Almost every company, at every stage, can benefit from having a strong brand presence. From courting new talent to outshining competition to attracting new consumers, a strong brand is essential for success. And whether you're a growing startup or a household name, one of the most meaningful ways to build your brand is through a strong marketing presence.
So, how do you go about finding the best digital marketing agency for your company? It is a big question that can feel daunting to consider and even more daunting to answer.
But the good news is that by asking the right questions, doing your research, and following a few easy steps, you will be closer than ever to getting your marketing and digital strategy exactly where you want it and learn all about hiring a marketing firm.
Before deciding whether or not to hire a digital marketing agency, it is good to understand exactly what they do. (That way, you know what you should and should not expect from them.)
Of course, the industry has variations to this answer, depending on your needs and the agency. But for the most part, you can expect a group of seasoned marketing professionals working on a retainer basis to help set your strategy and execute your creative goals.
Their services can range from high level to tactical and include strategy and market research, social media marketing, content marketing, web design, Google Ads, SEO optimization, Facebook advertising, and much more. Agencies can also help integrate emerging digital marketing trends like AR and VR into your marketing approach while always targeting specific audiences and industries.
The first question—should you go in-house, or should you hire an agency?—is potentially the hardest and most critical.
It can be tempting to want to settle everything in-house and not pay the extra money (and, frankly, time) to an outside agency. We have all heard the negative reviews and stories. Being on the outside, agencies might not understand your company's brand or how you work. They might overpromise on their capabilities, struggle to communicate with you and your team or overcharge for hours, disputing fees and contracts. Additionally, if they work with you for a while, agencies might lose their outsider advantage and fail to propose new and creative ideas.
Still, the benefits of the right agency partner can far outweigh the potential risks. If you are looking for expertise and high quality of work and are willing and able to pay for the added prices, hiring an agency might be right for you.
Generally speaking, there are three primary reasons for engaging an outside marketing agency.
First, agencies have capabilities that your in-house teams do not have because of various factors, like size, scale, and funding, among others. In this case, agencies can fill gaps in skill sets and talent, adding resources, brainpower, industry know-how, and most of all, creative thinking.
Second, companies, especially larger ones, might have full in-house teams, but these teams might be stretched too thin. These in-house marketing departments are most likely already at capacity and have tons of internal and external pulls on their time, making it difficult to pivot to new initiatives. In these instances, in-house teams might need supplemental support to reach their objectives, so they will hire outside agencies to work alongside their employees to get the work done.
And lastly, some companies are looking for new agencies to replace their old ones because they struggled to find the right partner the first time around. Though this is an unfortunate reason, it is a good reminder that finding the right partner from the outset is essential.
Once you have decided that you want to engage an outside agency, you need to find the best marketing firm for your needs. The process can feel mystifying. But if you follow the below steps, you will be well-positioned for success. Whether you are looking for a digital marketing agency, social media marketing agency, content marketing agency, or general marketing agency, you will be rewarded if you put in the work.
1. Know your brand.
It might seem counterintuitive since you would not be engaging a marketing firm if you did not have a strong brand to share. But the reality remains: you and your team must know your brand.
Prospective agencies will probably ask a series of questions that might seem esoteric on their face (for instance, "if you're brand were an animal, would it be?") but are extremely important. These sometimes-offbeat exercises help you understand your brand's DNA—what it stands for and who it is trying to reach. Think: values, perception, and audience. You need to know these things first so that when you hire an agency, you can evaluate how well they know and understand them, too.
Even more, all good agency relationships are partnerships. You need to work together with any agency you hire, and to make sure they understand your brand, you need to understand it first. Furthermore, knowing your brand will help you set more precise goals with your agency of choice, helping you be more explicit with your needs and aspirations, and holding everyone accountable in the process.
2. National or international?
Now, once you have answered the high-level questions, it is time to dig into specifics. Start by determining if you want to go national or international and know there are pros and cons to both.
Are you looking for in-person meetings where you can hash out all the details of your digital marketing plan over coffee? Then national might be right for you. On the other hand, if you are more interested in a big name with ample resources and global reach, then international might be your best option.
Part of this decision includes understanding the differences between in-shore, off-shore, and near-shore marketing agencies. In-shore means hiring an agency from your same country to work with you, whereas off-shore means outsourcing the work to an agency in an entirely different area of the world. Lastly, near-shore means working with a team in a foreign country but in a similar time zone. The benefits of each include a mix of time, money, and convenience, and which one you choose depends mostly on your goals and budget.
3. Start your research.
Once you have chosen national or international, start your research. Be thorough. Be patient. And most of all, work with all the information you have available.
Check the online presence of every client that you are considering. Click through their websites, dig into their listed services and past work, and pay attention to how they describe themselves. If you are looking specifically for mobile marketing, make sure that skill is listed high on their "About Us" page. If you are looking for a new web design, try to determine their approach to structuring these engagements for optimum success.
Next, check out their social media pages for the most up-to-date information. Go to Facebook or Instagram and look up their recent news. Pay attention to what they share on LinkedIn because it will most likely work from previous engagements.
You can even scroll through the LinkedIn profiles of their top and up-and-coming talent. Ask if these seem like people you want to work with daily to grow your brand. Do you respect and admire the way that they outline their approach? Do you think that their point-of-view would benefit your brand and marketing goals? Do their work examples feel relevant to your needs?
Try to answer these questions. And remember that if you do your research now, it will only help you later.
4. Ask for a portfolio of previous clients.
Even so, there is only so much an online presence can tell you. Supplement your research by asking for additional information from the agencies directly.
If you want more insight into their work in your industry, request some sample case studies. If you wish to borrow learnings from other sectors to enhance your efforts, ask about their breadth of experience.
At the very least, be sure to request their portfolio of previous clients. It will give you more information on their work than what is publicly available. Apply the same rigorous analysis that you did with your research. And recognize that their work examples can still be impressive without being right for you. Similarly, do not find yourself getting too swayed, but big, flashy campaigns for legacy brands if that is not what you need.
You are not necessarily looking to hire the best marketing firm in the world. You are looking to hire the best marketing firm for you.
5. Next up, check their reviews.
This suggestion is the only one that comes with a caveat. As many know, reviews and website testimonials are not always the most reliable. They can be intentionally vague or written by a source close to the client.
Still, when taken with a grain of salt, reviews and testimonials can provide insight into how other clients have enjoyed working with the firm—from the highs to the lows to everything in between.
Consider, too, looking up third-party reviewer sites to see how people have described working with the agency in the past, keeping in mind that a pattern of similar complaints is a giant red flag. Sure, it is customary to have one or two dissatisfied customers—that is the nature of being in any client-facing industry. But multiple negative reviews, commenting on the same issues, should give you pause.
6. Set a budget. (And stick to it.)
As with all vendor relationships, you can expect to negotiate the fees and contract with your future agency. And as with all negotiations, it can be hard to remember your hard line once you sit through a series of lengthy interviews and finally find the perfect partner.
To limit making mistakes in the moment, plan ahead. Set your budget, anticipate some push back, and stick to your line. You will be glad you did later.
7. Get in touch
With all your research and pre-work behind you, it is time to get in touch with your list of top agencies.
If you have a personal connection to the firm—say, you know someone who worked there, or a former client gave you their name—don't forget to use it. A lot of agencies operate mostly by word of mouth and referrals.
If you do not have a connection to the firm, though, do not sweat it. Most agencies have constant inbound interest and are used to cold emails. To reach them, sending a simple email will do. Start by sharing a bit about your company—what you do and need—and why you are coming to them. If you are struggling to boil down the why try to frame it instead as "why now?" Undoubtedly, something has prompted you to bring on an outside marketing agency, especially if you have not previously. So, share that reasoning with them. Tell them why now so they have a better understanding of your brand story and evolution.
8. Narrow down your options—and decide.
Once you receive your replies, begin sifting through their messages and schedule time with their teams. You might want to pay attention to response time and demonstrated enthusiasm, but do not write anyone off if you are excited just yet.
Give them a chance to show you their best ideas. Meet with as many companies as you would like without going overboard. Think of your approach as a strategic hiring process, not too dissimilar to your regular employee hiring methods. You could interview candidates—indeed, agencies—forever, but eventually, you need to act to fill your need.
Yes, ask them for specifics, test your chemistry, and consider how they will approach working with you. But when it comes time to make a decision, be decisive.
And if it turns out that some do not want to meet with you, do not get discouraged. Competition for agencies can be fierce—and if you are a startup or a small company, they may assume you do not have the finances to compete. They might charge a hefty retainer or specialize in big, established firms. Or they might be swamped. It is impossible to know the exact reason but know that all of these circumstances factor in their responses, so do not take it to heart.
Even though hiring an agency can be hugely beneficial, there are times when it doesn't make sense. Think back to your brand needs and ask yourself if a freelancer can feasibly accomplish them. If so, that is almost always the cheaper—and potentially easier—route to take.
Similarly, suppose your goals are long-term and require significant in-office work, with a deep understanding of your organization (and potentially, company politics). In that case, it might make sense to hire in-house. Agencies cannot always replicate the experience of having someone work with you, every day, on-site.
We know it can be daunting to choose your digital marketing strategy. But when it comes down to it, the right decision is a mix of timing, budget, and immediate to long-term needs. If you decide that you want to move forward with an agency, we hope the steps and advice outlined above make it a little easier to get there—and get started. You can start by checking out the curated marketplace at Rocketplace. With a precision matching algorithm and rapid responses, you can have a shortlist of candidates tailored to your specific needs faster than ever before.