How to choose a marketing agency

Without preperation, choosing the right marketing agency can be a real rigmarole. So we spoke to practitioners on both agency and client-side to find out how to make a success of it.

Selection starts at home

Before searching for a marketing agency, the client must first have their own house in check. "This requires a definitive list of requirements," says Charlie Marchant, head of digital PR at Exposure Ninja. “Include the services you need (web design, SEO, digital PR, PPC, CRO, social media etc.) and set out your goals for each area you need support with.”

It's crucial to ensure these goals are realistic: if they have no bearing on previous growth, the agency is bound to fail. Once these are in place, the client will be better positioned to search for agencies which excel in those fields. 

Is a B2C twist preferable? 

Anecdotal material is often borrowed from the consumer market by the B2B commentariat – and this isn’t always a bad thing. Just because there’s often difference in the level of purchase involvement, doesn’t mean B2B marketers can’t learn valuable lessons from their B2C counterparts – not least in areas such as creativity. This is why it can be prudent to opt for an agency that swings both ways.

Sam Williams-Thomas, chief executive at OgilvyOne Business, explains: “The advantage of hosting both capabilities under one agency roof exists in understanding the challenges and strengths of a client’s business; customer groups, sub-brands, products, services and competitors – a historical knowledge of this is invaluable when determining how to successfully adapt strategy for various markets and audiences.” 

However, a B2C arm shouldn’t be the governing factor of agency selection because, as Uri Baruchin, head of strategy at The Partners, points out: “Agencies can be creative without a B2C arm and can be dull with one.”

Is size anything?

Principally, big agencies are better at executing large-scale campaigns, while smaller agencies can provide a more qualitative level of craft. But this isn’t always the case – never commit to a partnership before doing the research to develop a firm understanding off the agency.

“You should really make sure what you’re getting,” says Uri. “Big and global can be a red herring as in many networks, offices work as discreet business units with little collaboration unless it’s the biggest global accounts.”

Another key topic in the discussion of agency size is the ambition of the commissioning client. Globalisation is on the agenda for an increasing number of brands, and if this objective is in the agency’s remit, a global model isn’t just attractive but fundamental for growth. 

Sam says: “The depth of skill and expertise present within a global agency allows clients access to a greater pool of expertise, and in an environment where relationships are already present. On a human level it breeds a culture of welcome competition across continents and plays a significant role in driving consistency across regions and markets.”

The pitch

The pitch gives a client the first real opportunity to judge whether the agency truly understands the business. Critically review their perception of the brand and wider industry – the standout agencies will always demonstrate this knowledge. The understanding is likely to show itself in the content of the pitch, or, as Sam puts it: “Successful creativity is spurred on by a genuine knowledge of a brand and its business model.”

Knowing exactly who is involved is also paramount. One pitching representative may demonstrate an exceptional grasp of the business, but that’s redundant if their role is distant. Ultimately, it’s a question of chemistry, if there’s a connection and signs of investment early on, innovation and creativity is likely to flourish. 

Lawrie Jones, director of 42group, outlines four failsafe steps to agency selection:

1. Culture

Select an agency that fits into your organisational culture. Take the time to meet them, chat about their priorities, approach and standards, and see how they mesh with yours. 

2. Testimonials

Cynicism dutifully checked, websites, client lists and case studies can embellish an agency’s credentials. So, ask for client testimonials and, if possible, speak to some of them in person.

3. Dip your toe

Selecting an agency through a tender can be problematic as you are tethered to them for the long term. Instead, test the agency on a small scale and then grow the contract if it's to your satisfaction.

4. Challenge costs

Keep your cards close to your chest when it comes to budget and always request they make the first move with a quote. When the quote reaches you, examine every line and challenge it – this isn’t pedantic, it proves you won’t be pushed around.