Before You Hire A Digital Marketing Agency

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"What can you do for me?"

Without a question, this is the number one question I get asked when potential clients call us at Twist Image. On the frontlines of our business development, through speaking at close to seventy events every year, all over the world for the past seven years, and in candid conversations with my peers at other digital marketing agencies, it is clear to me that few brands (small, medium and/or large) have a firm grasp on what it means to engage with a digital marketing agency.

Here are six things to think about before hiring a digital marketing agency:

  1. DNA. Is digital in your blood. You don’t have to be a digital native, but you do have to have a keen grasp of the new consumer and how connected they are. A brand must look at their DNA and ask themselves if they are truly prepared to commit to a digital marketing strategy. If you’re looking to test the waters with a project or two, it is more than likely that it will fail. The strength of digital marketing comes from shifting your DNA away from a campaign advertising mindset to a commitment.
  2. Plan. Take the time to create your own plan or vision of what outcomes you would like and anticipate prior to calling any digital marketing agency. A plan – whether it’s naive or professional – will give the digital marketing agency some idea as to the level of sophistication that you have (or that you are lacking). This is the one that most brands don’t want to hear. They’re worried that they’re going to look stupid or that an agency will take advantage of them because they’re not sophisticated. Not true. Planning also includes doing your homework to ensure that you’re meeting with an agency that could be the right fit. Take the time to ask around, check references and do a lot of online research. From there, create a shortlist of potential partners. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Planning and practice makes perfect.
  3. Budget. "How much will this cost? We’re looking for a quote. We don’t know what our budget is." These are three easy ways to ensure that you’re not going to get the best result. If you don’t have a marketing budget, it is best for you make one prior to calling any agency partner. Figure out what percentage of that overall budget you would like to dedicate to digital. Commit to it. From there dig a little deeper. What are you looking to do with this budget (this should be a part of the plan from #2 above)? What are you willing to pay for a new customer (this is also known as your cost per acquisition)? Yes, a smart digital marketing agency will help you figure this stuff out, but you need to do your own homework first. Budgets do not have to be fixed in stone. Think about it more like giving the agency some rails… a strong range to work with.
  4. People. Jim Collins talks about getting the right people in the right seat on the bus as a euphemism for having smart people doing what they do best. There is no doubt that leaning on a digital marketing agency makes sense in this day and age. Brands cannot commit that type of time and resource to doing all of this on their own (and the ones that can, are very fortunate). That being said, the brand must still have the right (re: smart, professional and experienced) leadership to know what they’re buying and be able to lead them. The best brand/agency relationships are always the ones where both parties are working together – side by side – to create something remarkable. Unfortunately, brands are not stepping up and putting the right people in place to enable their agency partner to be successful. This is not a slight against brands, but digital marketing is not something that can be planned per quarter and then looked at weekly on a status call. This is a 24/7 real-time environment. It takes effort and dedication to get this right and that all flows from an iterative, organic and live engagement. The Web is happening now.
  5. Knowledge. This is all new (still). Twenty years seems like a long time to be in this game (for people like me), but it’s still very new for the majority of marketing professionals. A great agency partner is not one with knowledge. A great agency partner is one who shares knowledge. In short, we’re all still learning and evolving with the times. Just as we start to think that Facebook is everything, smartphones and iPads come along, and it forced us to take a step back and wonder what our marketing will look like over the next few years. It’s normal and it’s scary. We all have to get more knowledgeable and share that knowledge between us. If your brand is not willing to be a part of that learning experience, it’s going to be increasingly hard for you to get great service out of a digital marketing agency for one, simple reason: you won’t really understand what, exactly, you are buying.
  6. Partners. Do not take on a digital marketing agency as a vendor. Take them on as a strategic partner. This will help your brand make digital a part of your DNA, it will keep everyone in the loop on how the strategic plan evolves, and it will make it easier to understand budgets and goals. Beyond that, everyone will get smarter – together. I believe that the number one reason our industry has so much dramatic turnover when it comes to senior marketing professionals on the brand side and the amount of times an agency is swapped in and out is directly related to the fact that so few brands and agencies are true partners.

What’s missing? What else is critical for a brand to know before hiring a digital marketing agency?


  1. Love #6 Mitch.
    So many digital agency’s don’t have business experience, therefore, lack the knowledge and understand of the benefits of strategic partnerships in business.
    They’re more retainer, fee, hourly minded, which is cool – but you’ve pointed out the benefits of partnering very effectively in your description.
    Many of these relationships can also be tied to performance, which benefits the heck out agencies know what they’re doing; although not so good for pretenders, wanna-bee’s and duchebags 😮
    This can make an agency a lot more money in the long run too, and as you’ve pointed out, create a much longer life-span of agency/client relationships; assuming your doing a good job and getting solid results that is.
    Thanks for this post; business owners and agencies alike can benefit a lot from it. It’s just a matter of planting seeds.

  2. Agree with you Mark. We need to work with Digital Advertising Agency because they are not us, we need to handle part of the marketing campaign ourselves rather than 100% depends on them

  3. Mark, Kent, Mitch: Can any of you recommend any resources that expand on the topic in this post? I’m interested in case studies about how digital agencies work with clients the most effectively.
    Mitch wrote: “The best brand/agency relationships are always the ones where both parties are working together – side by side – to create something remarkable.”
    That’s what I want to delve into.

  4. On hiring an agency instead of the usual do-it-yourself approach. You can do less than a 1 year contract, some will do 6- and 3-month contracts. Also, there are some agencies that will engage under a performance based contract – so they work until the hit milestones against the key performance indicators. Because small and new businesses are always concerned about costs, getting a guarantee of a certain level of results is important. One of the other things I like to work into a conversations is how many active clients an agency currently has and how many staffers they have. If they have 5,000 clients and only 25 staffers then I know my project won’t get much attention.

  5. I think one of the most important points when it comes down to it is the attitude and the people involved. I believe that good chemistry among coworkers can yield much better results, but at the end of the day it is about satisfying the clients and making sure they are getting a solid return on their ad spend.

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