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Marketing agency evaluation – some rules of thumb

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Why read this? : We share some of the more informal ways you can go about marketing agency evaluation. Learn from our examples the differences between what good and bad agencies say and do. Read this guide for ideas on how to manage an informal marketing agency evaluation. 

One of the first lessons you learn in marketing is you can’t do everything yourself. Unless you have three brains (!),you can’t be good at all the skills you need. But you can at least know what skills your business needs. And what “good” looks like in each of those skills. 

For the skills you can’t do yourself, you find someone else to do them. That could mean contractors and freelancers for specific projects. Or more commonly, you use marketing agencies for regular, on-going work.

As per marketing agencies guide, there are many different types of agency. The most common specialise in services like market research, advertising, media planning and digital marketing. Many of these agencies supply related creative skills like copywriting, graphic design and photography

While each of these skills are important to drive the overall success of your business, there’s always a cost. You need to pay for agency fees and implementation costs, for example.

And with these costs, you need an evaluation process to make sure you get your money’s worth. That’s where marketing agency evaluation comes in. 

Marketing agency evaluation - formal

Bigger companies typically have a formal marketing agency evaluation process. 

They outline this process in the contract and / or the statement of work. Some businesses use an independent consultant to set-up and manage the evaluation process.

This formal marketing agency evaluation covers areas like how the agency deliver against the business goals, and how they deliver specific services. 

For example, you might evaluate the agency teams on their services like strategic planning, creative delivery and account management. You develop a set of specific criteria and “score” the agency on these. Have they met expectations, or were they above or below expectations?

(See our marketing agency guide for more on formal evaluation). 

Marketing agency evaluation - informal

The formal marketing agency evaluation process is a professional way to manage your agency relationship. It forces open and honest conversations between you and your agency. 

But it’s only properly effective AFTER you’ve worked with the agency for a while. And it takes time to decide the criteria, gather the feedback and review the outcomes. 

But sometimes, you need to make quicker judgements about an agency. Rather than formal criteria, you might want to use rougher rules of thumb to make quicker decisions. 

You might use this more informal marketing agency evaluation with smaller agencies. Those you only use for smaller projects, or on an adhoc basis.

You wouldn’t normally write these into a formal contract or formal marketing agency evaluation. 

We base these “rules” on our experience of working with marketing agencies. You can use them to evaluate any type of agency.

Marketing agency evaluation - an informal checklist

Rules of thumb - we may need a new agency

Let’s start with the bad attitudes and behaviours. Stuff which raises a red flag and drives you crazy. These are all very common. Where we can, we’ll try to explain why they might occur.

Bear in mind, you’re the client. It’s your money. You decide what’s acceptable. It’s up to the agency to fix it if you’re unhappy.

#1 They're inflexible on process

Marketing agencies love to tell you, you need to be more customer focussed. They tell you to listen to customer needs, and organise your business around those needs. Like you couldn’t work that out yourself. 

But remember, that for the marketing agency, YOU are the customer. And when you ask some agencies to organise their business around your needs, you find they often don’t practice what they preach. 

In particular, when it comes to processes, many marketing agencies have pre-defined internal processes. They use these to commission and deliver the work.

This lets them move their people around different clients without having to learn different ways of working. This makes life much simpler and more efficient for them.

But if your processes don’t connect well with their processes, some agencies insist you should be the one who changes how you do things. 

When agencies are inflexible on processes and can’t adapt to meet your needs, this is a bad sign. 

So, for example, as we outline in our guide to advertising, clients start the advertising process with the brief. The agency should respond with their proposal. It’s their answer to the brief. 

But, often agencies ask to submit a “reverse brief”. They rewrite your brief to make it easier for them to work with. Your brief which you spent all that time getting just right, to be clear on what you need.

Suddenly, it’s not your brief any longer, it’s the agency interpretation of what you need. And, it’s written so they can manage it through their business more easily. 

The advertising development process - a guide on how to advertise successfully

What you often find though is this reverse brief excludes things you specifically wanted to include. Or it includes things you chose to leave out. 

Of course, you review these changes and keep them if they make the brief better. But if they don’t and the agency insists on keeping them in, “because that’s how we do things”, this is a definite watch-out.

#2 They're undifferentiated on process

There are many agencies out there. They all claim to be better than their competitors. But when you dig deeper, you often find the inner workings of marketing agencies are very similar. 

Think about it. Most agencies are full of people who worked at other marketing agencies first. It’s a closed world, where in the effort to match competitors, agencies end up replicating competitors. 

That’s not so good for you, as the client. 

A few years ago, we worked on a project with a business which had dozens of agencies providing different services. They’d decided to consolidate the business into a single agency which could cover those services together. The aim was to make the marketing more integrated. And as one manager said, “with one agency, there’s only one throat to choke”. 

As part of the pitch, we saw the RFI (Request for Information) documentation for 11 different  agencies. One of the questions asked them to map out their planning process. When we reviewed the responses, we found very little difference between any of the processes. We could barely tell them apart. 

Now, you could argue some processes are standardised. But you think all these smart advertising gurus who tell you, you need to be differentiated would have at least worked out a way of differentiating themselves? 

#3 They make guarantees they can’t keep

There’s a great quote in Bob Hoffman’s book Laughing at Advertising that marketing is all about probabilities, not certainties. Which makes it interesting when you hear marketing agencies talking about guaranteed ways to grow your business. When they talk about sure-fire strategies to grow your business, and 100% success rates.

Because, there’s no such thing. If 100% guaranteed success in marketing actually existed, everyone would do those things. And if everyone did those things, then no-one would win. 

Every business is different. Every business has different strengths and weaknesses. Different target audiences. Different competitors and different challenges to face. 

So, you can’t guarantee what worked for someone else will work for you. Watch out for agencies who are over-confident and over-promise what they can deliver. 

Now, that’s not to say, they can’t or shouldn’t make some sort of guarantees …

#4 They don’t make guarantees they should keep 

But just because there are no sure-fire guarantees for success, there are some guarantees marketing agencies should make. These are what they’ll do to increase your chances of success. 

For example, they should be partners in achieving your business goals. When you do well, the marketing agency should benefit from their role in helping your business perform. But, if you miss your goals, the marketing agency should own some part of that failure too. 

For all the services the agency provides, they should give you guarantees about :- 

  • who in the agency will do the work. 
  • the quality of the work.
  • when it’ll be delivered. 
  • what they’ll do, if there’s something you’re unhappy with. 

#5 They bring the wrong people and too many people to meetings

The agency will put a team onto your business. And that’s fine. Except, often the agency won’t really explain what everyone does. And won’t share who actually does the work on the team. 

At some point, you’ll be introduced to the whole team. You pay by the hour for this whole team’s time spent on your business. Even if that times doesn’t add much value.

For example, you often get billed for the time of Executive Creative Directors. (ECDs)

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

You find yourself paying $250+/hour for them to “review” work their junior designers or copywriters have done. That you’ve already paid for. Or for them to attend a meeting where they only talk for 5 minutes. 

Not just that, but agencies who turn up with masses of people in the meeting. That might make you feel like they’re taking your business seriously. But, think about it. You are paying for every person in the room. And that can easily be $150 to $250+ per hour per person. 

If you’ve got a bunch of people who’re only there to listen and be aware of what’s going on, you can find longer meetings racking up thousands of dollars in fees. And you have to ask yourself, are you getting that value back for your business from that meeting? 

Try it, next time the agency brings a big team along. Ask them how much in sales and profit the meeting will deliver. If they get flustered, or can’t at least come up with a response, that’s a bad sign. 

#6 Their attitude to your money sucks

We don’t begrudge marketing agencies having nice offices. Or, doing things to recruit, keep and motivate their staff. But remember, they way they pay for their offices, their staff and all the things they do comes from their clients.

And that’s you. 

We’ve worked with many agencies who take taxis everywhere. Even, if there’s good public transport. They’ll buy you coffees, take you out for lunch and have drinks in the office on a Friday afternoon. 

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

Heck, if you’re important enough, they might take you on a “fact-finding” trip to a big event overseas. 

But, all of these things, nice as they are, they’re not being generous. They’re spending your money. So, don’t be a tight-arse. But, do question your agency if their spending seems reckless.

With your marketing budget, imagine, it’s like handing over your own wallet or purse to them. Do you trust them to spend your money wisely? Because, if you don’t, that’s a bad sign. 

#7 Their attitude sucks

And yes, finally sometimes, it’s that you just don’t connect with the people. When you work with marketing agencies, it’s important to build up a strong working relationship. That doesn’t mean you agree on everything. But, you trust each other’s judgement to do the best thing for both sides. 

But sometimes it  feels like your agency is doing the work only for their own benefit. That they don’t have your best interests in mind. 

That’s the moment when you want to get out. And get out, fast.

Example : A bad agency story

Let’s finish this section with a little story about an agency whose attitude sucked. 

Once upon a time, a long time ago, working as a client, we had a website agency, who wrote content for us. We reviewed this content before it went online. But, we found that every time it was full of spelling and grammar errors. Now, these things happen from time to time. But, with this agency, it happened EVERY time. 

When we flagged this to them, their response was it wasn’t their responsibility. It was our content on our site, so we should correct their spelling and grammar before it got posted. 

Not happy. 

It then got worse. The agency offered to run an online event for us, that would have been the first such event in the category. But then, we received a mass mailing from them where they obviously hadn’t checked who the email was going to. It offered a similar event to all of our competitors, the day before our event was due. 

Like we said, sometimes you get an agency with an attitude that sucks. We go tout of that contract pretty quickly, and found another good agency who ran the event for us. A week before the competitor event. 

Which, fun though it’s been to share this bad agency story, does bring us on to what to look for that suggests you have a good agency. 

Rules of thumb - the agency is worth keeping

If your business is going well, there’s a good chance you have a good marketing agency supporting you. 

You should be doing regular evaluations with your agency anyway. These will show how and where they are hitting your targets. 

But beyond those, there are some specific outcomes and behaviours you should look for. These’ll help you work out if you’ve actually got a good marketing agency, who are worth holding onto.

If you don’t see examples of these, then it’s time to start asking questions. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

#1 You (and #2 your customers) like their work

As we’ve covered before, sometimes when you meet with an agency, particularly the creative team, the meeting can feel like a car crash. When the agency doesn’t seem to get what you want. Or they’re pushing their own agenda. That’s hard work. 

But sometimes, if your agency does “get it”. They constantly produce work that stirs your emotions. It’s work you like, work that makes you feel good about what they do. That’s a sign you’re on to a good thing. 

How smoothly your feedback conversations go, how easily you work together, how proud you feel to show others the work. Those are all signs that your agency is good. 

If you haven’t started working with the agency yet, check out the work they do for other clients.

We’re big believers that the quality of an agency’s work reflects how well an agency is run. The best quality work that has strong market research and insights behind it, that builds brand identity and that is commercially successful comes from well-run agencies. 

#3 They make you think

The whole point of outsourcing work to a marketing agency, is they can do things that you can’t do yourself. And as part of that, they should share how they think. And, how and where their ideas about your business come from. 

This outside thinking, that makes you understand your business differently is an important part of a good marketing agency relationship.

It doesn’t mean that everything they do has to be new and original. But it does mean that everything they do has been well researched and well-thought out. It makes you think in a different way about your business. 

#4 They understand how finances work

Financial savviness is surprisingly rare with  marketing agencies.

They don’t need to be financial experts, but they should understand some key financial terms like how a profit and loss works. And, how Return on Investment works. 

If your agency understands how your finances work, they can present projects and opportunities to you that fit your budgets.

We’ve seen too many agencies present crazily-high budgets on projects that’d never pay off. 

Glass jar knocked over on floor with coins spilled out onto the floor

The first e-Commerce project we ever worked on for example, our incumbent digital agency proposed it as a $600k project. This was more than our total sales target for the first year. A bit too much for us.

So, we spoke to other more specific e-Commerce agencies. And, found one who could do it for $60k.10% of the original agency’s estimate. It’s not hard to work out which agency we ended up using on that project. The one who understood our finances, obviously. 

#5 They put skin in the game

Which brings us on to the next sign that your marketing agency is good. If they understand your business, and your finances, then the best agencies will consider making the rewards and risks they get from working with you more closely linked to the rewards and risks of how your business performs. 

So, rather than a purely flat fee for work they do for you, they might offer to defer a percentage of their fee based on the results they deliver for you.

And if they deliver above the promised results (your sales are higher), they get a bigger fee for that delivery. But, if they deliver below the promised results, they receive less of their fee. 

We don’t know many agencies who do this. But a few do. And, without exception, we’ve found agencies who are willing to do this, are more deeply committed to your success. It’s in their interest to go above and beyond, because their’s a clear benefit in it for them. 

And on that theme …

#6 They go above and beyond

The best way you can understand how good an agency is, is how they respond when something goes wrong. That might be something as small as a spelling mistake on the website. Or it could be a major crisis that impacts your business like a legal complaint or a product recall. 

At times like these, good agencies focus on fixing the problem first, and worrying about the bill afterwards.

For example, in a former business, we once had a major website crisis happen on a Friday night. It was an unforeseen external issue, but the agency called their whole team in and worked over the weekend. It was fixed by Monday morning. 

This is the sign of an agency who put their customers first. So, while you don’t want to create a crisis, ask your agency what they’d do if something bad was to happen. 

#7 You trust and like them

Which brings us to the final item on our informal marketing agency evaluation list. And, that’s whether you actually trust and like them.

It takes time to build up trust with an agency relationship, but if trust isn’t there, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to come, that’s not a good sign. 

But if you do trust your marketing agency, and you do like and enjoy working with them, then make the effort to keep that going. Because, it doesn’t always work out that way. 

Close up of two hands in a handshake

Conclusion - marketing agency evaluation

A formal marketing agency evaluation process is helpful. But often it’s the informal parts of the relationship which make a difference. 

You should look out for signs in what your agency says and does that suggest they may not be right for you. That might be in their attitude to working with you. Or in the quality of what they deliver. 

Good agencies on the other hand really stand out. They’re a pleasure to work with and make you feel good about the work. Those types of agency you want to hold on to. 

Before we jumped into coaching and consulting, we had a lot of experience as clients, working with agencies. Check out our marketing agencies guide to find out more. Or, contact us if you’ve got a specific marketing agency evaluation question you need help with.   

Photo Credit

Owl : Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

Business meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Money on fire : Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Thumb up (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Coins spilled from jar : Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Handshake : Cytonn Photography on Pexels

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