together. 

Archery target with arrows in bullseye to symbolise marketing targeting

Clear and agreed goals

What the agency does for you needs to be measured against your business goals. Are you creating brand awareness and conversion? Do customers increasingly choose your brand? Have you met your sales targets?

We’ve been in many client-agency meetings where it’s clear there’s no common goal. If you don’t make the goal clear, agency teams will happily insert their own goals. Maybe they’re looking for professional recognition? Maybe they’re looking to win awards? Or are they looking to use your work to win other clients?

So the priority with marketing agencies is to make sure the goal or goals are agreed and written down. Refer to the goals often in meetings. Share your performance and progress with the marketing agencies, so you feel like you’re working towards common goals.

Find a way of working that suits you both

Most client – agency relationships work well when there is some sort of routine in place.

For ongoing agency relationships, you should have regular Work-in-Progress (WIPs) meetings. These can last from an hour to a whole day every week. At these meetings, you review underway projects and if they’re on track. You also share if new briefs are coming so the agency can plan. And you review any new developments which might affect the timings or the quality of the work.

For example, is someone sick or leaving? Have the legal guidelines changed? Has the big boss changed their mind about what they want from the project?

Informal connections

And don’t forget the value of informal connections.

A quick coffee or beer depending on the time of day can be a great way to build a better relationship. Phone calls and emails are a little more informal than face-to-face and can be an efficient way to make sure the business and the relationship continue to tick over.

At the end of the day, it’s a relationship between people. You need to find good working practices which help you build positive and impactful ways of working.

Step 5 - Evaluation through reviews and feedback sessions

Outside the regular WIP meeting, we also recommend a more formal but less regular review to check against business goals and any KPIs you set for the relationship. Depending on the size or scale of the relationship, this could be monthly, quarterly or annually. (You can also have more informal agency evaluation discussions outside the formal process). 

Use the opportunity to give feedback from you and your team on how the relationship’s going. Cover key elements like account management, project management, strategic thinking and any specialist expertise they deliver. That could be creative delivery, media, analytics or more specialised support, for example.

As part of this process, make sure you also ask the agency to give you feedback on your team. Are your briefs clear? Do you share your goals? Is your feedback on projects timely and fair?

You need to make sure your own behaviours are up to scratch too. That’s how you build better relationships, which leads to better work being delivered. 

Conclusion - Marketing agencies

We’ve covered a lot in this guide, so let’s quickly recap the key points. There are 5 key steps in the process to manage marketing agencies from defining the need to appointing an agency and evaluating their performance. 

The way you work with marketing agencies will influence your chances of success. You should understand the different roles in an agency, set up relevant routines and build strong relationships.

Your marketing agency is there to support your business goals. Carry out a regular and fair evaluation of their performance to keep the relationship on track. 

Three-Brains and marketing agencies

Need help getting the best out of your marketing agencies? We’ve many years of experience in this, so check out our coaching and consulting services for more on how we can help.

Plus, if you need support with the agency feedback process, we can act as an independent intermediary between you and your agency. We have experience in negotiating and managing client – agency agreements and relationships and can help you fairly manage the process.

Get in touch to find out more. 

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