A Guide to Picking the Perfect Agency Partner: 10 Tips for Brand Marketers 

Selecting an agency partner or related marketing vendor is equivalent to choosing a skilled proctologist. It can be arduous, intimidating, and painful. However, it does not have to be. Thankfully, I have gained a handful of insights over the past 30 years across 10 agencies and even two client-side stints. Below are my ten tips for picking the perfect agency partner. 

1. The Expertise Expedition 

First things first—what does your dream agency do? Sounds obvious, right? But you would be surprised how many folks get dazzled by glitzy presentations and forget to ask about the basics.

I once had a client who hired an agency for their “comprehensive digital services,” only to find out three months in that they outsourced everything except invoicing. Cringy. Make sure your potential partner has the chops to manage what you need in-house. Do not just take their word for it—ask for examples, case studies—the works. 

2. The Culture Club 

Remember that time you went on a blind date and, within five minutes, knew it was a disaster? Agency relationships can be like that, too. That is why I always recommend that my clients dig deep to understand a prospective agency’s culture.

Years ago, we lost a pitch to a bigger agency. Six months later, the client came back to us. Why? They said collaborating with the other guys felt like “nails on a chalkboard” in that it was a terrible cultural fit. Ouch. Visit the agency’s office if you can. Chat with the team. Get a feel for their vibe. Are they the kind of people you want to weather a crisis with? Because trust me, in marketing, there will be crises. 

3. The Idea Factory 

In this business, creativity is king. But here is the kicker—it is not just about having brilliant ideas. It is about generating brilliant ideas that work. I have worked for and with agencies that dreamed up fun, creative ideas that were irrelevant to the brand, product, or audience. Some of those ideas made it to the campaign creative phase and failed. A truly “Where’s the beef?” moment. Look for an agency that can show you the complete journey of an idea—from brainstorming to real-world results. That is the sweet spot. 

4. The Tech Tango 

Now, I am old enough to remember when “going viral” meant you needed to see a doctor. But these days, you need an agency that can waltz between creative and technology like Steve Jobs (sans mock-neck).

  • Ask prospective agencies how they stay on top of trends.
  • What is their take on AI in marketing?
  • How do they balance data-driven decisions with gut instinct?

Their answers will tell you oodles about whether they are living in 2024 or 1924. 

5. The Feedback Loop 

While I took pride in my agency being highly responsive (I expected my team to respond to client communications within minutes or hours, not days or weeks), that is far from the standard.

In the past, many of my new clients commented that they were not used to, yet appreciated, our timely communications. We set a high bar that differentiated us from competitors. In business, time is money, so make sure your agency partner has a record of responsiveness and agrees on expected service levels. Look for an agency that welcomes your input and actively seeks it out. Bonus points if they have a structured process for incorporating client feedback into their work. 

6. The Long Game 

While the trend in client-agency engagements is steering away from agency-of-record (AOR) relationships, brands are best suited to consider the value and benefits of a long-term partnership.

Despite your bosses’ expectation for quick wins with a new agency partner, swapping partners after the first disappointment means changing agencies and that gets expensive quickly.

Conversely, look for a curious agency that takes the time to get to know your business and industry intimately. You need an agency thinking about your brand’s future, not just the next campaign. Ask them where they see themselves in five years. Better yet, ask where they see your brand in five years.

If they cannot paint a compelling picture, they might not be the long-term partner you need. 

7. The Value Proposition 

Let us talk about money. Because, at the end of the day, that is a big part of the equation. But here is the thing—the cheapest option is rarely the best, and the most expensive is not always worth it.

I have seen clients go for bargain-basement agencies and spend twice as much fixing the mess. On the other side, I have seen overpriced shops deliver mediocre work wrapped in a fancy bow.

Look for an agency that offers value beyond the price tag.

  • Do they bring fresh ideas to every meeting?
  • Are they sharing creative ways to evolve your products or services?
  • Do they lose sleep over your campaigns?

That is the kind of dedication you need from a strategic agency partner. 

8. The Chemistry Test 

Here is something they do not teach you in business school—chemistry matters. Profoundly. I am not saying you need to be best friends with your agency, but you should at least enjoy collaborating with them. There needs to be a level of trust, respect and transparency that can often take years to build, but without some level of initial chemistry, it can be a difficult journey.

Hopefully, you will meet the account team and gauge fit, but also ask how the agency fosters chemistry as part of their engagement. In the end, trust your gut. If something feels off, it is. 

9. The Secret Sauce 

Over the years, brands have wavered between hiring full-service AORs and outsourcing to a host of specialized boutique agencies.

If your organization is leaning towards specialized agencies, ensure you validate that the industry or discipline specialization is relevant and proven. While I am a fan of specialized agencies working together (based on my experience), the potential risk is a need for more alignment and collaboration between multiple agencies.

When collaborating with multiple partners, I recommend hosting annual summits to bring agencies together for strategic planning, alignment and to foster communication. 

10. The Reality Check 

Finally, do a reality check. Can this agency really deliver what they are promising? I have seen too many agencies over-promise and under-deliver. It always ends in tears (and occasionally, legal action).

To maximize the probability of success:

  1. Do your homework.
  2. Ask for three client references (then throw them out and ask for three more to ensure you get closer to the truth).
  3. Request relevant case studies and then validate the outcomes with client contacts.
  4. Look past industry awards and flattering press coverage to seek the truth.
  5. Read employee reviews on Glassdoor and Indeed. Although those reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt, they will shed light on the corporate culture. 

Choosing an agency is not just about finding someone who can do the job—it is about finding a partner in crime, a creative conspirator, or a marketing miracle worker.

It is about finding that perfect blend of skill, creativity, and cultural fit that makes magic happen. While agency selection is not an exact science, you can tip the scales in your favor based on the tips outlined in this article.

Now go forth, find your marketing soulmate, and make sure they wear gloves.  

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