A friend was beginning a search for a new marketing firm, and he asked me for criteria in picking the right agency.
How to choose, he asked? What should I look for?
Hiring an agency is EXACTLY like hiring an employee. Because of the intimate, mission-critical nature of marketing, your agency isn’t really just a vendor like a landscaper or janitorial service for your building. Rather, they’re a critical expert tied to the very heartbeat of your business – driving your sales funnel. B2B agency selection decisions are made every day, and while there’s no hard and fast data, there are a few studies that suggest many of those decisions are wrong. An agency search firm, The Bedford Group, published a study reporting that while the average client-agency relationship in 1984 was 7.2 years, that has fallen to less than three years as of 2013.
Why? There’s a variety of reasons, but personally I think the pace of change in marketing is a key factor. It’s easy to lose touch with clients and technologies. As the marketing landscape rapidly shifts, clients feel pressure to make sure they’re getting the very latest ideas, the very latest technologies to drive their sales funnels. So the pressure to switch is higher than in the past, when metrics and ROI were more predictable and steadier.
Just as with any hiring decision, sometimes clients are guided by a thoughtful process and other times decisions are made emotionally. In creative services, we can all be lured by the charisma or persuasiveness of the founder, or the clever campaign that won a few awards last year.
None of that ensures it’s a fit for you, particularly if you’re a manufacturing firm selling technical products to engineers. That carries a special set of requirements for you.
What is your agency “best in the world” at providing?
This is a common question for us when we’re doing positioning work for clients, so it holds true for agencies as well. Best in the World is a standard of performance described by Jim Collins in his book, “Good to Great,” when he said that every company needs to have something they provide that is Best in the World. No one else can provide or make this. It is truly unique, one of a kind and special. Obviously, the answer here is something tied to your core questions for finding an agency, or changing agencies. Do you want more ROI? Better writing capability? A change in message? More experienced staff assigned to the account? Get clarity on the need for a change and what outcome you want, and that will point you to the right agency decision.
I faced this question during a pitch a few years ago. I was describing our process for helping a potential client uncover its “Best in the World” statement, and the CEO asked me what our agency’s “Best” statement would be. “No one knows more than we do about B2B lead generation and driving the sales funnel,” I said, and I did it in a rapid, immediate way, almost blurting it out. That immediate clarity and certainty carried a lot of impact for him, and eventually carried the day for us! Here are a few other questions to ask when narrowing your selection:
- What is your process for building a brand? Every agency should have a well-defined brand-building process. Whether it’s based on interviews, research, competitive reviews of websites, or all of the above, they need to be able to articulate the process in a way that makes sense to you.
- What tactical programs would you be recommending? This is a trick question; they should tell you they are unable to answer at this point. An agency that begins to throw out tactics is a subscriber to the “ready-fire-aim” approach to marketing. At this early stage, they can’t possibly know what’s working for you and what’s not, or what the market competitive situation may be. They certainly can speak in theories, and past experiences of what’s worked for many of their other clients. But the more definitive they are about recommendations for you before they’ve done any homework, the more suspicious of their process and discipline you ought to be.
- Give me examples of how you’ve done that successfully. Examples of past work are always a good indicator of the quality of their product. It may not apply to you, but it gives you a sense of their structure and output.
- What are the roadblocks we might expect? Creativity and marketing discipline is rarely a smooth journey. Every client experience has bumps in the road, and the agency’s ability to be aware of, anticipate and understand them is a good sign they’ll be proactive in anticipating problems you’ll eventually encounter.
- Tell me about some instances where you told clients you disagreed with their approach. This might take a bit of thinking time from the agency, but these types of stories are good windows into their collaboration skills. You want an agency that LOOKS for opportunities to disagree with you. That’s why they’re there. But they also have to be able to do that in ways that are constructive, that yield to a better outcome and decision, not just lead to a conflict you can’t resolve.
- Tell me about clients you’ve lost, and what you’ve learned about that experience. Just as with an employee interview, if all their stories blame the client, move on to the next agency. We all make mistakes, and every experience is a learning opportunity. If they haven’t learned anything from their failures, they’ll be less likely to lead you to successes.
- Who will be the day to day on our account? Who else will be on the team? Are those people in the room with you now? It’s always a warning sign when the agency founder is the only one in the room, and the only one speaking. He or she won’t be on your account. So make sure the people who are will have the experience, skills and force of personality to be your valued partner.
- What innovations have you brought to your agency or accounts in the past year? In B2B, marketing impact is found at the intersection of marketing and technology. We’re all using the same tactics: everyone has a website, everyone has landing pages, we’re all sending out emails. So other than budget increases, new product innovations, sales channel expansion or acquisitions at the client, growth in sales comes from improvements in the way we do marketing. Technology tools are created every day that convert more leads to opportunities, that improve tracking, that improve personalization, that accelerate the overall marketing process. Your agency needs to be passionate about finding those and bringing them to you.
- How should we set a budget? There’s no shortage of studies that show how much B2B marketers should spend as a percentage of sales. Unfortunately, there’s also no consensus on what that amount should be. Our agency has seen it as low as less than 1% and as high as 7% of revenue for start-up or early stage technologies. The more important point actually is, what’s the cost of acquiring a lead, and how many leads do you need to acquire to hit your sales numbers. Your budget really is a simple math formula at that point, rather than a random guess about what feels right. It’s simple, so think of it this way:
- If your average order size is $10,000, and you want to grow $1 million this year, you need 100 orders.
- So if you close 10% of your leads, you need 1000 leads.
- And if it costs $200 to generate a lead (with trade shows, digital marketing, all costs combined), your budget should be $200,000.
Note that this example is based on revenue growth through marketing. Your sales team will be generating leads and orders on their own, so this is meant to supplement what the sales team produces as incremental revenue growth, not replace their own prospecting work.
- How will the agency say the relationship is successful after 1 year? Answers here are interesting. You want the agency to be able to define success and do it in a way that is tied to your own definition of success. Is it in improving metrics? Improving writing quality? Improving creative message or brand presence in the industry? Get clarity on this, because you’ll both need that when setting goals for the year.
- What KPIs do you think we should establish to work together? I’ve written quite a bit about KPIs and metrics and have definite opinions about which metrics matter. We push clients away from “vanity metrics” that look nice but don’t really drive the funnel, such as web traffic or social media followers. Increasingly, our most important metrics are cost/quote request, or cost/Sales Qualified Lead, and days to close. For most manufacturing companies driving sales funnel efficiency, those are the only things that matter.
- What do you know about my industry? This is only here because clients feel comfortable knowing this answer. Every client tells us at first that their industry is unique, their product is unique, their circumstances are unique. But the similarities are far greater than the differences. I feel industry specialization is unimportant, actually. I do think agencies should have a demonstrated expertise in B2B, and particularly in marketing to engineers with a technical value proposition. But specific industry experience beyond that is a bit of a mirage. Your agency should have deep expertise in marketing, lead flow and technology; the specific verticals all behave in a similar fashion.
- What is your account management process? How do they manage your projects? What’s the cadence of meetings and contacts? Do they publish dashboards with metrics? How do they build a relationship with you, and learn your business? Good agencies will have thought this through and have prepared answers for how they manage accounts. The answer should sound as if their account people function as marketing managers within your company, NOT as project managers at the agency. If they think like your own marketing manager, they’ll be more effective in bringing you programs that produce the metrics you need.
- Is there chemistry? Do you think you can work collaboratively with them? Are you excited by the case histories they showed you? Are they responsive to your emails and calls? Do their core values match with yours?
- Get some writing samples. You can even consider giving them a test. At the core of every great B2B technical marketing relationship is the ability to write copy that the client doesn’t have to re-write. You can love the agency, their people, their process, and their creative campaigns, but if at the end of the day they can’t write a data sheet or web page accurately, they’re not going to be worth your time.
- Get some referrals. Nothing speaks more to the quality of an agency than the quality of their client relationships. In many cases, it’s easy to get clients, but it’s much harder to keep them. So ask for referrals of both new and long-term clients, with companies that use the agency for a similar scope of services that you’re anticipating.
Congratulations! You’ve made a tremendous selection, and you and your agency are enjoying your honeymoon period. Things are going swimmingly! So how do you judge whether the agency relationship is successful after 1 year? You’ll want to be able to share that with the agency at the very start, so that your expectations are clear to them, and you don’t have to go through this search all over again:
- You’ve met your KPIs
- Projects were done on time and on budget
- There were no surprises
- You didn’t have to ask what the status was about projects (they had a good tracking/reporting process)
- They are proactive about anticipating problems
- You felt listened to and respected
- They told you things you didn’t know
- They saved you from making mistakes
- You would recommend them to others
It’s a long, careful process I’m describing here. As with anything else, the more advance planning and thought you put in, the more successful your decision will be. A great agency decision promises to have a dramatic impact on any company’s revenues, so get it right the first time!
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