Ask The Expert: How To Assess The Health Of Strategic Agency Partners

Like any relationship, having a healthy agency partnership can make a huge difference in results, communication and collaboration. Before you even contact a strategic agency, do your homework to assess how healthy they would be for your business.

To answer this, we reached out to Brian Kessman, President and Principal Consultant of Lodestar, to ask him what marketers should be looking for when they evaluate a potential strategic agency partner. Lodestar has an insiders perspective since they work with agencies to modernize their operating models and best practices, ensuring they can deliver on the needs of today’s marketers. We’re excited to share this interview with you. Let’s get started!

Q1. From your perspective, why is it difficult for brand marketers to find healthy and helpful agency partners?

Brand marketers are seeking strategic agency partners that can do it all:

  • Integrate new emerging trends, technology and data opportunities into their marketing strategies
  • Effectively manage project-based relationships
  • Scale to handle an increase in volume of work without compromising quality
  • Create a transparent and collaborative workflow between the agency and a brand’s own in-house marketing team
  • Prioritize finding new ways to deliver increasing value to their clients

For many agencies, satisfying all these requirements is a tall order. Industry research like Agency Spotter’s 2017 Agency Trends Report and others from RSW/US and SoDA confirm that only a subset of agencies have taken steps to become the partner these marketers are looking for. However, if they know what signals to look for and the right questions to ask, marketers can improve their chances of partnering with the right agency.

Q2. What signals should marketers look for when shortlisting a strategic agency for evaluation?

Look for three things:

  1. Specialization over generalization
    Look for a partner who has been specializing in your space or a particular service area for several years. These agencies have identified what they’re best at and who their ideal “right-fit” clients are — they’re not trying to be everything to everyone. They’ve bet their business on a chosen area of focus. They’ve invested in becoming an expert in your space and designing service models to meet your expectations. You’ll benefit from their depth of knowledge and experience.
  2. Pricing model and scoping techniques
    Look for the strategic agencies who use value-based pricing rather than selling hours. This approach says, “We’re a true partner in helping you increase revenue or reduce costs, and we’re confident our work will produce these measurable results.” It says, “We are a client-centric agency.”
  3. Team structure
    Seek out partners with fixed cross-functional teams. Some agencies will say they’re “integrated,” but unless they’re working as fixed cross-functional teams, they’re not. Look for a team structure that includes a group of team members each representing different functional expertise (i.e., strategy + experience design + technology + creative/content + media) all working toward a shared goal: your success. “Fixed” means no swapping of team members, which results in greater efficiency and a stronger sense of shared responsibility and professional excellence throughout the team.
    Partners that use this fixed team structure will be more productive, have less communication and meeting overhead, and can simplify collaboration with your team. The biggest benefit, however, will be having multiple specialists attacking your goals from different angles as a single unit, from concept through to execution. These are the agencies who will be able to truly integrate emerging trends, technology and data into your marketing strategies.

Q3. What should marketers look for when evaluating an agency’s quality of work?

Quality comes from caring, but I mean caring about people as much as caring about work.

The agencies with an edge are those that proactively invest in their employees. Ask about their programs for new employee onboarding, professional development, internal knowledge sharing and education, and mentoring. Agencies with these programs in place will produce teams that are highly prepared, engaged and skilled.

Also, ask if there’s a formal “quality assurance” process for all work before it goes out the door. These programs or process steps help to eliminate the need for any time-consuming rework and ultimately result in faster delivery.

Q4. What should marketers look for when evaluating an agency’s ability to handle a larger volume of work suddenly?

Marketers should ask about the maturity of an agency’s practices to assess how quickly they can scale, if needed.

Think of agency operations in light of the following five areas:

  1. Service strategy and value delivery
    The agency should be able to offer different standardized service models to match your precise needs. Agencies that specialize in a particular space or service area — resulting in client-centric services — are your best bet.
  2. Quality and speed of delivery
    In addition to what I’ve already shared about working as fixed cross-functional teams, caring about their people, and having a formal quality assurance program, your ideal agency partner should have standardized their process, tools, and templates. And, ideally, those items are built into a workflow automation or collaboration tool. This will significantly reduce delivery time and ensure consistent quality of work.
  3. Accountability and people management
    The agency should be able to provide you with the following, typically included as part of the new-employee onboarding program I mentioned earlier:
    • An organizational accountability chart
    • A documented team structure
    • A skills matrix for each role to give you insight into the core competencies they expect from junior, mid- and senior-level team members
    • Details on their internal escalation path for issue resolution
    • Details on how each discipline will add unique business value to your relationship
  4. Client satisfaction
    The agency should have integrated a client satisfaction program into their day-to-day processes. For example, they may offer incremental reviews of their work-in-progress on a routine basis, regardless of how far along they are with their deliverables. Reviewing work every two weeks is most common. This frequency provides a chance to discuss new realizations, and to then make changes that would influence the next two weeks of work. It affords you the flexibility to change project direction as needed and with minimal setbacks or costs for rework.
    Periodic NPS surveys are fine, but honest conversations and tighter teamwork is better.
  5. Measurement and innovation
    If you want an agency that is going to help you break barriers, then look for those that offer innovation programs with opportunities for clients to participate. The program should include a focus on experimental work for testing out in the wild. These programs aren’t for everyone, though. You’ll need to be willing to take some risks by trying new things, but that’s how you’ll learn. This approach will create a state of perpetual improvement for your marketing and ensure you’re on top of emerging trends and technology within your target market.

Q5. With this new knowledge, what would you advise marketers to do next?

Keep in mind that an agency partner with all of the above in place is ideal. Many partners will deliver high value and impact to your business without meeting every expectation outlined above. However, the ones that get close will be a stronger partner.

Consider three next steps:

  1. Look at your current portfolio of strategic agency partners. List all partners in order of who provides the greatest impact and value to your marketing goals.
  2. Consider replacing the partners on the bottom half of your list.
  3. When searching for new partners, use the tips above to rank your options.

Finding Your Next Agency

With these insights from Brian, you are ready to evaluate your next strategic agency partner. To find agencies who meet Brian’s assessment of healthy agencies, check out our list of top advertising agencies, top marketing agencies, and top digital agencies. These list are specifically curated to showcase the best and brightest agencies in their service, ranking based on credentials, client feed and project work.

Related articles:

Daniel Kim