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Steps to Selecting the Right Agency

The common theme of our blogs this month is a fixture in the City of Pittsburgh, steps. So why not talk about the steps to ensuring you select the right digital marketing agency? 

There are a lot of different approaches ranging from casual to formal, from a private company to a publicly traded or a non-for-profit plus, those reviews conducted by huge organizations to those very small. In any of those scenarios, I’ll utilize my 9 years of agency business development experience to give you my recommendation on how to conduct an agency search that will help you identify and select the best partner for your business. 

Internal Needs Assessment 

The first step in selecting the correct agency includes identifying the exact solution your organization needs or identifying the business issue that needs to be addressed. Chances are if you are thinking about contracting a 3rd party for support, you likely have needs that you have identified that are outside of your company’s area of expertise. Or, perhaps you need additional support. So how do you effectively communicate that to the potential partners to provide you with an accurate estimate? 

I suggest that you start with a leadership team, or key stakeholders meeting to review the issues at hand and identify the problem. We are biased, but we highly recommend the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) for these types of business-related conversations. This helps our team identify the issues, and arrive at a consensus on the best course of action. 

Once your team has identified and agreed upon the issue, and the need for a solution, you can start to refine your search for a partner by category. For example, if you are struggling to generate inbound leads, your team may realize that your website isn’t performing in an optimized way. If that's the situation, a digital agency is a solution.

Collect the potential needs for your organization into a detailed brief outlining the issue, and explore some potential options and approaches to develop a rough understanding of how a partner might suggest making improvements. This will help you educate yourself on general things a partner may suggest, and keep you one step ahead, (pun intended) when understanding their planned approach. 

Identifying Potential Partners - Skip the RFP 

So now with your needs assessment in hand, how do you start the search for potential partners? Chances are, if your city is like Pittsburgh, you can throw a rock and hit 7 different agencies in any direction. So how do you decide who to contact? The old way of thinking suggests buttoning up your needs assessment into a nice RFP and shooting it out to as many as possible, DON’T. RFP’s for agencies can be extremely frustrating; here’s why. 

In my experience, 9 out of every 10 RFP’s lack enough context to develop a solid scope of the project. I’ve seen a lot of requests that start to identify a problem where there isn’t one. Plus, I have seen ones that ask for solutions that aren’t needed. RFP responses for an agency require a lot of thought, time, and money. It is not uncommon for agencies to decide against responding, especially if it is a cattle call with dozens of respondents. In my experience, I’ve invested considerable time in developing customs responses for RFP’s to have the potential client never even respond to our proposal. 

Can you imagine how frustrating that is? The last thing I will say about that process is that you will also lose out on the most undervalued aspect of selecting a partner, their personality, and cultural fit. It’s extremely hard to understand what someone is like without speaking to them. This leads me to my next point. 

If you have taken the time to have a rough idea of what type of partner you need, I would suggest identifying a few potential partners on a shortlist. I recommend reaching out to colleagues or peers to get recommendations. If someone speaks highly of their relationship, chances are they will be a potential good fit. The next place you can look is Google or additional industry-specific directories on the internet. Google reviews and these directories will help you find specialists for your exact need, and often provide additional insight into their methodology, as well as examples of clients and former working relationships. 

Once you’ve built a list of potential partners, try to narrow it down to 3, and no more than 5. Including too many may muddy the waters, and not including enough won’t give you a solid enough baseline to compare them against each other. In my opinion, 3 is usually pretty standard for clients who follow this approach. 

Interview and Brief 

Conducting interviews with partners is such a crucial step. This is where you will get a true sense of culture and personality and a good sense of the agency’s knowledge and suggested approach. 

I highly suggest reaching out to these companies to schedule an interview but make sure to provide them with enough initial context as to what will be discussed and any other important information to build a foundation. I suggest a 15 minute connect call where you can meet each other, discuss the overall need at a high level, and then schedule a time to meet again where the agency can provide a recommended approach. 

In the next call, you’ll want to prompt the agency to suggest their recommended approach. In my experience, this usually covers addressing your issues and needs, presenting their approach and working process, looking into desired and expected outcomes, and reviewing the budget or agency compensation. At this point, each vendor should have the ability to provide you with a service agreement to compare and contrast. 

Analyzing ResponsesMaking the Right Choice 

By now, you are probably going to be a bit exhausted. Conducting an agency search is quite a process and you’ve done a ton of work. Let’s make sure it doesn’t go to waste by selecting the wrong vendor. 

Multiple aspects go into making the right decision, and I won’t ignore one of the biggest factors; price. Everyone has a budget, and most aren’t as big as Nike. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone makes a decision purely based on price. Instead, make sure your team has agreed on a rough budget, and try the best you can to stick to that, given the provided options. 

The next most important aspect is reviewing the suggested approach. Carefully inspect it to make sure that the recommendation fits your exact needs, and that the expected results are within the realm of possibility. I’ve seen agency responses that make wild guarantees and set unrealistic expectations. Chances are, if you’ve followed the steps above, you’ll hopefully eliminate these types of groups earlier in the process. If the approach feels right and makes sense, you’ll be one step closer to ensuring a partnership with the right agency. 

The last deciding factor I would suggest is to trust your gut. Chances are that a few agencies will be really similar in cost and approach. So what do you do? 

People buy from people they like. I do, and you probably do too. If someone is giving better trust signals, and you think you would enjoy working with them, at this point, do it. 

A great working relationship is extremely valuable. You won’t regret trusting your instincts!

Hopefully, this blog has given you a structure to review potential partners, specifically digital marketing agencies. There are many different ways to find a great partner. In my experience, the relationships that last over time follow an approach very similar to this. If you have any questions on how to start your search, please contact us.

John Caruso
About the Author
John is the Director of Business Development at Vendilli Digital Group. Outside of work, you can find him fishing, hunting, or canning vegetables from his garden.
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