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Digital Strategy

How to choose the right digital marketing agency

Whether you’re looking for the support of a digital agency for the first time or scoping out a new provider due to dissatisfaction with your incumbent agency, finding the right digital marketing agency can be a tough task.

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Ben Wood

Director of Growth and Innovation

Choosing the right digital partner is crucial to the future success of your business, and with the agency market becoming ever more saturated due to minimal barriers to entry, there will no doubt be a raft of agencies vying for your business.
This post will help you cut through the agency noise by outlining the core capabilities you should be looking for in a digital agency and some warning signs to look out for.

Don’t use Google as your filter

As pointed out by Rand Fishkin of whiteboard Friday fame, a common assumption businesses make is that a digital marketing agency worth their salt will rank in position one for search terms such as ‘digital marketing agency’ plus the location of their business, but this isn’t necessarily the best way of judging a potential digital partner.

SEO agency search
Google shouldn’t be your only filter when looking for an agency!

You may think that if you were to Google “SEO agency New York“, surely the best company will show up at the top. Well, unfortunately what happens is that most of the truly excellent companies, those that consistently deliver outstanding client results and generate numerous referrals don’t rely on rankings to generate their leads. They may have a high client retention rate and be making plenty of money thus don’t spend any time optimising their own website.
This is not to say that strong rankings aren’t the sign of a solid agency, just a note that it shouldn’t be a decisive factor in your search for a new agency. This would risk discounting many more experienced agencies who may be able to deliver even better results for your business. There are many more trustworthy sources you should lean on to generate an initial shortlist of digital agencies.

Build your shortlist using reliable sources

When it comes to building your shortlist, lean on your professional networks for recommendations. Similar companies who may not necessarily be direct competitors may be able to pass on recommendations. Talking to those you trust and asking for their recommendations based on previous experience is the best place to start here.
There are a host of companies who carry out independent research on digital agencies each year so it’s worth checking out agency ratings on sites such as The Drum Recommends, checking out the annual independent agency top 100 register, Econsultancy’s agency financial ratings and ordering your results by awards and verified client recommendations.

Hallam on the Drum Recommends
Check out independent client reviews when building a shortlist of agencies

More reputable agencies should be happy for you to contact some of their clients directly. This way you’ll find out soon enough if the testimonials are legitimate.
If you have an in-house digital team or are part of an in-house team needing digital agency support then you may be following a few industry experts already. A good way of scoping out the capabilities of agency staff is by reviewing the content they post online or through third-party sources. For example, if you subscribe to a list of popular blogs and have an affinity to the authors you’re seeing crop up then it may be worth reaching out and asking them who they’d recommend. If you subscribe to a reputable agency blog already and get value from their content, then you’re on to a winner.
If you’re not sure which sources to start with around keeping on top of emerging digital trends then check out this file of reputable sites we’ve put together which you can import as a .OPML file into a feed reader such as by following these instructions.
Use a feed reader to keep track of emerging digital trends


Don’t be overly influenced by awards

The marketing and advertising industry is fueled by awards. Agencies have entire teams dedicated to nothing else but entering awards. As an agency we’ve made a conscious effort to move away from paid-for industry awards over the past year, to instead focus our efforts on client reviews and testimonials such as the Drum Recommends Awards, which are judged solely on client testimonials.
As an example of the kind of money and effort involved in award entries, here’s the selected list of awards our team put together for the past year:

digital marketing awards
Selected digital agency awards in 2018!

Yes, some of these awards will no doubt provide critical validation. They provide validation for agencies who themselves are increasingly seen as interchangeable by clients and can act as a valuable trust signal for clients when putting together a shortlist of agencies.
The key point to note here is similar to that around using keyword rankings as a filter – successful agencies don’t rely solely on awards for new business. So be wary of using awards as your sole filter for measuring the capability of a digital agency as more often than not these awards don’t involve the truly excellent agencies in the field.

The awards business is clearly a profitable one and the sheer number of digital awards ceremonies cropping up was recently ridiculed by comedy digital awards named ‘the penguins’ which was started in 2018 by a few of the genuinely talented experts in our field:
digital marketing awards
In my opinion, the whole awards industry is becoming ridiculous. Agencies jockey to get the awards and lump out ridiculous sums for the entry fees and tables at each event. More often than not it’s not even the strongest results that win awards, it’s all about telling the best story!

Ask who will be working on your account

The biggest reason I believe clients need to work with a digital agency in one way or another is for the expertise that an agency team can pool together. This agency experience is built by working across a multitude of different clients and industries, trying (and sometimes failing) cutting-edge techniques to achieve optimal results for clients.
By simply relying on an internal team to deliver digital performance, in-house teams may have skills gaps in specialist areas or be unaware of techniques that may have worked in other industries.
The important thing to note here is that what you’re really buying with an agency isn’t the fancy branding on the surface, it’s the people employed by the agency and the experience they have built up. Indeed, for any company in the services or consulting industry people are the biggest asset you should base a potential partnership decision around.
A common mistake made by brands when choosing a digital agency is assuming the individuals involved in an initial pitch will be those working on their account in the long-term.
In reality, many agencies still employ a ‘bait and switch’ tactic, which means pulling out the big guns in the pitch and replacing them with juniors once the client has signed on the dotted line. To avoid being left in this position, be sure to double check who will be placed on your account once you sign up, what their roles will be and check out their background and expertise.
Often the benefit of working with smaller independent agencies is that you’ll get experienced people overseeing your account, but be sure to check this by visiting their meet the team page and potentially doing some Linkedin stalking to get a true measure of their industry expertise!

Hallam about us
Be sure to check out the experience of your account team on their website

Qualities to look out for include achievements such as public speaking at reputable industry events, contributing to blogs and resources you may already subscribe to, being actively referenced in case studies delivered in your industry and individual client recommendations on platforms such as Linkedin.
Experience is often difficult to ascertain unless you’re already an industry expert, however, there are always ways of researching. Take a closer look at their blog and how regularly it’s updated with industry news. Have a look at their ‘About’ section – are they accredited by industry bodies? And perhaps more importantly, are they active on social media? You could always take a look at their twitter account to see how many followers they have, which could act as a good indicator of their influence within the digital marketing industry.

Scrutinise their case studies

Any reputable digital marketing agency should have a case studies/work section visible on their website.  This acts as an important trust signal to potential new clients, and you can use this to analyse whether they have any experience in your particular industry.  If you can spot any clients in your industry or a closely related field then this is a good sign that they’ve already done a great job for those clients, and will more than likely be able to do the same for you.

digital marketing case studies
Any agency worth their salt should have a portfolio of case studies on their website

Looking at an agency’s portfolio helps you understand what types of businesses it serves. Look for patterns related to your niche. For instance, if you are a law office and you see the agency has worked with a number of other firms, it shows they are experienced within your industry and know what it takes to see fruitful results. Conversely, if they have a portfolio spanning across a wide range of industries, this is a good sign they are a versatile agency and can easily adapt.
Some clients prefer to choose agencies who specialise in a particular niche but this can sometimes be detrimental to success, as there may be techniques learned in other industries which can easily be applied across the board.

Demand full transparency

A lack of transparency is the most basic and often overlooked red flag. This could apply to the agency’s website before the shortlist phase – is their address visible? Do they have bios available? If not, then this agency isn’t worth your time.
Transparency is also important when it comes to working together. Agencies worth their salt should build open and transparent working relationships with their clients, sharing their processes, results and activities on a regular basis. Most businesses will generally expect a good level of communication and some exposure to the day-to-day management of their account from their agency.  
Ideally, you should be allocated a consultant to manage your account who can act as your primary contact within the agency. Any prospective agency should also be able to provide regular performance indicators and in-depth reporting on their activities to show you exactly what you’re getting for your money. Full transparency should be one of the first things you look for when choosing a digital agency for your business.

digital marketing agency transparency
Tools such as Basecamp provide full transparency on activities carried out by an agency

A simple way to check for transparency before signing a contract is to ask open-ended questions in the RFP (request for proposal) or pitch stages of your search. Questions such as ‘what’s your process regarding PPC bid management?’.
Finally, be sure to discuss the amount of work and resources you may have to commit internally to a potential digital marketing project. You should know that before you go into any partnership because more often than not your time and effort will be required to make the project a success.

Be wary of long contracts

If you have a need for a digital marketing agency, think about how long a particular project may take and try not to get sucked into a long contract at the outset.
There should be no requirement from them for you to sign up to a long-term contract unless they require dedicated resource on a project for a prolonged period of time. Any agency that attempts to persuade you to sign a contract to retain their services for a period of over 6 months clearly isn’t confident of its own ability to delight its customers.
There should always be the option for a review of the agency’s services after an initial period of work so ensure you ask about their standard terms and conditions before making a decision.

Don’t forget to check for personality clashes!

Once you have refined your shortlist of agencies to only the most legitimate contenders, it’s time to consider what you want from the relationship on a personal level. There are very few agencies who truly set themselves apart on a technical level from the rest of the competition so if you can find an agency who meets all of your technical requirements and you feel you could get on with their team on a personal level then you’re on to a winner.
Everybody wants something slightly different from an agency relationship. Marketing teams have a lot of day-to-day operational tasks to contend with and the majority need to be inspired by their chosen agency and most importantly be able to form a strong working relationship. It’s therefore important to choose an agency that aligns with your personality.
If you manage to find a digital marketing agency with approachable, friendly members of staff this can often help to speed up the formation of a strong working relationship between both parties and lead to vastly improved communication and delivery against your requirements from the agency.
If you want to talk to us about our agency could help your business, get in touch with us.

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