How NOT to Choose a Marketing Agency: 13 Rules You Should Break

Posted by Scott Mikus and Sheryl Roehl

As a marketer, choosing an agency is probably one of the hardest but most important decisions that you’ll make in your career. Choose well and you’re a rock star in your boss’ eyes. Choose poorly and it could ding you on your next performance review.

It’s not just whom you choose that matters. It’s just as important how you choose. With that in mind – and in honor of Friday the 13th, we’ve assembled our 13 favorite rules for how NOT to choose a marketing agency.

1. Choosing a marketing agency that “can.” Today’s agency landscape is crowded with candidates who say they “can.” As in, “We can do branding” or “We can do social media” or “We can do PR.” But there’s a big difference between “can” and “has.” Remember, your brand will live or die by the experience (or lack thereof) behind it. By way of metaphor, would you want a surgeon just out of med school operating on you? Sure, they have the M.D. next to their name. But wouldn’t you rather have the most experienced pair of hands repairing your hernia – or, in this case, doing your branding and messaging?

2. “I just need my website redesigned.” Sure, a website’s design may be tired and outdated. However, the more important question is: How is the site performing for you? Are visitors converting to leads? Does the content reflect your current positioning? Have you optimized your landing pages? Have you integrated social media into your site beyond just sticking up some icons on your homepage? What about your offline brand — does it need sprucing up, too?

3. Branding a la carte. Your brand isn’t just a logo or a website; it’s the sum total of positioning, messaging, awareness, visual identity and the communications architecture of a company. Be sure to choose an agency that understands this core principle and can skillfully build and integrate a brand across multiple disciplines from inbound to outbound marketing and offline to digital. If you take the a la carte approach, you’ll pay for it later in a splintered or fragmented brand.

4. Wow, what a pitch! Sure, the pitch is important. But are the people pitching going to be doing the work after the contract is signed?  In many agencies, the senior-level deal closers move on to close other deals, while the junior account people step up to do the work. See rule #1.

5.  The people you will work with don’t have a clue about your business. Be sure that the people you’ll work with at the agency have at least a solid understanding and interest in your business from the start. If they’ve done their homework, it will show in the questions they ask and the presentation they give. If not, move on to the next candidate.

6. I really, really like them. Chemistry is important. But don’t pick an agency because your friend works there or just because they just make you feel good. Choose the best agency partner because they have the best experience for the job and can deliver results for your company.

7. Don’t tell the agency candidates your budget. If you don’t at least give the agencies competing for your business a ballpark idea of your budget, they’ll probably come back with very different, hard-to-compare proposals. Why not set clear, upfront expectations of what you’re looking for? That way, when the proposals roll in, you can focus on choosing the right partner, not just the lowest bidder?

8. Set impossible deadlines. Tell the prospective agency that you want a web redesign in a month or a direct mail campaign printed and in the mail in 3-5 business days and you’re probably setting the project up for failure or less-than-stellar performance. Why not try to speed up corporate approvals while putting specific deliverables on parallel tracks? You might be surprised how quickly you can get projects delivered – on time and on budget!

9. They don’t speak the language of business. The world is full of creative people who like to design, write, shoot videos or get PR hits, but many of these people don’t really consider themselves business people. Nothing wrong with that if all you want is just pretty good creative, nothing more. But if you want marketing that truly delivers, choose the agency that talks business – the one that talks about building messaging that resonates with buyers or creating campaigns that drive more leads and increase sales.

10. I can just hire an intern to do social media. To do social media right, you should hire an agency that knows how to integrate social and track results as part of your integrated marketing campaigns. Social doesn’t belong as a siloed sideline; it should be part of the mix.

11.  We can do content in-house. Good content is critical to your branding. If you don’t have good writers and content creators in-house, then trust outside experts to help you get the message right. Good agency content marketers and copywriters know how to develop content for different target audiences and different communications. Without good content to support the entire buying cycle, all you have is well-designed brochure or a good-looking shell of a website.

12. Sorry, but we don’t do X. A good agency may not specialize in SEO or PR, for example, but more often than not they will have a healthy Rolodex of strategic partners and colleagues they can call on to help you create a video, get press or help you build a new mobile app. Do they have a can-do spirit or do they just care about what they want to do – not about meeting your overall marketing needs?

13. But the agency is a big-name agency that has won lots of awards. But will you be an important account to them – or merely a minor account that will be shuffled off to the most junior account team that takes three times longer to do half-baked work? Think twice before you choose based on name alone.  And, if they talk more about their awards than how they’ve helped clients achieve their business goals, then they probably can’t help you achieve yours either.  Move on.

It’s not easy choosing an integrated marketing agency for your company. But if you know the pitfalls, you’ll have a much better chance of selecting the right partner for your organization.

What are your personal rules of how NOT to choose an agency partner? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments below.

Scott Mikus is managing partner of Crawford/Mikus, an Atlanta-based creative marketing and design firm founded in 1989.  Sheryl Roehl is principal and co-founder of Avenue L Marketing, an integrated marketing, public relations and social media agency in Atlanta.

by Scott Mikus | Comments Off