An insider’s advice for hiring the right agency
July 2, 2019
 

This is a common blog topic if you work for a public relations (PR) or marketing agency. You want to win new clients, so give prospects a blueprint for selecting your firm, right? Make no mistake, I’m always up for meeting a potential new client. But I’ve worked for, and with, a number of B2B/B2C tech agencies – boutiques to larger international ones – so what I hope to share is some inside insight.

Truth is, when agency veterans get together for drinks, we’ll make the obligatory attempt to cover the personal; dogs, dating, divorce, death. But conversation always gleefully turns to our industry, starting with the final D, those agency deserters who moved into corporate communications.

That naturally leads to the question:

“So, if you were doing the hiring, what would you look for in an agency?”

It’s an evergreen subject, particularly considering the changes digital has introduced. Yet, every year or so, an industry “visionary” proclaims the agency dead, a move almost always followed by the opening of their own shop. According to Carl Smith at the Bureau of Digital – an organization that brings together a mix of 6,000 + design, development and marketing leaders – there’s actually more firms than ever. And that leads to my first tip.

Be skeptical if someone tells you otherwise or claims they alone can provide all the solutions.

Agencies make a difference on customer’s bottom lines. Vendors create lots of products for our industry. Offerings are increasing and becoming more sophisticated.

New tools, strategies and services means work is evolving, not evaporating.  

Meet the team 

To start, when you interview an agency be sure the account (or project) team they’ve gathered are the people you’ll be dealing with; you don’t want a bait and switch situation where leaders pitch your business but don’t do the work. Any agency can trot out a shiny, practiced biz dev team – and larger ones will. You want to meet the individuals you’ll be working with, those accountable for delivering results, not the ones focused on selling services.

More than anything, vet your team lead; they set the tone, tempo and teach other members. Keep senior-level experience and career longevity in mind. Building awareness, reputation and sales takes time. An agency is an investment and you want to grow and perfect processes - not constantly step back and reinvent the wheel.

Further, make sure you’re team lead is agency-tested. You want someone who can provide sustained success without added stress, a leader who keeps cool under pressure, makes decisions and sets an example for other team members to follow. Yes, there will always be team changes, but a good lead can bring the others up to speed quickly.

Know the agency 

Be sure to look into account limits. Even if the agency is under a monthly retainer, they’re looking at staff utilization on an hourly basis to ensure profitability. You want to make sure your team has the bandwidth to provide the attention that your company deserves. So, ask how they structure accounts and how much work each team member is responsible for. 

See if the agency and team practices what they preach. If they recommend a blog program with regular fresh content, make sure they do the same. If they tell you social media is an absolute, check out their agency activity and individual usage. They don’t need to be on Twitter 24/7, but if their last tweet was two years ago and they’re only following sports columnists and their school’s alumni news, think twice.

The most important enquiry to make is how the agency tracks and measures results. If they don’t have metrics that enable you to assess ROI in bottom-line numbers – to see the business being moved forward – why bother? You’ll likely need this data for continued support from your management team and/or investors.

Key performance indicators depend upon scope of work but can range from goals on news coverage to leads generated to deeper share of voice. Also included should be metrics to keep productivity on track, for instance, the volume of blog posts over a specific timeframe.

If you’re evaluating a proposal with results that far exceed what others project, dig deeper. Like any industry, there are those that over-promise to win business and build customer churn into their model. For that matter, make sure they have expertise in the services they offer. With today’s more specialized digital services – from app and accessibility development to sophisticated web and video experiences - it’s not possible for every agency to do everything, at least not well.

An agency should have a network it draws upon for such capabilities, not use you as a way to gain  experience in areas they want to move into.  

Telling stories

Use of freelance writers, a practice once kept quiet by many agencies, has become not just acceptable but standard. Why not? Content demand has risen, as has project work, and it enables an agency to handle activity peaks more cost effectively. Also, media outlets have felt the pinch of decreased ad revenue, so, many exceptional journalists are doing this work - pros you’ve read many times.

Bringing in someone versed in a particular technology area or writing format makes sense. Still, it’s imperative your agency team has strong writers.

A survey by the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism (USC) showed more than 88% of public relations professionals and 80% of marketers believe the future of communications is all about digital storytelling.

Every day, whether it’s a pitch to an editor or email nurture campaign, each person has to be able to cut through the clutter.

On a related note, when it comes to awareness specifically, if you’re led to believe an agency or team member’s media contacts will gain coverage, walk away. Contrary to what some would have you believe, journalists at credible outlets have strong ethics. A relationship might get an editor to look at a pitch – name-dropping does show a PR rep is familiar with reporters covering an industry or beat – but you’ll only get the story if it has merit. 

What are you looking at?

In the USC study mentioned earlier, more than 60% of marketing executives and about half of the PR pros surveyed felt these respective functions would work together more closely in the future. The lines are blurring between awareness PR, marketing, advertising and digital agencies.

This is good. You want to leverage efforts across channels for greater cost-efficiency and impact. That said, know what you’re looking for and be sure the agency you hire has the right knowledge. Minimally, they should be versed in marketing and PR, even if you’re enlisting them for only one function. This will allow them to work with other providers, your in-house team and see new opportunities.

Not every agency is a like, but they shouldn’t be so wildly different in their claims. Results comes down to expertise, execution, and just as important, empathy. The agency you hire needs to understand and feel what you’re trying to accomplish – and act accordingly.

As a musician friend once told me, “I’ll take the person over the player any day.” I agree.

And that’s my final tip, look beyond the claims and compliments for real, sincere chemistry that’ll form a lasting connection.

Want even more insider tips? Talk to us! 

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