Need to hire an outside agency? Some of my clients choose to hire another agency for specialized expertise… or to solve the ‘shoemaker’s kids’ problem.
Be careful—hiring the wrong agency will cost you time, money, and lost opportunities.
It’s especially risky when you aren’t an expert in what they’re selling. As one agency owner noted: “They all seem to say the same things.” She wondered what questions might cut through the fog.
If you need another agency’s expertise, here are my tips to help you make a better agency-hiring decision, based on my experience working with hundreds of agencies.
Agency services = a ‘Credence Good’
Professional services are subjective—frequently, you don’t know you got bad advice ’til it’s too late. For instance, you won’t know if a tax attorney’s advice was good ’til you survive an audit.
The technical term? Professional services are a “credence good.”
Marketing and creative services tend to be especially subjective within professional services, since you won’t see the deliverables ’til you’ve invested time and money, and there’s a lot of wiggle room in defining what’s a “good” deliverable compared to something like legal or tax advice.
Everyone has their own opinion about design and marketing… whereas you’re less likely to have a strong “DIY” opinion about your financial planner’s asset allocation recommendations. For instance, is a particular logo “good”? And even if you’re not a developer, you’ll have opinions about a development project’s UX/UI.
Marketing is ultimately about getting results—but those results come after the deliverables. (There are performance-based marketing options, but those aren’t available or a fit in every situation.)
All that said, there are concrete things you can do to improve your chances of hiring the right agency for you. Let’s review!
14 tips to hire the right agency for you
My advice below is based on my buying marketing, creative, and development services—and in previously providing them as an agency person. As a consultant, I’ve seen inside hundreds of agencies.
NOTE: This advice overlaps hiring a whitelabel partner, but I’ve tailored it to focus on hiring another agency to serve you and your agency.
1) Start by seeking referrals from people you trust.
Your trusted connections have a strong incentive to give you good recommendations. Generally, they aren’t going to burn the relationship by sending you to someone who’s bad.
For instance, a friend asked for an agency recommendation in Houston. I pointed her to a friend in Houston; I trust my Houston friend to make a good agency recommendation.
2) Self-assess what you need, but be open to pushback.
Self-awareness helps you avoid wasting time on poor-fit matches, but being open to pushback helps you avoid blind spots.
For instance, a prospect recently described a situation as an HR problem. I pushed back gently—it was definitely an HR symptom, but the root cause(s) likely go beyond HR. He acknowledged the possibility, which was a good sign for me.
3) Decide if you want a specialist or generalist.
I’m a fan of specialists—they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For instance, Hinge Marketing specializes in marketing for professional services firms. But sometimes you want an entirely new perspective from a non-specialist.
Either way, make an initial decision about this sooner rather than later—you’ll otherwise waste time later.
4) Share your restrictions early.
Ideally, agencies publish budget minimums so that prospects don’t think it’s a game of “how much money do you have?” But regardless, it’s worth disclosing your budget target—including, perhaps, a tiered approach.
As you’ve likely seen in your own agency’s work, more budget lets you accomplish more… but there’s also a minimum point below which you can’t confidently help someone.
Given the nuance involved, does the agency walk through the pros and cons of the different options—or do they leave you wondering?
5) Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many options.
When I recently hired a financial planner, I knew I wanted a fee-only Certified Financial Planner (CFP), because they were required to act as a fiduciary (and there’d be transparency on their fees).
I found a network of fee-only planners specializing in Gen X and Gen Y clients, which seemed like a good match. I skimmed 20-30 options, and started quickly narrowing the list. Once I got to about eight options, I reviewed websites to understand process and pricing. I narrowed it to 4-5 and signed up for their email newsletters.
After sleeping on it, I narrowed it to three finalists, and I emailed each of them about my situation and goals (and I named the others I’d contacted). One said she wasn’t a fit, so I did exploratory calls with the two finalists. One was clearly a better fit, and I signed up with him—and he’s been great.
6) Look for ways to manage risk.
Doing a Paid Discovery engagement is a good win/win option—they get more info and you can decide if you want to give them more money.
This is why it’s important that Paid Discovery deliverables be “portable”—the prospect should feel like they have the option to leave with something, and the agency should feel confident they’ll make the new client stay for more.
7) Does their strategy-development process make sense?
In my work, I do significant data-gathering and analysis before making strategy recommendations. (This is especially true in one-time Agency Roadmap projects. I adjust in Executive Coaching, where my goal is to optimize between analysis and “let’s go!”)
This is part of understanding each client’s Values, Goals, and Resources (VGR). If someone has a tiny budget, I’ll do a streamlined intake before a brief (yet expensive) consulting call, after managing expectations about the tradeoffs.
What about examples of the agency’s work? I’d definitely ask the agency for relevant past examples—but preferably in the form of case studies (where they lay out the problem, how they approached solving it, and what happened as a result).
Context is important. A lot of people want to see visually-oriented “portfolio” examples; those are helpful for design projects, but otherwise they lack context on the agency’s process, the client’s constraints, and other factors to help you evaluate relevance to your situation. Rather than historic deliverables, the agency’s process is what’s relevant to your decision process.
8) Ask about their approach to client service.
I’ve published an article about my boutique approach. Things like auto-tagging client emails in Gmail helps me stay on top of things.
In contrast, I’ve worked with service providers who did good work but who were unreliable. (Sometimes it’s worth it; other times, it’s not.)
What systems do they use? What’s their “service level agreement” (SLA) for response time?
9) Ask for examples of their putting clients’ interests first.
This might include things like downselling (see my example about the plastic vs. metal trowel) or saying “no” to a prospect, or firing a client.
In my case, I think of client relationships as if I were a fiduciary (obligated to put clients’ interests first). This is required for a lawyer or CFP but unusual for a consultant or an agency.
10) Ask for examples of their handling disputes with clients.
Something will inevitably go wrong. Will they “fight fair”? Are you seeing flexibility (good) or black-and-white thinking (bad)?
This includes how they handle scope creep; for instance, I recognize I like more revisions, so I budget for that up front when I pay for design work.
11) How soon can they start?
Someone who can start tomorrow is probably desperate… and also unrealistic. Things take time.
But you also don’t want to wait forever. Ask what they need to get started, so you can evaluate what you’d need to gather.
12) Do they seem picky… or desperate?
Ask about their process for assessing if a prospective client is a fit. Are they vetting you, too?
Ask why they think you and they are a match (to see if you agree with their assessment).
And again—if they say they can start tomorrow, be cautious.
13) Think critically about their proposal.
What’s the deliverable? How do they talk about potential results? How do they handle uncertainty?
Do they seem to have thought this through? Have they invested enough time to understand your needs?
Are you clear on pricing? What does the potential ROI seem to be?
14) Take time to reflect on your gut feeling.
Don’t take forever, but don’t rush to sign a contract because you want to get this over with. If it feels like a mismatch, don’t keep going out of momentum.
If you’re still not sure, get advice from people you trust… but be sure to evaluate their advice in the context of your unique criteria.
Hiring the right agency to help your agency
Speaking of key criteria, some of the 14 are more important than others. All things considered, I’d prioritize trust, pickiness, and client service process.
My favorite career advice is, “Never accept a job offer after a single interview.” Why? Even if you’re amazing, the company wasn’t being picky about ensuring you’re the right fit.
Likewise—is the other agency carefully assessing if there’s a mutual fit, or are they rushing to get your money? Good luck!
Question: How does this advice impact how you’ll approach hiring another agency… and how you sell your own services?