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Results are critical to the success of any project. But, the most successful partnerships are the result of more than just the quality of output. While we tend to lean into signals like past work, regional proximity, and price, we often miscalculate what a deeply collaborative process working with an agency partner is, before jumping in.
Because of that, it’s more often a misalignment in communication styles that sours agency projects than the outcome itself. If you want to find the best marketing agency for your project, it means ensuring that they have a strong creative process, open communications, and seamless collaborative environment.
What, then, are the tell-tale signs of a great or catastrophic relationship? Here are five factors that should be a part of your decision-making process:
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Finding the best marketing agency is more about finding the best marketing agency for you.
First things first: The “Best” marketing agency may not be the best marketing agency for you. Because an agency is good at one thing doesn’t mean it’s good at another and every organization has a unique set of needs.
The first time I was tasked with hiring an agency, I did all the things one usually does when vetting for a services partnership: I asked colleagues for recommendations, viewed work samples, spoke with past partners, even performed a search (though – and I’m dating myself here – search was still in its relative infancy and not quite as helpful as it is now).
After settling on an agency who, while having the “quirky” and somewhat taxing habit of sending these absurdly short email responses, showed some amazing talent, I got to work – chalking up the delta in communications to a minor glitch and in some part, the price you pay for working with a great creative team.
For anyone who’s ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s masterpiece, “Blink”, you’ll probably understand what came next.
“Our expectations for a successful client/vendor relationship often differ. The selection process should take into account collaborative style as well as skill”
I began to regret the decision almost immediately. Communication was irregular at best. It often came in short, painfully unhelpful spurts in which I tried to dialogue through various project challenges only to be met with seeming disregard for my concerns. It was a clumsy collaborative process with few milestones, and even less collaboration.
At times it seemed like the agency’s process was actively designed to be as ineffective and difficult as possible. At others, like they just didn’t understand that there was someone else on the other end of this relationship. None of this is to say that I think there was intended malice. It was clear however that they didn’t place value in the type of experience they were creating – a fact that could have been discerned much earlier, if I knew the right questions to ask.
We eventually completed the project, but it was an arduous process – one in which I wasted swaths of time on unnecessary back and forth. Was the result worth it? Maybe. Maybe not. I can tell you that I never referred them to another colleague.
It should be noted that marketing agencies and their representatives have no exclusivity on these particular character traits. I’ve had the same experience with mechanics, airlines, lawyers, et al. Put simply, our expectations for a successful client/vendor relationship often differ. What may be the best marketing agency for someone else may not be the best marketing agency for you.
Let’s set aside the most obvious factors like hard skills, experience, price, etc and assume that you’ve found several equally wonderful candidates, all ready to take your project on. Each specializes in your sector, they offer subject matter expertise in spades, and they’re equally regarded on popular reviews aggregators like Clutch, Upcity, and The Manifest.
At the same time, you should be paying careful attention to what’s said. That includes micro-communications like how quickly and fully they answer your inquiries. Are you struggling to get information out of them? Are they guiding you through the process rather than you pulling them along? Here are five areas you can focus on as bellwethers for weather your relationship with the agency will likely be a healthy one:
Your prospective partner should be asking questions – lots of them. They should want to understand your business at the deepest levels, what drives it, what your goals are for it, where you want to be next week, next month, next year.
If the marketing agency you’ve selected isn’t deeply inquisitive about your business model, customers, business history, and goals it may be a good sign that they view you as another customer in an assembly line.
Yes, the discovery process can take time and feel like a burden. You will benefit in equal measure by working with a partner who truly understands what’s driving your business though.
As a project manager, I spend more time communicating than any other single part of my job. The best marketing agencies understand that they’re – if only temporarily – an important part of your team and outline a communications plan as part of their work with you. It really is half the work.
Keep in mind, it’s not just the ability to communicate, but how often, their level of detail, how proactive they are about it. Differing communication styles aside, your prospective partner should generally be responsive to emails, volunteer solutions, provide you with background on their recommendations, etc.
Despite popular opinion, an agency doesn’t have to have a wide latitude of experience in your specific competitive ecosystem to do a great job (obvious exceptions aside). Our job is to drive awareness, engagement, consideration. While an understanding of your industry is important, it can be quickly adopted.
Having a deep passion for the manner and method in which humans communicate and make decisions however is a much rarer skill set. If you do find a partner that you absolutely believe in, and you believe has the ability to learn, don’t be shy about spending the extra time to provide details about your field and let them apply their expertise to it.
The old colloquialism, “good fences make great neighbors” is deeply applicable here. The best marketing agencies provide a clear statement of work that reviews your business’s history, project goals, and strategy for achieving them as well as each deliverable and the timeline for achieving them.
A well defined scope will help ensure that you and your agency partner are aligned on your expectations for every leg of the project before getting started. Changes to your scope may be necessary as the project moves forward, but make sure you understand what the agency is promising and when they’ll deliver it, as well as your obligations to help them get it done.
You’re going to be working closely with your agency partner. It’s important to dig into their collaborative tools and processes. Answers should be detailed and cover more than just the performative, “we’ll email when we need something”
You should ask if they have a scheduled sprint process to review the progress of work. Do they have a platform for exchanging various media assets? How will you know what’s needed from you for each piece of the project so they can continue working? In other words, make sure you have a clear collaborative strategy.
Over a long enough timeline, two buyers with the exact same project will often choose different partners for different reasons. That’s because the best marketing agency for your project is deeply subjective and comprises so much more than a simple hunt for the organization with the most raw skill.
Wondering whether you want to hire an internal marketing resource or an agency? We may be able to assist.
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