How to Choose an Agency

Updated: Dec 06, 2022 | Nick Ainge Roy | 5 mins. read

At a certain point in your business journey, you’ll need to make a decision about whether you want to outsource your marketing or keep it in-house. While there are many benefits to building your own in-house marketing team, for many small and medium-sized businesses it is simply not feasible and so the search for a digital marketing agency begins.

This is never a quick or easy process, however, once you know what to look for and the kinds of questions to ask, it is much more straightforward to choose an agency that will deliver value to your business.

Questions To Ask An Agency

With so many agencies out there, it can be difficult to discern between those that know what they’re talking about and those that are just hitting you with jargon and what they think you want to hear. With these questions, though, you’ll learn quickly who is and isn’t worth working with, making your decision that much easier.

We typically see businesses switch agencies for three reasons:

1. Poor communication

2. Poor reporting

3. Lack of results

Be sure that any agency you are considering understands your business, your industry and your goals and has clear practices in place around reporting and ongoing management.

From a business owner’s perspective also have an idea of what you would want to see in the first 90 days for this relationship to be considered, if not a success, at least on the right path.

Who Owns the Accounts?

This is a big one. Establishing who owns the accounts is the first thing you need to clarify. Reputable agencies offer account management, not account ownership. It’s your business. You should own the data and the logins across your accounts, including Google ads, Search Console, Google Analytics and Facebook Business manager.

⚠️Do not work with any agency where they own the assets.

We have even seen some contracts where the agency not only owns the assets, but the client is not even allowed access to the accounts! This is a major red flag. These agencies should be avoided at all costs. It makes it difficult to see and audit what the agency is doing. In addition, if you are unhappy with the results and want to move agency, all the data and history you have paid for will be lost. You will have to start again (this has been our biggest surprise as an agency – how often this happens).

What is the breakdown of the budget?

Transparency applies to all aspects of digital marketing but especially to rates. As a business owner, you should know exactly how much an agency charges, what that money is used for, and what results it gives you.

Understanding the breakdown of budget is a must: you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars a month on Google ads or Facebook ads only to find out that 70% of it has gone to management fees, with only 30% going on the actual media spend. When you first meet with an agency, they should be able to give you a clear breakdown of what they charge for management and what you can expect for that fee.

How often will I receive reporting and one-on-one meetings with the company?

If you do decide to work with an agency, you should expect, at minimum, detailed monthly reports that tell you where your money has gone and what the results were.

Also, confirm who is the key contact. Is the person selling you the “agency” the account manager also, or will there be a different key contact? and confirm the frequency of client meetings

If they can’t commit to who, how and when they will communicate and report, again, maybe look somewhere else.

What are the Results?

Whatever service a digital agency offers – Google Ads, social media management, SEO etc. – the goal is usually to increase business.

This is typically measured by an increase in conversions (leads or sales). At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how innovative or flashy an agency’s approaches are if they aren’t leading to sales for your business.

The conversion events should be agreed upon at the start, and they should make sense. In one agency we audited, we found a campaign with a 110% conversion rate. The agency had set such soft conversions the data was meaningless. Everything converted. (but the end of monthly reports to the clients look great).

Ideally, conversion events should be hard (sales or contact details captured as leads), and if the site is not set up for either, the soft conversions should be events that show high signs of intent e.g. View a product and the visit the “find a dealer” page.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. For example, branding campaigns. Even here goals or targets need to be established.

While an agency can’t tell you what kind of results they can deliver before you’ve started working together, a good agency will be happy to show you what they’ve achieved with their existing clients to give you an idea of what you can expect. Be mindful of any agency that guarantees results – especially SEO agencies.

Do They Use Too Much Jargon?

This is an industry filled with jargon – TCPA, CPM, CTR, CPC, ROAS, impression share, etc – that is often meaningless to businesses that don’t handle these things day-to-day.

If an agency is only using jargon instead of talking in terms that articulate what is happening in a way that you can understand, you may want to look somewhere else.

Do they have Industry Experience?

Nobody can ever hope to do it all, and those that claim to are often exaggerating the extent of their abilities. While it’s not necessary for an agency to specialise in one specific industry, those that do will usually give you a better chance of success.

At the very least, you want to know that an agency has experience in your industry and understands it well enough to know it will work for your business. When it comes to digital marketing, you’re paying for results, not for someone else to be learning the ropes. You understand your business and your industry; don’t be afraid to push an agency and see if they do as well.

Are There Any Limits?

Some agencies base their fees on the number of keywords or campaigns they will manage, meaning you need to pay a higher fee to receive more management. This may work for you (although we believe it to be too restrictive), but it always pays to check if the service you are paying for is limited in any way.

How Long Is The Contract?

Digital marketing takes time to deliver results (especially for services such as SEO) and contract lengths can vary as a result, with 6-12 months being the most common. The most important thing to look out for though is not the length of the contract but how easy or hard it is to get out of it.

A tell-tale sign of a dodgy agency is if they impose punitive terms (such as having to pay 3 months’ fees) for leaving a contract early. If you’re unhappy with a service, you should be free to leave and go elsewhere. In our view, any contract that requires more than 30 days notice to break is excessive and usually indicates that an agency cares more about your money than your success.

Understanding the Services You'll Be Paying For

Of course, these are all just general questions and things to keep in mind when you’re considering agencies. Once you’ve narrowed down your selection and are starting to seriously consider some different options, you’ll need to dig into the specifics of the services they’re offering.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

Search Engine Optimisation is a discipline that focuses on improving a website’s ranking/position on search engine results pages (SERPs). SEO typically involves using content to satisfy Google’s search algorithm and propel your website to the top of the search rankings.

As with many digital marketing disciplines, SEO can seem confusing if you aren’t well-versed in how it works but there are a few questions you can ask any agency that will give you an idea of what their SEO offering is like.

Do you cater your campaigns to the individual?

Some agencies will sell SEO as a package service that scales with your budget – the more you pay, the more features you get. However, SEO is most-effective when it does not use a cookie-cutter approach.

Where possible, look for an agency that puts together a package FOR YOU and YOUR situation based on their analysis of your website and the goals you want to achieve via your campaign. This will mean you not only have more room to move as far as what can and cannot be done for you, but it also means your campaign has a much better chance of succeeding.

How many other clients do you have?

SEO is fairly time and labour-intensive, and if an agency has too many clients on the books, your SEO probably won’t get the attention it needs to truly succeed. At the end of the day, you don’t want to be an afterthought that an agency is just using to pay their bills – don’t be afraid to push them to ensure that you’ll be properly looked after.

How much experience does my SEO manager have?

Look for an SEO manager who has at least three years of experience. SEO is constantly changing due to Google algorithm updates and technological improvements, so the experience is crucial when choosing who to go with. Search your potential SEO manager on LinkedIn for a better understanding of their experience and capabilities. 

How are keywords selected?

We have seen many agencies that “guarantee” page 1 rankings in 90 days. To achieve this they target low to no volume keywords. If its a brand new site this may be best strategy. The point here is not that this is done, rather make sure you are aware of it & the reason why low to no volume keywords are selected.

Pay Per Click (Google Ads)

Google had made Google ads very easy to use. It’s also very easy to use badly. We have taken over self-managed accounts, with up to 70% of the budget being wasted due lack of knowledge of how the platform works. It is worth paying the management fee to the right agency that can build the strategy and manage the account well. in addition to all the above, some Google ads-specific questions include:

Is the agency Certified?

Being a certified Google Partner shows that the agency is actively managing a number of accounts, is meeting a minimum amount of ad spend set by Google, and that these clients under management also have an optimisation score of 70% or more (i.e. are being run in a manner that Googles believes to be best practice).

Additionally, 50% of the Ads strategists/managers in the agency must be Google Ads Certified, with at least 1 certification per platform e.g. if the agency runs ads on all 4 platforms (search, Display, video and shopping) as part of the Google Ads services, they would need to be certified on all 4 platforms.

How do they treat brand traffic?

Brand traffic i.e. users searching your brand, is an easy way for a shady agency to make a report look great. Ideally, brand traffic should be managed and reported separately.

How much experience do they have with Display, Shopping and Video?

In our experience, most agencies only focus on search and display for remarketing. This is fine if that’s all you want to do, but there is a lot more to Google ads and a lot more opportunities available from a more experienced agency.

Do they connect Google ads to Google Analytics?

If they don’t, don’t engage them.

Facebook ads

Facebook is an incredibly powerful medium for generating brand awareness leads and sales. Despite Google being Intent-based marketing and Facebook more interruption marketing, we find Facebook often has a lower cost per lead.

What is the creative process, and what are the limits?

Facebook is also a content-heavy platform. Done well; it can require a lot of ad copy and graphic design work. Questions to ask include:

  • How much creative or graphic design work is included?

  • How do they test creativite?

  • How often is creative updated?

How do they report?

Facebook Data can be unreliable since the IOS14 update. How do they manage campaigns and reporting in this new environment?

How do they analyse organic posts Vs paid traffic (ads)?

How Much Will This Cost?

Once you’ve covered your bases and gotten all of the information that you can, there’s only one question left: how much does it cost? The answer will depend on several factors, including an agency’s experience, what services they’re offering and where they’re located.

It also depends on what you decide to go with – it’s possible only to use one or two of an agency’s services, but if you want the full package then you’ll have to pay the price. Specialist SEO agencies can charge anywhere from $1.4k-10k per month, while most PPC/Facebook agencies work on a percentage of the total budget they’ll be managing, usually with a minimum management fee.

There will always be some agencies out there that charge a rock-bottom fee, but keep in mind that they’re likely only to give you the bare minimum of service. At the end of the day, transparency is one of the most important things: as long as an agency is an upfront about what they’re charging and what you get for that fee, it’s a good sign that you’re dealing with someone reputable.

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