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We’ve been working with agencies for nearly 40 years as a publisher, and we know agencies can give marketing teams much-needed extra sets of hands. But not all agencies are created equal. You shouldn’t select an agency just because a key member of the marketing team just quit, and your second cousin’s neighbor owns a firm that dabbles in B2B marketing. Even though the client-agency relationship always starts with the very best of intentions, we’ve seen plenty of clients with agency-related battle scars.

Here are eight things to validate with an agency before signing a contract. Note: you may have different outcomes in mind when selecting an agency, so some of this advice might not apply to your strategy. No partnership is perfect, but at a minimum, you should understand how your agency would respond to these topics.

1. Prioritize working capital.

Ask the agency to provide a breakdown of spend for each element you're expecting, then classify each component as working capital or non-working capital. Working capital should be defined as "activity that directly engages our ideal target audience." This will provide insight into how much of your investment will be going toward market impact vs. agency process/overhead.

2. Understand your target buyers.

Does the agency’s understanding of your market come from what you tell them? Or do they come to the table with a deeper understanding and research on their own that can teach you something about your buyers? Knowing target company types and titles can help an agency pick media from a stack of media kits, but that alone is not enough to help you engage with buyers.

3. Validate their perspective of outsourced content creation.

Ask any content provider, "How will you ensure that the content you create aligns with my buyer's preferences?" Most content creators inject their opinions into the content they create, which may not align with the preferences of your audience. Beware of content that is purely promotional, as buyers will not engage with that kind of messaging early in their buyer’s journey. The best content will focus on helping your buyer, not filling your sales funnel or checking a box on an agency’s to-do list.

4. Beware of getting the “B team.”

Agencies will often introduce you to their senior executives during the bidding process. But once the contract is signed, they use less experienced staff to manage the media planning and execution. Find out how many clients your media planner works with, and who, specifically, will be assigned to your account. You need to validate if they can dedicate the time to understand your situation and offer specific solutions.

5. Recognize the proper media evaluation process.

Most agencies evaluate media outlets based on a spreadsheet of numbers. They use a combination of circulation and price, looking for the best cost per thousand. That worked just fine 15 years ago. In modern marketing, however, circulation does not mean anything anymore (that's why we're not a fan of media kits that tout massive circulations, a stance you can read more about here). What matters is how engaged the readers are and what they are engaging in. Press for evidence that the right types of readers will engage in the content you create.

6. Measure the right things.

Content marketing should be measurable. Traditional metrics such as open rates, click rates, and impressions are not actionable and can’t tell you where a prospect is in the buyer’s journey. Ask the agency how they evaluate and deliver demographic data, specific content consumption data, and persona/company behavioral data. This is the kind of information your sales team craves, as it can help uncover purchase intent and ultimately win more business. According to McKinsey, many of their clients are “evaluating and paying agencies not just on their ability to increase awareness, clickthroughs, and site traffic within specific verticals, but also on their contribution to sales growth across the business overall.”

7. Create action, not just awareness.

Pay attention to how much you are spending on creating basic awareness (e.g., setting up social media pages or approving press releases). This busy work simply won’t improve your bottom line. For example, we’ve seen agencies insist on a constant stream of press releases because they’re easy to produce and distribute. But consider this statistic from the best-selling sales book Selling To The C-Suite: “Forbes estimates that globally there are over a quarter million new product launches every year. Invitations to learn about these hit the inboxes of executive buyers at a rate of 96 emails a day, of which 17 on average are weeded out as spam, and executive assistants patrol the rest.” The people who do read press releases are usually your competitors or vendors who want to sell to you. It’s important to put your marketing dollars toward actionable data (e.g., analytics that can provide a deep dive into a company’s content consumption habits).

8. Strategically select media placements.

Studies show that you’re better off concentrating your investments in one or two platforms that have the right audience versus spreading it out. Maximize your reach in your top platform. Choose more than one if the audiences are distinctly different (e.g., U.S. audience and Asian audience). Some agencies advocate spreading placements out across a variety of publications, but doing this weakens the impact of your investment. Press for a business case backed by data for each recommended placement. Some agencies prefer to place ads with publications they have friendly rate relationships with and will prioritize those over what is the best fit for the client. Sometimes these lower rates get passed on, and sometimes they don’t. Beware of agencies who don’t allow publications to communicate directly with the client – ask to see a breakdown of gross and net rates for each placement.

No partnership is perfect, but at a minimum,
you should understand how your agency
would respond to these topics.

Working with an agency can give your lean marketing team a much-needed lift. But not all agencies are capable of helping you win more business. The vetting process for a marketing agency should be just as stringent as if you were hiring an outside legal team, an accounting firm, or a new cybersecurity contractor. Most agencies look the same on paper and have websites overflowing with phrases like “full-service,” “innovative,” “results-driven,” and “client-focused.” You’ll need to dig deep to ask the hard questions about an agency’s operations and strategy.

VertMarkets is not an agency, so this article isn’t a ploy to get you to work with us. Our intention is to help you make the best decisions for your company on how to invest your marketing dollars. When you are smart with your marketing resources, our readers ultimately benefit from being able to access the best possible content to help them along their buyer’s journey. 

About the author

Chief Editor, Follow Your Buyer

You might know me as a writer, coach, content marketer, dog lover, editor, golfer, sales strategist, Diet Coke enthusiast, speaker, Allegheny alum, project manager, feminist, networker, or St. Louis Cardinals fan. 

We will not be great by what we accomplish, but by what we help others accomplish.

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Learning to follow your buyer is a change in mindset

A transition from selling buyers on what you do to helping them accomplish what they do.