Secrets to Hiring Great Marketing Agencies

During the last 30 years, I have hired dozens of agencies on retainer or for marketing projects. From advertising, promotions, events, research, packaging, direct mail/lead generation and beyond. My approach may be a bit unconventional but it has worked extremely well for me during my career. 

Marketing agencies and consultants are needed because your team may not have skills and experience in a specialized area like marketing research, public relations, design, social media/SEO, lead generation and so on. It is also possible that you and your team doesn’t have the time to focus on this and by bringing in an agency, you are expanding your marketing team for project work. 

Often I will put together a brief RFP (request for proposal) so that the agency has a frame of reference of the issues, the needs and the timeline. But I don't like to spend too much time putting people through hoops. I like to see how the agencies gather information, learn about our business and to understand what type of initiative they put into the process. 

Here is what I look for in picking help. 

What can I learn?  I don’t ever want to hire people whose skills are similar or a complement to my own. I am searching for new input, new connections; new thinking that can help me see a different perspective on a problem. If during an interview or a meeting there is nothing new said in the first 15 to 30 minutes, my instincts usually kick in and advise me to steer clear. I like to quote Chris Mathews and ask, "tell me something I don't know." 

Is their skill set transferable to my industry? Some agencies are experts in an industry but have never crossed into other markets. I like working with people who have a good deal of depth in one field (say 50%) of their work in health care and then a nice mix of 10% in 5 other market segments. It means that they can bring depth and fluidity to the exercise.
Junior team members?

Who will I work with? You have to be careful that you don’t fall in love with the senior management but realize that the junior business people will work on your business and it is as if they were from a different agency. Look for understanding of how the senior managers are engaged in your projects. Of course, you keep cost down with more junior members of a team but can they solve the problems at hand?

No A Holes, please
Style and Fit: I have a “no assholes rule” which simply means I will not work with people I don’t like even if it means they fit my criteria. Often you can tell with a few simple observations- how do they treat your receptionist, junior staff or the waiter/waitress at lunch? Sorry, life is short and I don’t want to work with people I don’t like. In the case of third-party agencies, I get to choose. The associates I work with from an agency have to be part of my team and play well with other partner agencies. If they can’t fit together with some cohesiveness, I know it won’t work. To be clear, I’m not looking for YES men and women- I am looking for collaborative and civil colleagues who can bring new ideas, insights and energy to my team. Jerks need not apply.

References: This seems obvious but by speaking with three firms that have used the agency, you quickly get a picture of how they may work with your team. You have to dig deep into the involvement that the agency had with the reference so it helps to understand from the agency what they purported to have done so you can ask pointed questions. This has been invaluable for assessing and predicting success with agency or consultant hires. Successful agencies and consultants build a track record and you can usually see specific areas that they brought value to clients.

Within the reference check, I am also evaluating competencies. Does this agency have the technical skills to make me successful? Do they know and understand the latest practices within their field and can their references speak to this capability. I'd always prefer to hear someone else tell me how good an agency is based on their experience. I don't ever read their brochures or website content. Third party credibility matters much more to me. 

The first step
Phased Approach: I trust my instincts but I trust my experience more. I love to work on a small project initially with an agency to understand how our relationship may develop. I call this the first step approach. Do they bring the insights they claim, do they have the expertise outlined on their slick website are they showing signs of being a good partner? Have their demonstrated an ability to play well with my team? After working together for a few months, do I want to continue working with them or is the relationship doomed because of problems observed?

How big is their network? 
Who Do You Know? Don't underestimate the power of a network to help you expand your business. Agencies and consultants may have connections that could be invaluable resources for your business. One of the criteria I use, along with the other topics mentioned above, is who can they introduce me to that could help my business? Do they know people within the industry or outside thought leaders who could be helpful? What associations, organizations or companies are they connected with and how can that help my team be more effective? 

Summing it upmarketing agencies and consultants can bring great value to a marketing department. They can help you accelerate your projects, bring new thinking to problems and even help you grow your network of connections. 

How do you pick your outside marketing agencies? 

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