So, you’ve decided that you’d like to hire an outside agency to help with your marketing efforts. But which one to choose?
With more options available than ever before, the hunt for the right marketing agency can be long, confusing, and tiresome.
Which of the thousands of teams on offer has the chops to get your message out to the world—and draw new prospects into your funnel? How can you know, based on an agency’s website and a couple of introductory meetings, whether you’ll work well together, or even like each other?
And, assuming the selection process does go well, how can you keep a good working relationship going strong over the course of many projects?
While there’s no way to know everything about a potential business partner in advance, there's a lot you can do to improve your chances of making a smart choice up front, and many good habits you can rely on to nurture a healthy agency-client relationship for years to come.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways you can suss out whether an agency is a good fit for your team and its goals—and what you can do to get the most out of this important partnership.
Finding the One
While it is important to consider more objective factors like ratings, reviews, and client history while searching for an agency, it’s also vital to remember that every business partnership is, first and foremost, a relationship.
Accordingly, many of the factors that come into play when deciding whether or not you’d like to start a relationship with another person (romantic, friendly, or otherwise) should also influence your decision about whether or not to partner with a particular agency.
As Harvard Business School Professor of Business Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it in her article “Collaborative Advantage: The Art of Alliances”: “Relationships between companies begin, grow, and develop—or fail—in ways similar to relationships between people.”
Like person-to-person relationships, business partnerships go through phases, ranging from initial interest to deepening commitments over time and, occasionally, separation. And as in personal relationships, any of these phases can be handled well or poorly, depending on many factors.
In other words, those first few meetings between key stakeholders on both sides of a potential partnership are more than just casual get-togethers. They are crucial opportunities for the client and the agency to get to know each other on a more meaningful level—to see whether there is a real “attraction” between the two organizations, which can become critically important months or years down the line when tough times inevitably pop up (as they do in even the best of partnerships).
To put it bluntly, the agency selection process is a lot like dating!
Agency founder and Forbes Agency Council Member Todd Maxwell offers similar advice in his recent article on the agency selection process. According to Maxwell, before committing to a relationship with a potential marketing partner, you should “Give it the beer test.” That is, before signing anything, seriously consider whether you like a given team enough to hypothetically spend time with them outside of a work setting.
Whether or not you ever actually wind up at a happy hour together, your reaction to the idea of hanging out with a potential partner will tell you a lot about how a working relationship between the two of you might go.
While it might seem like an unimportant factor in a professional context, both Maxwell and Kanter argue that enjoyability is an essential part of a successful partnership. To a certain extent, positive business outcomes depend on stakeholders having good, solid relationships with each other. For instance, you and a potential agency might be a perfect match on paper—but if you hate each other’s guts, you’re not going to be very good at solving problems together.
So keep your feelings in mind as you interact with your candidates. As a useful supplement to objective factors like finances, legal considerations, and so on, they can help lead you in the direction of a working relationship that will be both productive and enjoyable for those involved.
Once you’ve decided on an agency partner and started your first project together, the real work of creating and sustaining a working relationship begins.
While the contracts may be signed and some initial formal structures put in place, the unofficial, intangible parts of your partnership remain just as important as before. If anything, goodwill between partners can become even more important over time, as the process of working together gradually reveals differences in process, philosophy, and so on. As Kanter points out:
“The romance of courtship quickly gives way to day-to-day reality [...] Operational and cultural differences emerge after collaboration is under way. They often come as a surprise to those who created the alliance [...] Differences in authority, reporting, and decision-making styles become noticeable at this stage in the new alliance[.]”.
In other words, just like people trying to live together for the first time, you and your new agency partner are going to experience some friction as your different approaches to business begin to rub against each other. One team may take a few hours to respond to emails, while the other replies in seconds; one team may have a very hierarchical, bureaucratic decision-making structure, while the other is more freewheeling and collaborative; and so on.
Knowing in advance that a few bumps are inevitable can help by putting minor frustrations into perspective. If both parties are willing to be a bit flexible and humble, these differences in opinion can be seen for what they really are—little obstacles on the road to a productive, rewarding workflow between partners, rather than deal-breaking catastrophes.
In his blog post “How to Choose the Right Digital Marketing Agency,” digital marketing expert Neil Patel offers some concrete tips on developing a client-agency partnership that works. Much of that advices boils down to—you guessed it—treating the arrangement as you would any other relationship, with all of the respect, consideration, and commitment that implies.
Patel, for instance, urges clients to put in the up-front work that will give their agency partners the best possible shot at meeting their marketing goals. Among other things, he encourages clients to define their goals in advance, do any “homework” assigned by the agency during the discovery process, and get familiar with the scope, process, and timeline of a given project.
Doing your part to ensure the success of the project—rather than dumping everything on your new partner’s shoulders—demonstrates respect for your partner’s process, and gives them the info they need to deliver you great work.
At the same time, there is such a thing as doing too much! Patel also says that clients should “Be ready to forfeit control” of the creative process once things are underway. Again, in order to function at its best, a business partnership requires many of the same things that help personal relationships succeed—and that includes trust.
Allowing your agency partner to make certain creative decisions on their own can be downright terrifying, especially if you haven’t done much work together before. It can feel much safer to hover over your partner’s shoulder, reviewing every minor update to ensure that the end product is in line with your goals.
While this approach may be comforting for the client, it is frustrating for the agency partner, who may feel stifled by the constant oversight. Perhaps more importantly, this dynamic robs the client of one of the chief benefits of partnership—the ability to gain an outside perspective on longstanding business challenges.
Just as a good friend can help you reframe personal problems in ways that present new solutions, a good agency partner can help you see your branding and marketing efforts with fresh eyes—if they are allowed to innovate. So take a deep breath, let go of the wheel, and you just might find your partner guiding you to exhilarating new opportunities.
It should be clear by now that building and maintaining a good agency partnership is no joke! Like any relationship, a client-agency arrangement requires work and humility on both sides if it is going to succeed over the long term. The benefits of sticking it out, however, make it well worth the effort. As Kanter explains:
“Productive relationships usually require and often stimulate changes within the partners [...] When two companies place themselves in intimate contact with each other through an alliance, it is almost inevitable that each will compare itself with the other [...] In fact, learning and borrowing ideas from partners is part of realizing the full value of the relationship.”
When an agency-client partnership is truly humming, the organizations involved get more out of the relationship than just great creative work. Just by being in contact with each other, you and your partner will start to notice areas where each excels, and where each could use improvement, and will be motivated to get better.
In other words, just as in a thriving friendship or marriage, both partners will start to embody what is best about the other, leaving each better than they were before. And that’s something worth striving for.
So, whether you’re seeking out an agency partner for the first time, or navigating an existing partnership, be sure to bring all of your social skills and goodwill to the table. Treating your partnership as a relationship, rather than a mere business arrangement, could deliver the campaign of your dreams—and help your organization become the best possible version of itself.