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As a business leader or marketing professional, you hire a marketing agency to help you grow, to help you get a competitive advantage and increase your capacity to get more done. But in a world with over half a million agencies, and over 120,000 of them in the US alone, you face two problems:

  1. The first is the worst: When you hire a marketing agency that isn’t best for you and you learn all the hard lessons along the way. At this point, you’re not only wasting money, but also missing out on the breakthroughs you expected from hiring the right marketing services firm.
  2. Secondly, it’s really difficult and time-consuming to effectively qualify and evaluate the right agencies.
If you're thinking about hiring a digital marketing agency, creative, brand or ad agency - take a little time (and save a lot of money) by checking out the free 2018 Buyer's Guide on How to Hire the Right Marketing Agency.Click To Tweet

If you’re in a place of needing to hire a digital marketing agency, creative, brand or ad agency – save a little time (and money) by skipping the rest of this post and downloading the 2018 Marketing Agency Buyer’s Guide right now.

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You’ll see it’s unlike anything you’ll find on the web, and includes:

  1. Step-by-step instructions, along with a calendar planner template.
  2. A 12-step checklist to help you successfully navigate through the entire process.
  3. RFI and RFP templates, with prompts walking you through how and why to customize for your own requirements.
  4. The Agency Selection Score Sheet to help you track and collectively rate agencies on a range of important questions. You’ll be able to generate a unique Agency Score you can use to compare and discuss with your team members.

You’ll see the guide referenced repeatedly in this article, but if you’re just looking for quick insights, no problem (read on!). There are four areas of focus you should consider as part of your agency hiring process:

Assessment (aligning on readiness and purpose)

This begins with an internal evaluation to make sure everyone is on the same page. You may be crystal clear regarding why you need an agency and what they’ll be hired to do. You might be surprised at how important that is for others in your organization to understand, in addition to giving them an opportunity to contribute at the start of your process (even in little ways).

If nothing else, authentic alignment between you, your company, and your team members will greatly limit future resistance. Sometimes you must go slow at first, in order to move quickly later. Fortunately, a template that guides you through the tough questions is available for you to take advantage of (included in the Buyer’s Guide of course).

Further, an honest assessment helps you to establish your vision. Where do you want your marketing agency to take you? What do you see as a successful marketing partnership?

People define visions in different ways, but as Co-Owner & Founding Partner of Zingerman’s, Ari Weinzweig, states: “It’s a vivid description of what ‘success’ looks and feels like for us—what we are able to achieve, and the effect it has on our staff.” 

We like Weinzweig’s formula for developing a great and effective vision. A great vision:

  • Inspires all who will be involved in implementing it.
  • Is strategically sound. That is, we actually have a decent shot at making it happen.
  • Is documented. To make your vision work, you have to write it down.
  • Is communicated. If you really want it to be effective, you need to tell people about it too.

A good vision is one that is emotionally charged and authentic. It’s not just about financial goals (that’s a given). It’s also about touching on the things that truly matter. We highly encourage you to write a vision for what success looks like with your agency partner (and have provided an example in the guide).

Roadmap (finding and inviting the right candidates)

Building your roadmap begins with identifying the type of agency you want (i.e., full-service, specialty, generalist, boutique, etc.) as well as the things that matter most to you. By answering specific questions (like those we have available in our Agency Roadmap Questionnaire linked from the guide), you are able to create a profile of what you are looking for in a marketing agency, as well as having a baseline from which to create other relevant questions to ask your candidates. 

At this point, if you’re following the Agency Buyer’s Guide, step-by-step, you will have:

  • Completed a self-assessment.
  • Completed a vision for a great agency partner.
  • Completed an agency roadmap questionnaire.
  • Conducted at least one team meeting to share and openly discuss purposes and concerns.
  • Reviewed the agency hiring checklist and (optionally) the planner template.

We recommend creating a shortlist to maintain a list of names and relevant notes about potential agency candidates. Identifying agency candidates is frequently an exercise in leveraging word of mouth (simply asking friends and colleagues) as well as online search. In both cases, we recommend you spend the most time on the Home and About pages of agency websites. Look for how they are speaking about the things most important to you.

Next, you’ll want to take the time to prepare and create a request for information (RFI), in addition to a request for proposal (RFP). Templates and prompts to help you create both are guess where? Yes, the guide (seems like we really want you to download this).

It’s great to know the difference between an RFI and RFP. Each certainly serves their own purposes, yet many confuse the difference between the two and fail to get the full benefits as a result. Generally, we recommend sending an RFI to the top three to seven agencies that make your first cut. Send a more detailed RFP to no more than your final three if possible.

The underlying truth in this process is that it typically creates far more work than people (on the hiring side) expect. The notion that more agencies competing will render is a better final choice simply isn’t true. Next, we’ll cover where you’ll put your focus during the actual selection stage of the process.

Selection (evaluating and choosing your agency)

This stage assumes you have received at least a couple responses to your RFI or RFP (or both). We recommend you follow through with an effective evaluation of your agency candidates, using up to four areas of focus:

  1. Qualifications: This covers everything from comparing their capabilities to your requirements and how their internal structures match your preferences.
  2. RFI & RFP Response: When looking at responses, note each one’s timeliness, communication and attention to detail.
  3. Presentation & People: Take a look at each agency’s likeability, trust, balance, and differentiation.
  4. Proposal & Terms: Measure each candidate’s answers when it comes to the scope of work, costs, timing, agreement language and clarity on next steps.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “How can I adequately judge an agency’s likeability or trust in a written response?” That’s a fair question. That’s why conference calls are a bare necessity to having the agency walk you through its response. An in-person presentation is even better though. Body language and presentation styles can really help you get an even better sense of likability and trust that much quicker. So, if you have the time to make this work with your timeline, you really should.

Our parting gift from this area of focus is our Agency Selection Scoresheet (linked from the guide)… the granddaddy of all spreadsheets developed to help you:

  • Qualify agency candidates
  • Emphasize what really matters most
  • Easily compare responses, presentations, and proposals
  • Make the best agency hiring decision you can

Like any tool, it can be a valuable asset given the right timing, circumstances, and use. It comes pre-loaded with default questions and settings, but we encourage you to really make it your own. 

Agreement (negotiating and understanding terms)

And finally, the agreement. This is a matter of understanding, transparency and direct communication. We have four areas we recommend you keep in mind as you finalize your investment in a marketing firm:

  1. Statement of Work (what is and is not included in the contract, specifically with respect to scope, deliverables, timeline, and fees.)
  2. Payment Terms
  3. Contract Termination Terms
  4. Compensation and Costs

When it comes to negotiating, it’s to your advantage, in the beginning, to establish a “relational” approach to business with your potential agency partner, as opposed to a transactional one. 

Frankly, when it comes to conversations about money, people can get real weird real quick. We’ve all experienced this to some degree or other with a friend or family member in our personal lives (unless you’ve somehow been blessed to avoid said awkwardness?), so it should be no wonder this has a tendency to bubble up in our business lives from time to time as well. Heading it off at the pass requires a balance of empathy and confidence.

What Next?

Just like the importance of hiring great people you’ll work with every day, so it is with your marketing agency. The right decision can make a big and positive difference to your business, and also help you learn and grow as a professional.

Take the opportunity now to download our Agency Buyer’s Guide, titled How To Hire The Right Marketing Agency so you can have all the necessary tools for finding the right partner and making the best decisions.

Get the Agency Buyer's Guide

Jason Cormier

Jason Cormier

As co-founding Partner of Room 214, Jason is dedicated to helping people and companies grow and innovate. He is a best-selling author of Transformative Digital Marketing, is on HubSpot's Global Partner Advisory Council and serves as a mentor for social entrepreneurs at Watson University. He believes in acting out of love instead of fear, connected leadership and open book management.
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