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How to Evaluate a Business-to-Business Marketing Agency

As an agency principal, 20-year mega-agency executive, and a “mad man” who actually worked on Madison Avenue in the sixties and seventies, I’ve been involved in many agency searches. Here are some tips based on my experience that will help you get what you’re looking for faster, and should result in a happier choice once you select your agency partner.

First, know thyself

Decide what you want your marketing agency to do for you. Keep your list short. If it’s more than five items, you’re in the weeds. Back up and revise your list to include only the five most important.

Set up your selection team. Keep it small

If you are sharing the decision with other members of your team, do so sparingly. Choose members of the group whose experience is different from yours. They may contribute a perspective you wouldn’t have considered. Keep the group small. Large groups make the job of selection much more difficult. Make it clear that you will have the final say, but will consider their input.

Choose based on the agency’s alignment with your most important initiatives

Most marketing firms can do anything you need. But agencies (like people!) are not equally good at everything. So select your agency based on their reputation and ability to perform your most important projects. Don’t worry too much about the rest of the list—if they’re the right partner for you they’ll get it done.

Agencies tend to divide along marketing specialties

Some marketing agencies are better at general branding and awareness. Others are best known for direct marketing initiatives like lead generation and loyalty programs. If you are generally happy with your branding but need qualified leads, don’t hire the branding agency to do it. Branding creatives tend to turn up their noses at lead-generation projects, with long copy and heavy focus on the call to action (CTA), often with complex versioning that includes a slant towards offer testing, and list testing and measurement and the like.

Likewise, direct-marketing creatives sometimes tend to view the branding projects as costly and frivolous requiring countless hours devoted to the tweaking of type fonts and color, with minimal testing, little or no measurement, and often without a strong call to action.

What if you need both?

If your primary list includes both direct marketing and branding, pick the agency that best does whatever is most important to you. If a direct-marketing agency does your branding, expect a solid, sensible effort that reflects your strategy and position clearly, not an edgy campaign that takes risks and makes headlines in “Ad Age.”

If a branding agency does your direct marketing, don’t expect too much out of the list, offer development, versioning and analytics for the program—those things are not traditionally in their wheelhouse.

Set your priorities

Number one should be your level of trust in the agency itself and in the agency people who will be leading your business. Most agencies won’t bring their real team to the presentation, because often the best team members do not present well. In some cases, the team that will actually work on your account won’t have been hired yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it means the agency can hire talent that fits your needs perfectly. But if you don’t meet the people who are actually doing the work for you, be sure you can trust their leaders to do right by you.

Find a marketing firm that has worked on programs similar to yours

Look for experience in your broad sector—healthcare, high-tech, financial services—broad categories are enough. If you are looking for high-value prospects for multimillion-dollar products, find a firm that has generated demand for a similar product and sales force. If your goal is to sell service, look at the agencies’ experience with service demand generation and loyalty. If you expect lead generation to be successful, your agency must understand your product or service almost as well as you do. Expect them to dive into the advantages of what you are offering.

Find a firm that listens to you

Not all agencies care about your input. If you brief them, rate them on how accurately they reflect your information the next time you meet them. If they add insight, they deserve credit. If they read it back to you without adding to it, they have clearly missed an opportunity. If they ignore it completely (yes, I’ve seen it happen!), perhaps you should move on.

What about size?

There are advantages to both large agencies and small agencies. Small agencies tend to be a better deal, because they have less overhead, and they have less baggage in the form of layers of management, internal meetings, and red tape to get things done. But large agencies can sometimes offer serious buying clout in media markets, and can bring a regiment of talent to bear on your marketing problem—when the need arises. If you choose a small agency, be sure they have the talent to support your initiatives. If you choose a large one, be sure their best talent will be working on your programs. And make sure that your business is large enough to interest them.

Be objective and subjective in your evaluation

Develop a checklist of priorities and decide how important each point is to you. Some people use a spreadsheet in their tablets and store them on Google® Drive, while others scratch out notes on napkins. There are no rules about it, as long as you cover the important points. No matter how the contenders rate on points, consider the chemistry between you and the agency. Do they share your values? When you call your account manager at 4:30 in the afternoon to help with a sudden request for you to discuss program results with your CEO at 8:00 a.m. the next day, will they support you? These issues of personal relationship and trust may be the most important selection criteria of all.