What to Look For in a Marketing Agency

You know you need marketing help. You have a long-term vision for what your company can become, but you don’t have the time, or the people, or both to get it off the ground. So what’s holding you back?

If you’re like a lot of business owners or marketing directors we meet with regularly, you’re likely scared of making the wrong decision. Perhaps you’ve worked with an agency in the past who promised the world in the sales process, and reality failed to live up to the expectations. Or maybe this is your first time hiring and agency and you want to be certain you’re choosing the right partner to help your company take the next step forward.

Over the years, Scott and Lauren Kolbe have worked with a wide variety of clients to develop and implement winning marketing strategies at their St. Louis marketing agency, kolbeco. They’ve seen potential clients get distracted by aggressive salespeople at other agencies, only to be disappointed. They’ve turned away clients who they knew weren’t a good fit. Most importantly, they’ve experienced firsthand what ingredients make for a successful client/agency relationship.

I sat down with Scott and Lauren recently to discuss the things that matter most when choosing a marketing agency to work with, and how companies can identify and choose the right marketing agency for their specific needs. If you’re struggling to make a decision and move forward with hiring an agency, their input and guidance will prove invaluable.

Pat: For starters, what are the most important qualities of a successful marketing agency/client relationship?

Lauren: Empathy, transparency, trust, and open communication. We’re representing your business in the market. We do our best work when clients are transparent with us about their company and the people behind it, their audience, their industry, and what they want to accomplish

Scott: Agency/client relationships can go bad before they even start if the agency doesn’t make an effort to understand and embrace who the company is and what they stand for. If you’re hiring someone to communicate on your behalf, that’s important.

Pat: What are the biggest concerns you see from companies looking to hire marketing agency help?

Lauren: It depends on the situation, but we see a few major concerns. The first is that they don’t always understand what they’re getting for their investment. They want to know if spending this money is going to propel them in the direction of their goal. Some clients have very defined goals, and others need help to get to the heart of what they’re trying to accomplish. Either way, it’s important that we all understand and agree on what we’re trying to achieve before the work begins.

Scott: And a certain level of skepticism is healthy. They want to know if this investment is truly going to move the needle. Unfortunately, salespeople in some agencies make a lot of promises to get a deal done and set a new client up with unreasonable expectations. But this needs to truly be a partnership. The work isn’t over when the deal is done. We always say that we win or lose together with our clients. It’s important that we’re all aligned on the metrics that matter so we can drive shared, meaningful success.

Pat: What questions do you think people should ask while vetting an agency?

Lauren: Ask what the scope of work is and make sure you understand it. I think clients can sometimes be intimidated by marketing jargon and afraid to ask for clarity. But you’re paying for the work to be done, and you have a right to understand it. You should also make sure you know what your team is going to look like and who your point person will be. Make sure the “big talent” you’re sold doesn’t disappear when the contract gets signed.

At an agency like Kolbeco, we’re channel agnostic. We don’t sell you a prescribed number of social media posts per month or an email cadence. We want to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and then develop a holistic plan for getting you there. As a result, while every project has a quarterback calling the plays, there’s a chance that everyone in our building will work on your account at some point.

Scott: I agree that it’s important to meet with the people who will be working on your account upfront and make sure everyone supporting the campaigns understand what success looks like. Your marketing agency should be a strategic partner, not just a doer of tasks. If they’re more focused on completing the tasks than on delivering the results that determine if it was successful, they’re not invested enough in your goals.

Pat: Are there red flags companies should look out for when considering hiring an agency?

Scott: It’s a cliché, but if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When marketing’s done right, it’s not a “flip the switch” thing. It’s gradual and grows exponentially over time. A great marketing program isn’t a single event or campaign. Anyone that comes in promising you the moon overnight is not interested in building your brand for the long-term. Worse yet, they’re also probably not concerned about the potential damage they could be causing to it with their shortsighted schemes.

Lauren: Yes. If someone guarantees a specific outcome like X number of leads in the first month, run. Effectively marketing your company requires a lot of leg work up front. If an agency promises results before they even understand you or your audience, how can you be certain they’re getting you the right kind of leads?

Pat: Is it important to work with an agency that has already demonstrated success in your industry?

Scott: There are good sides to working with agencies who have a proven track record of success in your industry. There’s a familiarity with how things work, and any industry politics that might exist. But it can also be dangerous if the agency doesn’t commit to understanding your particular niche in the industry. That past experience can become a crutch. It can create a limiting mindset for what’s possible, based on what’s worked in the past in this industry.

Lauren: The process matters so much more than the industry experience. If a marketing team has a good process in place for understanding you, your industry, and the role you’re trying to play, they can make up for not having that past experience pretty quickly. But there’s no amount of prior industry knowledge that can make up for your agency not embracing your passion and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Pat: What final advice would you give to someone shopping marketing agencies?

Lauren: You don’t want someone who will hide behind data, or manipulate it to make themselves look good. You want an agency that’s upfront with you and willing to share good and bad news with you. That’s the only way this ecosystem works. Even when a campaign doesn’t go as planned, there’s an opportunity to use that data to improve the next time.

Scott: Make sure the agency you hire cares enough to embrace who you are and what you stand for. In a noisy world, that’s what sets you apart and makes you special. Most of our clients are super nerdy and passionate about what they do. Some agencies will dismiss that or try to diminish it. We love nerdy, passionate people. We embrace that, because that passion is the centerpiece of the story we want to help you tell.

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