Choosing a marketing agency to help you take your business to the next level is a big decision.
In all industries, there are some businesses that are genuinely good at what they do and offer a great, common sense-based service.
Others, however, think they're good at what they do but simply aren't.
And this is as true in the marketing world as in any other - if not even truer.
The most difficult thing in choosing an agency can be the fact that, as a business owner or director, your personal knowledge of marketing may be in principle rather than in practice, making it difficult to work out whether an agency is The Real McCoy or not.
And even if you do have some good, solid marketing experience, comparing a couple of agencies who both sound good and tick all the right boxes can make a hard decision even harder.
So how can you filter out the wallies and the wannabes from the real deal agencies before you spend a penny with them?
Here are 7 of the most common red flags to look for that should signal that the agency just isn’t for you.
1. The marketing agency has poor communication
A comms agency should be good by nature and not just name.
The best way to judge the agency before you even meet them therefore is on the quality of their communications.
How quickly do you get a call after enquiring? Do they listen and not just talk? What about their own marketing and approach - is it slick and admirable?
If an agency can’t even market themselves or be bothered to call you as soon as you enquire, the chances are their communication will be pretty poor throughout your relationship with them, too.
That said, it’s often the case - especially with big agencies - that you’ll start with the smooth talking directors and end up with the guy who sweeps the floor, so be sure you ask about how they keep clients in the loop as one of your initial questions, too.
2. The marketing agency doesn’t ask about challenges
A lot of agencies out there specialise in a few certain areas and will therefore - unsurprisingly - tell you that what they do is exactly what you need to buy.
PPC agencies sell PPC.
SEO agencies sell SEO.
Web design agencies… you get the picture.
So when speaking to an agency, listen to what they pitch, the way they pitch it and - most importantly - why.
Many marketing agencies just sell an off-the-shelf solution which is tailored to your business in how it's executed, but doesn't necessarily take into account your overall goals and challenges to ask, "Is this the right thing to implement at all?".
Make sure you look for an agency that builds an overall strategy that’s a perfect fit for your business and - unless you need one, specific service - has quite a few areas of expertise.
If you look through their case studies and they only ever seem to offer a few services to clients, chances are that they’re good at a handful of things and just sell them over and over again.
But if an agency asks you about your challenges and goals before they mention any tactics and makes recommendations as a result, they probably know their stuff and have more than a few strings to their bow.
3. They don’t place A HUGE importance on research
Abraham Lincoln once famously said:
“If you’re given four hours to cut down a tree, you should spend the first three sharpening the axe”.
Well in exactly the same sense, research is key to preparation in marketing.
If you’re looking for a really quick way to waste loads of money, take a blunt swing at marketing tactics.
But if you really want to sharpen your approach to whichever market you’re chopping at, research should be your grindstone.
Without quality research, the marketing agency you’re working with is going off past experience and intuition; but as we’ve learned over the years, every single business is entirely different from the next.
Assumptions therefore cannot be made and even our own previous experiences of what did and didn’t work have to be questioned each time we build a new strategy.
If the marketing agency you speak to mentions research only a small amount in your initial conversations, or even talks solely about their ideas and tactics for your business, it’s probably time to move on.
Look for an agency that isn’t afraid to say: “We don’t know exactly how that would work yet. It worked in the past because of XY and Z - which may work for you, too - but until we carry out some proper market research, we couldn’t possibly say what the exact approach looks like”.
If an agency is humble enough to admit this, but also places a high importance on research to ensure your tactics are watertight before pushing them out to sea, the chances are your strategy will float and getting you where you want to go, rather than sinking or washing up on the beach.
4. The agency claims to be completely unique
Many agencies out there claim to have some sort of secret sauce which, added to any business’ recipe, will take them from Maccy D’s to Michelin Star overnight.
The fact of the matter is, marketing strategy and implementation takes time and there are certain processes out there which all of the top agencies follow that work.
We’re not saying there’s no room for innovation, but what works, works, and if a marketing agency out there tells you that they're disrupting the agency model with a new way of building strategies that the world has never seen before, promising that they’ve ‘cracked the code’ and know the secret formula for business growth, your bullshit meter should be firing through the roof.
"We've cracked the code! No other agency does what we do! Our process is unique!"
There is no silver bullet.
There is no magic formula.
There is no perfect recipe.
What does exist is a myriad of different approaches and routes you could travel down; a good agency will help you to identify exactly which one is right for your business using solid, common sense-based research and processes.
Any innovation in the process to finding your best route to growth will be pretty small and steady as and when it does come in.
5. The agency promises specific results
Another serious red flag to look out for is an agency that promises certain results.
Getting into the marketing and sales game, you have to realise that the whole thing is a risk. There are no guarantees of X number of leads coming your way or X% return on your investment.
An agency that really knows their stuff will tell you this from the outset.
Any agency worth their salt will be confident that what they do will work, but nobody should ever guarantee that.
Working with an agency that’s so convinced of themselves that they make promises is a dangerous route; they’ll likely be so self-absorbed that they won’t properly assess, track and measure as they go, blaming external forces for their shortfallings.
Make sure the agency you go with doesn’t make specific, outlandish promises and talks about measurement and tracking as a way of seeing what’s working and what’s not.
Without that, your budget will leak thick and fast, with no knowledge of where it’s actually going.
Look for an agency that has a strong knowledge of tracking and analysing results to make sure they constantly amplify results while also looking for things that simply need to be scrapped or completely assessed.
There will always be some leaks, but key to a successful relationship with an agency is transparency over those leaks - why they happened, what we can learn from that, why the new approach is better - and that's only possible with tracking and analysis.
6. The agency USES fluffy buzzwords
“Yeah, well if you want to start attracting more Gen Xers while also thinking about that low-hanging Millennial fruit that’s out there right now, you need an ABM approach that combines data-driven social and video growth hacking with influencers and artificial intelligence, cus, ya know, content is king.”
If an agency sounds like they’re trying to dazzle you with confusing new concepts, that’s probably exactly what they’re trying to do.
If you can’t explain something in simple enough terms, you simply don’t understand it well enough yourself.
That’s what makes and overuse of buzzwords a symptom of a bad agency.
The chances are that they themselves haven’t got a clue what they’re on about; a great agency will be able to communicate that complex, new idea in the simplest of terms.
This goes back to point one: if your agency can’t communicate both what they’re going to do for you and why, you should swerve them.
Look for an agency that doesn’t just try to get your signature through waffle that makes them look like , but through building your relationship on clarity and transparency.
7. TheIR own marketing isN'T STRONG
Finally, a quite ironic point in that most agencies out there have terrible marketing output for themselves.
How can you ever hire any business to run any aspect of your business for you if they don't practice what they preach?
A lot of agencies will give you the old, "We've been too busy doing everyone else’s to do our own!".
This in many senses is fair, but the issue there is: who are they using as a guinea pig for new ideas?
If they’re not try and testing new things on their own output, how can you be confident that your money isn’t just being used to fuel an improvement for all of their other clients’ results?
"Well try it for that account and then if it works, we'll roll it out across all the others"
Of course, there’s an element of trial and error in all marketing and sales exercises, but the testing of new tools and techniques should not be on your budget, but on the agency’s own strategy and marketing.
Our final point then is to look for an agency that’s hellbent on finding the next best thing and never rests on their laurels, but doesn’t look for it on your watch, only on theirs.
Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed this piece. Thinking of hiring a marketing agency? Check out our free guide 7 Questions to Ask Before You Hire a Marketing Agency.