Choosing the right digital marketing agency can be challenging, but choosing well is of utmost importance to any growing business. The right client-agency partnership can yield tremendous levels of growth, often kicking a business up a gear and allowing for further expansion in many different areas.

Impression staff come from a range of professional backgrounds, both agency and client side.

Here, drawing on that experience, we will try to guide you through the process of selecting an agency, highlighting every area of consideration and enabling you to select the best partner for you. Spoiler alert: it’s not always us.

This is not a short snappy blog that is going to let you in on the secret of the one question you should ask a digital agency or a 200 word listicle that you can read in a couple of minutes. It is designed to be a thorough guide to a detailed process which, if followed, should help you choose the best digital agency for your company.

There are 4 broad stages in the process of choosing an agency:

  • Research
  • Initial Contact
  • Pitch/Proposal
  • Decision

We will break down each stage so that you know what to look for, what to ask and what to base your decision on.

Research

The first stage is essentially list building. You need to compile a list of agencies that you are interested in working with. Think of agencies that you have come across at industry events, those that have picked up awards at reputable ceremonies (The European Search Awards, The Drum Recommended Agency Awards, The UK Search Awards to name a few) and refer to industry directories such as The Digital Agency Network and The Drum Recommends.

Another great place to conduct your search is, unsurprisingly, Google. You can learn a lot about a digital marketing agency by looking at how they digitally market themselves. Particularly when looking for an SEO partner, pay attention to agencies who rank well for terms such as “SEO Agency” and location-based variants such as “SEO Agency UK” or “SEO Agency Nottingham.” These kind of terms are, arguably, the most competitive on the web, given that SEO experts are all trying to optimise their own sites to rank in these positions.

At this point, you’ll have your long list. Spend 10 to 15 minutes on the website of each agency. It’s not necessary to scour each site with a fine-toothcomb here, but you can get a feel for agencies based on how they present themselves, who they work with and what they like to talk about.

Service areas should be front of your mind at this point. For example, if you are an e-commerce brand looking for PPC support, Google Shopping will be very important to you. If Google Shopping copy isn’t relatively prominent on site, if they aren’t blogging about it, it’s probably not a big priority for the agency and it might not be worth transferring them to your short list.

It can also be helpful, if you have time, to research some of the key members of the team. Most sites will have an “About Us” page introducing their key staffers to you. If, for example, you’re interested in PPC, find their head of PPC and do a quick search to see what you can find out about them. It’s probably a good sign if they have written on some interesting topics or talked at high profile conferences.

At this point, it’s time to outreach, which brings us to the next stage.

Initial Contact

Agency websites are lead generation sites. We would recommend filling in the contact form on an agency’s site, explaining who you are, what you are looking for and what you want the agency to do.

It can also be helpful to include a very rough budget at this point if you have one in mind, but this is at your discretion.

Once this is submitted, you should expect at least a response of some sort within 24 hours, although many agencies aim to respond much quicker. Responsiveness is a key point to measure agencies against. Once you commence work, you will certainly want your agency to respond quickly, so use this as an initial guide as to an agency’s level of organisation.

You will need to trim your list down at this stage. Use these initial conversations to quiz the agency on their experience, their approach and their team. Try to focus on the agency’s skills within the various channels, rather than their experience in any given market. Whilst it can help if an agency has experience in your market, it shouldn’t be a determining factor. You are the expert in your market, and the agency is the expert in theirs. By working together in a collaborative process, you should be able to get the most out of everyone’s expertise. Focus on the agency’s track record and approach to the channels that you are interested in.

This is also a good stage to find out about the number of clients the agency currently works with. Find out how the agency manages their staff’s time and workload. There isn’t a golden number of how many clients an individual within an agency should work on, but make sure that they are transparent and thorough with their time tracking so that you are never at risk of being underserviced.

Last, but certainly not least, you need to address the issue of price. An agency shouldn’t need to give you a definitive price here, but they should be able to discuss their general fee structure, often based on their day rate or media spend management fees.

As the client, you don’t need to have a set budget in mind either, but at this stage, it will be quite clear if an agency is vastly out of your budget or is coming in significantly under the fees that you had in mind. If an agency does seem considerably cheaper than expected, drill into this further. Cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean lower quality, but it’s worth investigating why their fees are low. Sometimes it can just mean a smaller team, so find out who they have working for them and what their experience is.

Every agency has its fee structure, somewhat based on the headcount of said agency, and this affects an agencies ability to drive value for a client. We certainly approach strategies from a point of view of having to drive meaningful value for our clients. This means that any activity we do must provide strong returns, absorbing our management fee comfortably within those returns. Fees are one of the most common reasons for an agency not being a good fit for a client, which is absolutely fine. Any partnership between client and agency has to work for both parties; if an agency is going to struggle to provide meaningful value based on their fees, the partnership is unlikely to work for anyone.

Following these discussions, you will need to pick your top 3 to 4 agencies who you will invite to pitch. We wouldn’t recommend inviting more than 4 agencies at this stage, as the pitches will likely be lengthy and there is a lot to take in.

The Pitch

This is where you’re going to learn the most about the agencies.

They should be presenting their bespoke approach to digital marketing for your business specifically, based, ideally, on data from your analytics and/or your ads accounts and on your specific situation. Sometimes this isn’t possible, in the case of a new site or no previous PPC activity, but agencies should still be providing data from tools like SEMrush or Ahrefs here to support their ideas. Top marks here for any agency that discusses things like revenue, margins, average order/contract value and conversion rates, as this is a sign that they are truly putting together a bespoke approach that is tailored to you and what your business needs.

The proposal can be delivered in the form of a document, but we would recommend asking agencies to pitch in person. It makes for a more dynamic process, allowing ideas to be explored and also allowing you to get a better feel for the people you will potentially be working very closely with. 

During the pitch, it is very important that the individual who will deal most closely with the agency is present. Whether this is a dedicated digital specialist or general Marketing Manager/Head of Marketing, this individual has to be bought into the agency that you eventually start working with, to give the partnership the best chance of succeeding.

The pitch is the agency’s best chance to impress you with their knowledge, so there should be quite a lot of technical details touched upon, analysing shortcomings with your current strategy or explaining their particular approaches to certain areas and the reasons for those. Engage with the team here, drilling into points that they make, asking them to expand or explain further. This is a good way to improve your understanding of the channels, and will also catch out any aspect of an “off the shelf” approach.

Towards the end, the agency should present their final quote for the work. This should now be bespoke to you and the approach needed to make your business a digital success, taking into account the kind of revenue/lead gen targets that are appropriate for your business with the aim of delivering a worthwhile Return On Investment (ROI) over a period of time.

When it comes to the quoted price, you are well within your right to ask for a better price or some kind of discount. We, as an agency, avoid bartering or discounting our quotes. We take time evaluating the opportunity and determining the amount of resource we need in order to capitalise on that opportunity for our clients. The quote is just the amount of resource we think we need to be able to do that.

Agencies are also likely to discuss contract lengths at this stage. Contract agreements vary from rolling month-to-month to 12 month terms and beyond. You will know the agreement terms which sit best with your business but don’t be scared off by a long term contract. Digital marketing is a complex, long term strategy and agencies are often able to do their best work when there is a degree of security in terms of time frames.

The Decision

Following the pitches, once you have discussed all options with your internal team, it’s likely further questions have popped up that need answering. The agencies should be more than happy to have further discussions and try and answer any further queries you might have. There will be a lot of factors up for consideration here; price, approach, size, expertise, experience. Each stage that I have outlined above should have allowed you to evaluate each agency against these criteria.

If the process has worked, one agency will emerge as your partner of choice. It’s time to give them the good news. It’s also very much recommended that you communicate your decision to the agencies who weren’t successful. Feedback for agencies at this stage is rarer than it probably should be, but it is very helpful in allowing us all as an industry to progress.

The work, clearly, does not end here. How to get the most out of this relationship is a whole other blog post in its own right, but hopefully, by following these steps, you can set that relationship off in the best possible position and start the journey towards digital success for your business.

Adam Bly

Business Developement

Working with new and existing clients to figure out their best approach to digital marketing, through SEO, PPC and Web Development best practices. Swooning over the Arctic Monkeys at all other times.

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