How to Best Select an Agency

Charles Gaushell
Written by: Charles Gaushell Principal/Founder

Does your company or organization need marketing, branding, advertising, digital, or web services? Who do you call, and how do you select the RIGHT agency?

Even terms like marketing, branding and advertising are often misunderstood and that can lead to further confusion. Do you need a large agency or a small one? Do you need a specialist for each task or can a single agency handle things? What about freelancers?

Well, it depends.

Agencies are as different as each flavor at Baskin Robbins. Choices are good but can be overwhelming.

So with nearly 30 years in marketing/branding under my belt, here is some useful criteria in your search:


Goals

Because every business/organization has different goals, the agency you choose should have an approach or process to help you clarify, prioritize, and then address those goals. They need to be creative problem solvers, not just artists and not just data monkeys. I suppose there are some instances where a monkey creating art would be fun though.

Your goals should be addressed through a strategy, game plan, roadmap, whatever they call it (in our case Blueprint & Foundation) because everything, I mean everything, every touchpoint should be in alignment and consistent with a strategy based on your goals. This is where your brand story starts, your audience is refined/defined, plans are laid, and the genesis for all creative and messaging.

Without clear goals and a clear plan, you will just be throwing things at a wall - and we all know how messy that gets.


Time in business

Do more years in business equate to being a better agency fit? There is nothing wrong with a startup agency. We were all one at one time. A more relevant question might be, “what is the expertise of key team members at the agency that will be on your project?”

Do they provide expertise in branding, strategy, web design, etc.?

Expertise isn’t measured by a great looking logo or poster. It has to address and answer whatever problem you are asking them to solve. Even a rebranding isn’t just about aesthetics. All agency work should be mindful of your goals, your audience, current trends, and your differentiating factors and benefits.

You are a business and an agency should be too. So don’t judge the agency on time in business, but do dig into the team’s expertise.


Experience/Track record

Tangential to expertise is asking if they have relevant experience.

This one is a bit misleading as relevant experience does not necessarily mean they worked in your industry. A good agency can translate other experiences and certainly expertise in different aspects of agency work to your project. Better questions might be - do they have a record of measurable success? And do they have success in multiple industries?

For instance, we took on a soap making company, originally called Bartlett Soap Co. and after our rebrand, they became Buff City Soap. We knew nothing about soap, but we knew how to learn about their products, customers and tell a good brand story. They grew from 2 to 31 stores during our engagement with them and prior to selling to a VC group. We apply the same approach to other industries - farm equipment, radiation physics, accountants, real estate, restaurants, beer brands, health care, etc.– all to say, if the agency has a good process and good track record, don’t let their direct industry experience be the deciding factor.

Way too often agencies take the easy road when they know an industry too well and get lazy. But if your business is unique, then you have a unique story to tell, problem to solve, and a target audience to engage. The agency should tackle every project as if it is something unique – because it is! Sure, knowing about a particular industry can be helpful, but it can also stifle creative solutions.

We believe that work in a variety of industries actually keeps you sharper as you don’t fall into a rut and repeat your prior efforts.

This is also a good reminder that someone’s brother’s second cousin who has done some design work probably is going to miss a lot of nuances in your project. Experience matters in your business or organization and it does here too.


Data/Analytics/Metrics

Those are nice buzz words that get thrown around by agencies. The sad truth is that they can be smoke and mirrors. So make sure if they show pretty stats, that they can show they are not just fluff numbers but rather can show real positive impact on the business..

Tracking likes or website visits is fine, but what did that translate into? More leads, more sales? Ask for case studies and references if not readily available.

If the data doesn’t convert to the goals (bottom line, leads, etc) then it either needs to be adjusted or changed completely.

Please don’t select an agency solely for their flashy charts. This is a critical piece, but weigh it holistically with the other aspects of the agency.


Services

Is the breadth of services conducive to what you need? Rebranding isn’t just a logo so ask if they will create a real strategy. Otherwise, like so many companies, you’ll start down a path with an agency only to find out they never uncovered what makes you truly unique, who your actual audience is, and how to best tell your brand story.

At the very least, an agency should be able to develop brand strategy backed by research and experience; handle all graphic design for logos, collateral, digital, signage, etc.; create and execute a digital and traditional advertising strategy; and design and build a website. Video, photography, 3D animation, etc. are nice if in-house but not always needed.

Lastly, see how they integrate their services. Are they consistent in branding and messaging?

Integrated and broad services from a full-service agency offer a lot of advantages to you because you have a dedicated team, streamlined communication, and consistency of strategy and branding across all touch points.


In-House or Outsourced Agency

Some agencies do everything, or most everything in-house, while others outsource quite a bit. As noted above, we fall in the camp of the agency handling things in-house. After all, that is what the agency hired for. Need a website, why would you hire an agency that outsources the work? If they outsource design work, you need to ask why you are even using them.

And if they say we have “partners”, keep in mind that the more people and parties that are involved the higher the likelihood that there will be “telephone game” issues along the line.

So only use a specialist if you really have to - for example, for something like sales training.

A web design/development agency can be too narrow of an option as 9 times out of 10 you need more than just a website built. Even though you may not realize that on the front end. You need to clarify your brand story and all of the components that go into the website from content (writing, graphic design, photography) to user experience design. And the often overlooked, content management system client experience. .

The same goes for digital only agencies (social media, digital ads, SEO) - the posts, ads, content, etc. will only be as good as the brand story and strategy behind them. Not to mention the creative elements that need to be infused..

Going narrow means they won’t have expertise in the other areas of marketing, branding, and advertising areas. Which then means you either need to let them do “just okay” work for you in those areas, or outsource and involve more companies.



Size of Agency

This one is really confusing. Does a smaller agency mean more personal attention? Does a larger agency mean more expertise and assets?

This is one you’ll have to dig deep with each agency to understand because in theory, the answer to both is yes. But (again), a small agency can be spread too thin to pay attention or fear they have too much in one basket. While a large agency may dump you to focus on bigger fish.

It is a character, capacity, and structure (I really wanted a third C word!) issue.

Personal observation– I think the medium size agency of 8-20 people is the sweet spot. I realize 30 doesn’t sound large for an agency, but it is. When there are over 20 people it requires more layers for reporting and accountability. While the 20 and smaller agencies are fairly flat with communication and integration of services within teams, so a lot of collaboration is possible.

With fewer than 5 people, agencies get spread way too thin or have to keep their focus narrow which counters the points above in being full-service.

Over 20 people and you’ll start having layers upon layers. That is good for really large accounts, but probably too much red tape, cost, and possible confusion for your average business or organization needing agency services. So, it isn’t necessarily about their “size” of people or revenue, but who is on the decision tree.

And just like other types of design businesses - agencies, architects, interior designers, etc. - you can only have so many people work on your project and certainly only a few running the show. Basically, a 150 person firm doesn’t get 150 people touching your project.

We’ve worked with companies that have revenue well over $100m per year, but we were dealing with only a few decision makers, and the agency fees and needs really dictated the “size” partner that they needed.

I would recommend that if you have annual external marketing spends of less than $500,000, you can just as easily work with a smaller agency. Once you get into more complex spend needs, a larger agency is probably best for you.

It all comes down to the team players involved and how they will work with you.


Communication

How many people will you communicate with? Will there be a bait and switch from the interview? What are their communication processes?

The life and death of every relationship is communication. Just ask your significant other or your parents, your boss… maybe your dog.

So with an agency. make sure you have a single point of contact that will be your day-to-day liaison. The titles vary – project manager, account manager, account executive, etc. This person should have a workload that allows for them to be available for calls, emails, and meetings. You’ll want to connect with that person and trust them, as they will communicate between you and the creative team.

If the partners were in the meeting, find out what their role is. Will they be involved at all? Here at Paradigm, I’m in nearly every client pitch and am very involved, typically drive all early brand strategy meetings, initial brand assets (initial design and copy), and then throughout the life of the project reviewing everything that goes out the door along with our creative director.

A good agency is looking for a relationship. And hopefully a long one versus a quick dollar.


Relationship

Is it a vendor or partner relationship?

We draw a strong distinction here. A vendor means you are just paying them to do “X.” That means you are a commodity to them the same way they are to you. We believe in being partners. Our success comes from yours. And we prefer long-term clients that we grow with.

Vendor relationships are transactional and tend to be absent of care and dedication, as you aren’t aligned on anything other than it being a paying gig.


Personality/Values

Certainly not the least important, but often the most ignored. It isn’t about being best friends with the agency team, it is about having similar passions, heart values, and feeling comfortable with the team.

The often overlooked aligned values are critically important because if your values are far off, the agency will have a hard time focusing on what is important to your company/organization. In fact, they might be more easily distracted and want to focus on what you aren’t interested in. Cool for cool sake is just dumb.

Our approach deals with uncovering your values for you and your customers. Same thing – you attract like-minded customers and so do we.

Recap

Marketing/branding is an investment, not an expense, so the agency needs to invest your time and resources well.

A partner with resources, capabilities, approach, and experience will serve you well.

In truth, you may be comparing apples and basketballs in proposals. Do not just look at the bottom line, as that is deceiving. Understand the process and the outcomes, which is why the track record of experience matters.

Our region is blessed with many talented agencies! Be sure to ask the questions and find the agency that aligns with your values. It can be easy to be impressed with pretty pictures or dynamic personalities, but take the time to understand what makes them tick and how they will truly impact your bottom line.

Ask yourself this question

What is the cost if we select the wrong agency? And what are they worth to me?

For example, if I spend $50,000 with them in a year, but our sales grow by $100,000, we’ve done great! But if I spent $25,000 with them and I only increased sales by $10,000, was it worth it? Or worse, no growth at all.

The bottom line is that every agency is different and all have opportunities to align with the right clients. Your job is to make sure you align with them and understand the nuances - the dollar cost alone is hardly a good measure. Your growth, alignment, and ROI are.

We would love to share with you why we might be the right agency for your needs. And if not, we’re happy to point you to whoever that might be.


Categories: Branding
Services: Branding, Marketing, Web Design, Video & Photography, Digital Advertising, Social Media, 3D / Animation