Every facet of marketing requires a specialized skill, and not everyone in an in-house organization may be an expert in a particular area. Or, maybe your organization has a fleet of marketers with just the niche skill set, but they don't have the bandwidth to get to everything on the checklist.

Whichever the case of your marketing organization, third-party help is often a good idea. But not everyone is worthy of a relationship with your business.

Here's what you need to know to make sure you filter out the riffraff and find an agency partner that actually jibes with your company and, most important, helps your bottom line.

1. Gain full transparency into your extra support

Full transparency about who will be assigned to your account and in what capacity should be established before you sign on the dotted line. You may work with an amazing leader in the company as you design the project strategy, but those people won't necessarily give your account much attention post-sale. So, knowing the people who will be doing the work is crucial.

2. What does the agency know about your company?

Just as you would gauge the quality of a job candidate in an interview by asking what she knows about your company, do the same with potential agency partners. If they've done their homework, by the time they present to you they'll know how your organization is structured, what you current marketing mix is, who is on your board of directors, what your brand voice is like, and how many visitors your website gets a month. (You get the gist.) The very best should be able to tell you things about your organization that even you don't know.

3. Consider the billing structure

As simple as this sounds, it's important to evaluate the potential agency's billing structure. Is it based on a pay-for-performance structure, a monthly invoicing system, or pay-up-front model? Ask for transparency into how you are charged and how the fees are determined. You don't want any hidden costs that come back and bite you later.

4. Gain insight into the internal culture and 'beerability'

An agency partner is an extension of your internal department, so you want to make sure that its company culture meshes with yours. If you are a straight-laced corporate machine looking to partner with a laid back, young, and hip agency, the partnership may not work out. Gorilla 76  suggests that the "beerability" of an agency is a critical metric for an agency partnership: Would you have a beer with them outside of work and enjoy it? Such soft characteristics are important, because you will be spending a lot of time together.

5. Make them prove their value

Ask, "Why should we select you over another?" Look for intelligent answers beyond the buzzwords. Good businesses are introspective and can point out their flaws while also elaborating on the real value they bring. Do they have a particular proprietary technology that no other agency has? Do they offer a service that no other agency does? Look for candid answers about their strengths and weaknesses.

6. Are they up for a challenge?

True success doesn't come in the form of sugarcoated communication. It comes by challenging another's stance. Don't be afraid to onboard an agency that is willing to provide constructive recommendations for your company. You are hiring an agency to become better, more agile, and profitable, right? So ask the question, "Name a time when you've had to challenge a client, and how did you go about doing it." The answer to the second part of the question will help you gauge their level of respect and tact, as well.

7. Is the proof in the pudding?

Does the potential content marketing agency have a killer blog and website copy? Does your creative agency have a beautiful but UX-friendly website? When an agency talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk, it is a red flag. Take a few hours as a team to research the agency's online presence, past work, and any other company materials so you can gauge that it actually knows what it's doing.

8. Ask about analytics not trophies

In the '90s, awards, trophies, and accolades were the sign of an agency's true value; now, it's all "in the numbers."

Client results and ROI are the true measure of success. Look for agencies that are able to prove past clients' success through metrics and can understand, analyze, and garner insight via pinpointed data. AdAge put it best, "Creative teams won't create without understanding the relationship between execution, engagement and return."

Ask the agency what exact metrics they use to gauge success. Is it mutually exclusive data, broken down by your in-house activity and results versus theirs? What types of listening and reporting tools do they use?

9. Ask for references

Dave Hile of Hile Creative said it best, "If you read enough agency websites in succession they all begin to sound the same: we're experienced … we'll deliver … we're creative … we put a premium on serving our clients." Get past the buzzwords by asking for two or three references from past clients. Ask questions similar to those you would the actual agency, and compare answers.


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Nine Key Things to Look for in an Agency Partner

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image of Allie Gray  Freeland

Allie Gray Freeland is PR director at NYC- and Phoenix- based iAcquire, which offers digital marketing services that encompass organic search, digital PR, and social media.

Twitter: @AllieGrayFree

LinkedIn: Allie Gray Freeland


image of Joe Griffin

Joe Griffin is the CEO and a co-founder of ClearVoice, a content marketing technology company for high-quality blogs and other content destinations.

Twitter: @joegriffin

LinkedIn: Joe Griffin