How Not to Choose a Marketing Partner


The following are five ineffective criteria often used when making an agency choice. While none of these are reasons to blacklist an agency (or even to scratch it from your shortlist), these examples should serve as guidelines keep you from making uninvestigated decisions.

Too many people looking for agencies make these mistakes because they’re either under-informed, overwhelmed, or lazy. Although we truly hope it’s not the latter, we’re glad you’re here.

That said, never hire an agency partner just because…

how not to choose an agency agencyspotter

1. …you have worked with them in the past

Especially because the entire marketing industry is shifting away from the long-term, AOR-based model to one that is project based. Marketers are finding it more sensible to contract based on individual efforts rather than on holistic ones because of agency specialization. Since 1997, average AOR duration has fallen from 5.3 years to less than 3. In 2015, project based fees surpassed retainer fees as the most dollars spent on marketing as a whole. Put simply, smart companies are funneling different kinds of work to different kinds of agencies.

This makes sense. As different types of marketing (branding, gaming) decline in efficacy and desirability, the demand for other kinds of marketing (content, inbound) grows. The products of this phenomenon are agencies with a laser focus on their strengths, ones that excel in using these strengths to build upon yours as a brand.

Though it is human nature to fall back on what feels comfortable (think of your favorite office chair), the habit comes with a downside (now think of the way that chair smells…) The same idea applies to partnerships: just because you’re familiar with an agency’s processes doesn’t mean choosing them is the best idea. Step out of your comfort zone and diversify based on what’s best for your company. Replace comfort as your marketing status quo with (purposeful!) discomfort and it will pay dividends.

2. …they have the coolest website

Google snaps back with five hundred million results in half a second when I ask it to help me build a website. The process is covered in most of the ways possible, meaning it is close to guaranteed that anyone can learn to build a website.

And there are some beautiful, free page-building platforms available to help you execute. Perhaps the most heavily and memorably marketed (hats off!) is Squarespace. The website “powers millions of websites across hundreds of industries for people just like you.” If people with my (Paul Weston’s) level of coding experience can build an attractive website in ten minutes as Square Space claims, imagine what people formally trained can accomplish. Wizardry!

Before getting carried away, however, ask yourself: are you even in the market for a website? If the answer to this question is no, beware. It’s easy for marketers – especially inexperienced ones – to forget they are shopping for something specific during an agency search. This fact, combined with potential agencies’ dazzling web presences, causes marketers to make decisions based on first impressions rather than on substance. If your answer to the above question (are you in the market for a website?) is yes, then, yes, it could even be a logical move to see which agency websites enchant you, and which do not.

It’s also important to take into account the fact that agencies’ coding/web teams are small – often just one person. The agencies themselves, however, are seldom as small. The vast majority of agency employee rosters are made up of non-coders, meaning they contribute very little if anything at all to the website-building process. Cool Website. Hire the coder? Yes. Hire the agency? Maybe.

3. …they have the first paid Google search result

Thinking about an agency marketing itself may feel like thinking about going to the same nightclub as your mom. Nevertheless, it happens – agencies market themselves, too, and they can be cunning at it. Just like other companies, some agencies bid for positions at the top of your search engine results pages (SERPs) using Google’s marketing service (the largest advertising network in the world), AdWords. Interestingly, however, as simple-centric as Google tends to be in its user experience, getting the company to actually display an ad on SERPs is surprisingly complex.

Rather than being directly correlated with the sum a company (or agency) pays, the prominence of a link on AdWords is based on a ‘betting’ algorithm. It takes three things into account in the ad ranking process: 1) dollar amount paid, 2) quality of key words and landing pages, and 3) number of links powered by Google on the website being advertised. What this means is that AdWords can be played like a game. But the best players aren’t necessarily the most skilled, or even less likely, the most relevant to a marketers’ needs. In reality, showing up first on users’ SERPs is simply evidence of a company’s ability to manipulate a system.

But manipulative skill is not necessarily a bad criterion to use when choosing a marketing partner, however negative the connotation of the the word manipulative may be. If your company’s ultimate objective is SEO or an increased web presence, choosing an agency that itself uses AdWords could be a smart move. Duh. Just make sure to explore other options that are NOT begging you to click on them via AdWords. By ranking agencies based on client reviews, portfolios, and past work, Agency Spotter helps you do that.
The takeaway: either learn to scroll or buy a bigger monitor.

4. …your CMO or CEO plays golf with an executive of theirs

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt frequently invited Allied-force leaders to golf at his favorite course, the Campobello Golf Club in New Brunswick, Canada, where he was the club’s highest scoring champion. Whether this honor was linked to the fact that the tiny island on which the club is located was home to only 400 residents at the time or that Roosevelt was truly a fierce player is still contested. Whatever the case, we know by now that the cliché that says many important deals are made on the golf course isn’t based on fiction. But when it comes to questions of modern marketing, is it the right approach?

The Harvard Business Review says no. In a 2016 study, the group analyzed the golfing habits of 350+ CEOs of S&P 1500 companies and found that companies led by avid golfers, on average, boast a lower average return on assets and even lower market capitalization. Executives that golf frequently “are associated with firms that have lower operating performance and firm value” than their counterparts, say researchers Lee Biggerstaff, David Cicero, and Andy Puckett, who also provide evidence that golfing correlates with some CEOs shirk[ing] their responsibilities.” That said, smart CMOs – hopefully yours included – base agency choices on more sound criteria than golf scores. If this isn’t the case and you find your CMO choosing chumps based on personal loyalty, it’s time to speak up.

In effect, one option is to take heed to the hundreds of articles on Google with titles like The Art of Doing Business on the Golf Course and Negotiating the 19th Hole. Another option, however, is to let golf remain a personal relationship builder and make agency choices to the sound of data being computed and case studies being presented rather than to that of songbirds chirping on the fairway.

5. …a company you admire uses them

Although it makes sense to imitate success in order to be successful, there are reasons to fight this urge.

First of all, it’s important to analyze the needs of your company versus the needs of the one you admire. At a glance, they can look the same – especially when operating within the same industry. We need more content marketing CMOs may clamor at once, and first instinct would be to immediately grab at the exact same, A+ rated agency. As stated, though, this is only first instinct. Companies have evolved beyond needing to rely purely on instinct: many are now complex, sensitive, and sentient creatures. Their needs are as nuanced as human personalities – probably because they are linked to them. Marketing partner choice should not only be based on hard and fast, tangible (and often one-size-fits-all) approaches, but on the intangible ones (e.g. communication styles and corporate culture) as well. A misstep on this front could result in a culture clash, costly inefficiencies, and lack of motivation on both ends. But just as the majority of the other four reasons do, this imitative approach comes with a qualifier… Agency Spotter is designed to find existing portfolios that inspire you in hopes of offering the right fit, but we are also designed to take you a step further and help you avoid overextending your budget, planning capabilities, and more by providing you with a 360 degree view of what you’re signing up for.

Another thing imitation leads to is more obvious: a lack of innovation.

Some of the most successful companies in the world have entire (and internal!) marketing departments dedicated to innovation, GE being one of them. Aware of the fact that constant technological innovation is the company’s competitive advantage, CMO Linda Boff and team are purposefully fostering the same kind of innovation standards on the marketing front, dedicating large parts of the company’s infrastructure to “utilizing the unique.” Smart companies know innovation is essential. Don’t stifle yours by gravitating towards the same agencies as your peers like a one-celled organism. Divide!

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Paul Weston

Paul Weston

A writer for Agency Spotter with a background in simplifying complex information, Paul is an alumnus of Vanderbilt University with a major in Human & Organizational Development.
Paul Weston