The marketing industry encompasses a lot of monikers and changing service models, like inbound and content marketing, PR firms, ad agencies, integrated marketing agency
vs. full service agency, social media boutiques, growth marketing and digital firms and web design shops. That being said, getting to the truth of finding a great marketing partner can be difficult.
After 20 years of fielding questions from prospects, similar themes arise and tend to fall into three categories:
- An understanding of the agency philosophies and model
- Agency operational and delivery questions
- Particular marketing service questions
Since this decision has the potential to create tremendous impact for the brand when chosen well, it's important to think about all of the potential questions you could ask of an agency.
Agency Philosophies and Models
Here are some pointers on how to get the insight on a marketing agency’s philosophies you're looking for by framing questions differently.
1. Client / Agency Fit
The typical question to a potential agency partner is to ask about their case studies. Instead, ask for client stories, especially when meeting face-to-face. Every agency should have a portfolio and most have case studies, but the real insights into a potential partner are going to come from the stories they tell you versus the sanitized details of a case study.
Some clients want to know the top accounts at a potential agency. If you're looking to see how big of a fish you'll be in their pond, come out and ask based on your budget and where you'd fall into their client roster.
3. Industry Experience
When asking about experience in your industry, know beforehand how critical this will be. A way to look at experience is not the actual industry, but with the end consumer. Ask about insights into customer segments that are important to your brand. Asking the marketing agency what they think of specific trends happening in your industry or customer category is a way to have a richer conversation to judge their experience.
4. Tenure & Quality of Talent
Many of these questions don’t matter if the marketing firm cannot keep their clients or employees around for long. Understand what the average tenure of their clients are as well as average employee tenure. Then, ask to learn more about why their longest clients stay with them. If the technical depth of a certain marketing service is important to you, ask where past agency employees in that service are employed now. This can be a strong signal on the quality of talent they attract.
Many brands have been burned on the financial aspect of the relationship so make sure to understand what the agency’s financial model looks like and how they handle scope changes and billing disputes. Ask to understand various payment policies because many agencies will allow flexibility if terms are agreed to upfront.
We hear many brands that are unhappy with their current agency relationship based on the lack of ideas they receive. Every agency will nod their heads and say they do this for all their clients, but seek to understand if the agency has a process for supplying you with ideas or if you have a process that you would like them to adapt, like annual summits, quarterly reviews, product launch ideation, etc. Beyond the rhythm of how the agency supplies you with ideas, ask about their favorite ideas they’ve shared to clients – both ones that were implemented and those on the cutting room floor.
7. Defining the service model
Marketing firms, ad agencies, web design shops, SEO firms, etc. are all in the professional services field, so ask about their approach to customer service. Do they have service or support policies, off-hour availability, SLAs, customer service training for their team, systems to support based on the planned and unforeseen needs of your business?
8. Integration Into Your Resources
How will the agency fit into your puzzle? Avoid the various marketing myths that some organizations get caught up in during a sales spiel or from not understanding their own reality. Learn how the agency headcount breaks out to determine if there is the depth of expertise and availability that you require. Then, match all of this up with how it fits into your format of in-house talent, upcoming deadlines, budgets, etc.
The marketing industry continues to evolve fast. Ask how your new agency partner will keep you up to speed as well as how they keep their staff sharp to best serve you. The training an agency provides their staff can speak volumes about what’s important to them.
Agency Operational and Delivery Questions
Beyond the above themes, which tend to be more about agency values and philosophies, make sure to get into the specifics. Write down what worked for the brand with past agencies and what drove you nuts. This will lead to specific questions to learn more about this important relationship you're about to begin. Here are some questions related to measuring up an agency's operational and delivery approach:
- What industries do they do the most work within?
- What other brands in your industry have they worked with?
- Are there any current clients they have in the industry that would present a conflict?
- What trends have they seen that are applicable to your brand?
- Who in your industry do they admire?
- Where will your account stand in terms of financial importance to the firm?
- Will the marketing agency outsource any of your work and what is their approach to stand behind it?
- Will you work with the outsourced partner or will all work flow through the agency?
- Does it matter to you if the work is offshored or not?
- How do they approach project management and what tools, processes and software will the brand encounter?
- If your work is complex enough, is project management a discipline with dedicated personnel?
- For projects like large videos or websites, ask to review and discuss their process.
- What is the time commitment expected from the client’s side based on the work requested?
- How many agency employees do you want to meet prior to working together?
- How often will you have access to senior level talent at the agency? How often will you need it?
- Will the team that's pitching the business be the same that's working on the account?
- How does the agency market themselves? This can provide easy-to-study evidence if the agency is a practitioner.
- What services have worked best and worst for the agency's own marketing?
- What have they changed about their own marketing over time?
- How are they handling client management post-pandemic?
- If you want to see the agency in-person, will they be able to deliver on that?
- What have they changed because of the pandemic?
- Specific Marketing Service Questions
- As you have moved through agency philosophies and operational approaches, it's time to get down to how they will manage specific services. Based on the service mix you're looking for from an agency, here are marketing discipline specific questions to consider when interviewing a firm.
- If you're searching for brand strategy services:
- How extensive are their brand platform services based on prior work?
- How does the agency blend research and data collection into their strategy work?
- How does past work in your industry inform their approach?
- If you're looking for PR and communication-related services:
- How complex are your topics that may require industry-specific expertise?
- If you need C-level communications counsel, what are the agency's experience handling execs?
- Crisis communications can be a very specific need, so test if the agency really performs it or has a partner.
- If you're looking for website services:
- Is the agency a template or a custom shop?
- Do they treat User Experience (UX) as a dedicated discipline?
- What is the agency's website design and development process?
- What CMS and other web management software do they have experience with?
- If you're looking for technical help:
- Do they have systems architects and integrators to connect internal systems to your website?
- How do they handle support and maintenance needs?
- Will they handle WebOps aspects like hosting and security?
- If you're looking for digital marketing help:
- Does the agency employ generalists that try to manage all digital marketing channels or specialists in each?
- What tools do they use for each specific digital marketing discipline?
- How does your digital ad spend compare to their average client spend?
- What are their analytics and insights capabilities beyond showing you sample charts and reports?
- If you're looking for content marketing help:
- Does the agency have trained, in-house writers?
- How does SEO intertwine with content creation?
- How do they mix paid and organic efforts for clients?
- How do they address video and photography needs and is this service in-house?
- What channel expertise (email, social, SMS, web, mail, catalog, etc.) will the agency bring?
- If you're looking for visual design services:
- What is their range of visual styles they have delivered with their current staff?
- How do they approach creative briefs?
- What is their process for creating visual design deliverables?
- If you're looking for advertising services:
- Do they have a dedicated media planning and buying team?
- What mediums do they have the most experience in (TV, radio, OOH, digital)?
- How do they have attribution and other advertising measures?
Marketers’ plates are incredibly full these days in addition to finding a great agency partner. Make this an easier task by reframing the questions you ask a potential marketing firm so you can get better information to make this important decision. Check out thunder::tech’s marketing services
to get some ideas and questions forming. Good luck with your search!