How To Hire A Marketing Agency

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The process of hiring  a Marketing agency feels old… and somewhat broken.

What used to be an experience about finding a true, valuable partner (someone who will sit there with the brand managers in the darkest of nights trying to get the brand just right) has morphed into a vendor/supplier type of relationship. Yes, there are some exceptions, but we live in a world where a Chief Marketing Officer’s lifespan is under two years long and it’s not a much better track record for the average agency either.


As procurement continues to play a more predominant role in the choosing of an agency, and as search consultants become that much more commonplace, there has not been much attention given to the concept of agency search reform. Instead, most experiences and initial outreaches revolve around a request for standard information or a request for a proposal. Both steps are checkbox littered in an attempt to create a balanced playing field for the competing agencies. These documents and exercises may explain how an agency positions itself along with how it thinks both strategically and creatively, but that’s only a fraction of what a brand should be looking for.

Fits like a glove.

A lot of the question answering in text form can be removed and discarded (saving a lot of time and energy on both brand and agency side) and replaced if the brand committed itself to three one-hour in-person meetings. Let the agency introduce you to its space, to the people and to the work (and vice-versa). The brand should send a creative brief over and sit in as the agency team reviews the document and discusses initial strategies and areas that might be interesting to explore. I know this is going to sound antiquated, but go for lunch with the agency people or go to an event together. Try to figure out if the culture, people and work is a fit for the brand.

Don’t box out of your weight class.

It’s not just about size (how many people the agency employs), but I’ve often seen brands work with agencies that are either too small or too big – in terms of capabilities. There are certain agencies that are good at servicing very big, multi-national brands with steady and ongoing work, there are agencies who are  good at servicing start-ups and small-to-mid-sized businesses, and yes, there are agencies who lie somewhere in between. Brands – like professional fighters – should try to box in their weight class by ensuring that their agency partner not only has the competencies to deliver the final product, but understands the complexities of what it takes for that brand to be successful.

Look for lateral experience.

It’s always interesting to see a brand that would like an agency partner that has direct experience in their industry. It’s understandable. If an agency has worked with a competitor, odds are that they understand the industry and already have a perspective on what it takes to win. It’s safe. The truth is that lateral experience is how to really inject a sense of innovation and newness to the marketing. I once heard an insurance company ask their agency to figure out who is the best at selling insurance online and beat them. My only thought was, "why look at who sells insurance best online, when you can study Amazon – a company that is proven to be one of the best players in selling online… overall." Having lateral experience (worked in another industry but selling to a similar audience) is – without a question one of the easiest ways to breathe new life into a brand’s marketing.

Don’t ask for credentials.

Asking to see an agencies’ work is almost as bad as asking for their website URL. There’s nothing that a Google search box can’t tell you about an agency – from their work to awards to community recognition and beyond. If a generic online search can’t generate enough information to tell you the kind of work the agency does and the media attention generated from it, you may be best served looking for another agency. Great marketing work gets attention and that attention is usually indexed in the major search engines.

There is a better way.

It’s important to remember that a marketing agency is a service-based industry. An agency is only as successful as the work it accomplishes for its clients. That work is rarely created in silos or by one, specific, individual. It’s a team effort. The trick in choosing the right marketing agency partner is to find the right team to join your team (and that’s why you’re hiring them in the first place). You have to be confident that the relationship is as strong as the work and that the agency is truly acting on your behalf – as a partner (and not as a supplier). Mistakes and hiccups will happen regardless (if you didn’t have an agency to blame for the mistakes, odds are you would be blaming one of your employees), so be willing – up-front – to acknowledge and work with your agency partner to correct the path. At the end of the day, both the brand and agency don’t succeed when both companies are not firing on all pistons.

Yes, there is a better way. 

There’s the old sales adage that, "all things being equal, people buy from those they know, like and trust. All things being unequal, people still buy from those they know, like and trust." Choosing an agency partner is quite similar: work with a team that you like and trust… and a team that you have a keen interest in getting to know as well.

What do you think?


  1. “fit like a glove” – love this. Cultural fit is so important. someone can answer an RFP perfectly and fit your ‘budget’ but if their people and your people don’t “fit”, your doomed.
    Nice write-up.

  2. The whole point of writing and Blogging for me is to get my ideas to spread. So, you can feel free to go ahead and use it, under these conditions:
    1) Please link back to the original post.
    2) My by-line must be: Mitch Joel – President, Twist Image & author of Six Pixels of Separation. You can find him here:
    If you need a photo or bio, you can feel free to grab everything from here:

  3. Mitch,
    I’m a big fan of your work, but I have to disagree with a lot of this post.
    Let an agency provide a one-hour presentation instead of completing an RFP? That gives an unfair advantage to the agencies with the best “showmen”, who are probably NOT going to the ones thinking about your business challenges on a day-to-day basis. The RFP is absolutely intended to level the playing field… and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
    Don’t ask for credentials? Frankly, I shouldn’t have to ask. I would hope that an agency who wants to work with me would be delighted to showcase their best work. Can I Google it? Absolutely! But do I have the time to Google the work of every agency I’m considering? Probably not. Also, what if I’m not a great Googler… is it fair that I miss some of your work because of a faulty query?
    I do think fit is absolutely critical, and I agree that direct industry experience isn’t always critical (although knowing the ins-and-outs of the industry IS a good thing.)
    If I may, here are four suggestions that I might offer to agencies, from a client’s perspective:
    1. Let the client know that the people working on your pitch are the people who will be working on your business. Or, if that’s not the case, then be honest about that fact! There is perhaps nothing more aggravating than having the A-team show up to the pitch meetings, and then not seeing them again until it’s time for the contract to be renewed.
    2. Bring case studies… and make them terrific examples of how you add value! Most marketing agencies can tell a great story. (Heck, that’s a big reason why we hire them!) But when I’m considering an agency, I want fact-based stories about how an agency has added value to past clients. And on that note…
    3. SHOW ME THE METRICS! Marketing budgets today are under pressure, and agencies should be first-in-line to offer up an ROI on their work, which marketers can use to protect their budgets and future investments in the brand.
    4. Volunteer to engage in a Value-Based-compensation model. Would an agency prefer a guaranteed rate to a sliding scale based on performance? Most probably would, just as most employees would prefer a guaranteed high salary to a low salary and a performance-based bonus. But nothing says, “we’re in this together” by offering to get paid less if the work is ineffective, assuming the VBC model is fair and allows the agency to earn MORE if the work generates results. It also shows tremendous confidence in your work, and your abilities, if you’re willing to be paid for performance. Plus, many big clients (including my employer, Coca-Cola) are moving towards VBC models, so offering to do so proactively demonstrates that you recognize the realities of today’s business world and are willing to adapt.
    An agency needs to be a true partner. But finding the right partner takes time, and sometimes you need to jump through a few hoops during the “dating” phase before you decide to get engaged. Hopefully, it’s worth it in the end. 🙂

  4. Sounds like (Digital?) Marketing Agencies have slipped down the internet innovation curve to the long tail of being just another commodity professional services provider. By this I mean the CEO is no longer the one driving the hiring process and saying “we need to get on the web 2.0 as well”. Its been demystified to the point that the value equation is understood and unbundled and over to procurement for a dose of RFP. Time for digital media land to cook up the new next best thing and get the CEO’s attention all over again!

  5. David, you make some good points for sure, but based on how I’m reading your comment, your first and second points contradict each other. You don’t want a one hour presentation in place of an RFP because it favors agencies with good showmen, but in your second point, you want the agency to flaunt its credentials. Doesn’t that act favor the agencies with the better showmen? In most cases, the agency that is better able to display its prior work and capabilities will have an advantage. It doesn’t really matter if you google them and find that their work is greatly displayed (or not) on their website or other places or if you let them tell you about it in a meeting, pitch document, or whatever else. Ultimately, the one that messages best has a leg up.
    As far as VBC goes, it works in many cases, but is questionable in others…for example, an agency working for a nonprofit client.

  6. I think we’re closer than you might think.
    A couple of points:
    – I actually said three one-hour in-person meetings instead of answering questions in a document. I believe that this is in agreement with many of your points. It enables you to actually meet the team members on both sides, really dig into not only the work that the agency has done, but also talk about the work you’re going to do together. It may seem like a lot of time to invest, but I know it’s still significantly less than trying to develop a RFI document, get it approved internally, etc… I’m not sure how answering questions in a document levels the playing field, especially when it’s much easier to embellish truths in writing than it is to stand behind the work in-person.
    – Presenting credentials is not something that is commonly done much anymore. This is a fact. If a brand is looking for an agency, they usually have an inkling as to what they’re looking for and can choose a handful of agencies to meet from their reputation alone. No agency is hiding their work, so it’s not about that.
    – As for showing the team that will actually work on the business: this is easier to do when a mandate is clear (which is never the case). It’s easy to introduce the client services team (and if an agency isn’t doing this, then run in the other direction), but it’s harder to show the strategic and creative team because most of the modern agencies build teams on needs. At Twist Image, our website development team is very different from our Social Media strategists, etc. This goes back to my first point of spending time to meet the full team.
    – I agree with you, case studies and results are table-stakes. Would anybody hire an agency that didn’t have results and the case studies to prove it?
    – As for value-based compensation, this is usually shot down by the brand. Most agencies would love to be compensated in this manner. We don’t see it happening enough, because the brand’s management team usually can’t agree on what this equation looks like.

  7. It is: the growth is phenom., it is still being figured out and industrial age dinosaurs like the one I work for can’t even get iphones and ipads onto the corporate infrastructure let alone figure out the value they bring.
    Maybe that is the wedge you need to avoid the RFP though I suspect you may be there already.
    Did somebody say non-conforming?

  8. Mitch, I really loved this post. I’ve been trying to find a way to eloquently summarise the way customers decide to work with our digital agency here in Melbourne (Australia), for a sales strategy I’m writing, and you’ve now saved me the effort. We’re re-branding, and so are trying to ensure our new brand encourages our leads to come and see us – rather than just send us a 75 page RFP. After we meet them, they (and we!) can decide whether we may be able to work together.
    Brilliant stuff, thanks.

  9. I recently presented this concept at a company meeting; instead of responding to so many (potentially unqualified) RFPs, let’s invite the potential client to a 1-3 hour onsite RFP workshop with the team that would work on the project. If a morning session, take them to lunch afterwards and if an afternoon session, dinner. Some of the many benefits to the workshop presented were: commitment of the team, an opportunity to experience working with our team that is: professional, informative, efficient, and social. It gives us the opportunity to validate the ask (which often times is too prescriptive and not optimal) and collaboratively discuss an approach with the client. The workshop concept really is a win-win for both parties with less effort for all.
    In the presentation, I provided a cost model showing the level of effort per resource to respond and supposedly the level of effort for the client to read and compare. I provided an analysis of the number of RFPs we had responded to and the number we had won; which was some number less than 1. I showed the statistics of one agency who responded digitally to an RFP, leveraged google analytics and reported that only 5 pages of their 25 page proposal were viewed with an average page-view time of 14 seconds. I shared our own recent story of a client confused by our response where we chose to provide additional options with costs, and the client couldn’t understand why when they searched our document for the “$” and added up all the numbers, that our proposal was significantly higher than others.
    I was really surprised at the resistance I received internally to such an approach. Discussions of how the RFP process is what is and we just need to deal with it, and how many companies would ignore our alternate offer, and just select between the other sheep responding.
    Fortunately, this article is just one of increasing number of articles on this topic.
    I have to disagree with David’s earlier comment about “leveling the playing field”. This is a competitive environment. A Client should choose a partner who demonstrates a competitive advantage especially if directly impacts demonstrating the working relationship. Strategy and creative work is not a commodity to be passed around round-robin. And if you are a client that doesn’t have time to spend a few hours to google the work of consultants or agencies that are about to have a significant impact on your business…

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