Whether you're deciding if you even need a marketing agency, running a search, or evaluating your partners - here's everything you need to know about working with agencies to build strong brand-agency relationships.
Where do you start with agency search?
From defining what you need in the first place to finding a partner that can embed into your existing business, a saturated market and limited resource means that for many of us, finding a marketing agency that ticks all the boxes for your needs is outright overwhelming.
In our recent conversation with senior marketing leaders from across the industry, we ran through the agency search, appointment and evaluation process from start to finish to flag the commons pitfalls, considerations, and the key to success for building great brand-agency relationships.
Hiring a marketing agency is a massive leap of faith for many businesses.
Whether you are outsourcing due to a lack of in-house expertise or need additional overflow support, there are questions you should ask yourself before engaging in an agency search.
If a business is new to marketing, it might be that current stakeholders are too close to the brand and a fresh perspective is needed to resolve certain issues and disagreements. This was the case for Andrew Elder, Head of Brand at Policy Expert.
“The business had never done any marketing. Our competitors were more visible than us, so we needed to get a marketeer in. Where problems couldn’t be resolved by senior management and disagreements were being made, we needed to step back and take a different perspective.”
For Emily Vandervell-Thomas, Head of Marketing and Brand at Fasthosts, the need for a marketing agency came from needing to level up an effective marketing strategy.
“We needed some external help on strategy. The company hadn’t spent money on the brand for a considerable amount of time, and then wondered why they weren’t getting any new customers in through the door.”
The skillset of in-house marketing teams is often very general due to them needing to do a bit of everything.
Do you need expertise in a certain specialism to drive your business forward, or are you looking to expand your in-house capacity for a more generalised approach?
Depending on your team set-up, budget, and resource, it may be easier or harder to bring on an agency vs. in-housed talent.
For some marketing leaders like Emily, it is easier to get sign-off for an agency on a retainer than it is to get additional headcount for an in-house team, whereas Andrew has experienced the opposite and found it is easier to get buy-in to keep expanding an internal team depending on the sector.
Most agencies present very well online, and with more than 25,000 marketing agencies in the UK alone, figuring out who to invest your time into connecting with can be laborious. But is there a ‘right’ way to find the best agencies for your requirements?
Despite in-house marketing leaders citing that they receive, on average, 60 cold outreach messages from marketing agencies every week, our panel suggest that it’s extremely unlikely that cold outreach from an agency will lead to a partnership.
“I haven’t hired an agency based on cold contact, because it’s unlikely that an agency is going to contact you right at the time that you happen to be looking.” – Emily
Andrew said it can depend on the size of the organisation. “With larger organisations, there is absolutely no point because you’re talking about European pitch processes.”
One of the most important factors in finding an agency for Andrew is seeing the strategic thought process that fits behind a creative ‘prowess’ is important when looking for an agency.
“The brief isn’t ‘do me an ad’, the brief is ‘help me solve this problem’, and then we’ll decide what we want to do in terms of advertising, creatives etc.”
Know what an agency is going to do to help solve your problem was a common theme amongst our experts, particularly when first engaging the potential agency partners.
Part of GO!’s process includes ‘chemistry calls’ in which the brand and agency stakeholders get the chance to first engage on an informal level. To learn more about how we work, click here.
“All agencies present the same online.
Sometimes it’s down to the spark of an individual within an agency. Sometimes it’s the chemistry you get from a word or a phrase or an approach. It’s about finding individual points and examples that really pique the interest of the brand.” - Andrew
“I’ve seen a lot of proposals that have come onto my desk and they’re full of big shiny brands and show-stopping project work, but when you dive down into what’s been achieved for those brands, it’s completely irrelevant to the problem I’m trying to solve.” – Phoebe Ashley, Senior Marketing Manager at Burger & Lobster.
GO! is a cost-free way to connect brand with best-in-class agency partners. Get in touch here.
Once agencies have been selected, taking them to pitch is their chance to demonstrate credentials, solutions and understanding of the brand.
However, it’s more than just a proposal document - pitching also allows transparency as to what the working relationship between the agency and brand will look like.
Whilst an objective checklist or scoring matrix can support decision-making at this stage, there are some key pieces to look out for.
It’s all well and good working with an exciting brand and presenting visually attractive case studies, but many clients what to know what you actually achieved for that brand in the form of results.
“We've just been through a pitch process where there was only one agency that included actual results in the case studies presented. Needless to say, they're the ones who won.. – Emily
For many agencies, it’s a fine line between provoking fresh ideas and perspectives without going off the rails of what’s actually expected.
“I think it’s interesting when agencies or consultants show their understanding of your business by giving you provocations around your business and the challenge. It’s about not giving you an answer, because you can rarely get an answer without any client input.” – Aaron Cole, Chief Marketing Officer, THE OUT.
Andrew explained that during the pitching process, there will be examples of creatives that don’t match with your needs.
The worst part, he says, is when you get further and further down the line in the appointment process and the mark is missed. "It can feel like an agency already has their creative idea in mind which they’re trying to push into your strategy, rather than starting with the challenge."
This is backed up by Emily, who says “It’s all well and good coming up with a piece of jazzy creative that isn’t on brand at all, as long as the agency uses it to show the capability of their talents and doesn’t suggest running with it ‘because we know best.”
Phoebe says, “A lot of the time you can get put into what feels like quite a ‘cookie cutter process.’ It’s ensuring that these processes have personalisation and flex within them. Feeling that what is being pitched to you is personalised and unique is really important.”
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Knowing what a ‘good’ brand-agency partnership should look like can be difficult. How do you ensure that both sides are getting the best out of it? Our experts had their own ways of evaluating their agency relationships. For Aaron, they start with the happiness of the team.
“Both sides get questionnaire after the campaign around how they felt it went, because you trust in the experience and their professionalism to be open about when went wrong. We do the good, the bad and the ugly.”
For more tangible day-to-day metrics, you can choose to manage things on a campaign-by-campaign basis - even when on a retainer.
“This way, the success of the relationship is on the success of that campaign. We also give agencies access to our data so that they can see what our business results are directly due to their efforts.”
There will always be challenges that present themselves during the course of the relationship. Think about how you would solve these problems internally. A good agency should feel like they’re an extension of your team.
For Emily, it helps to put the agencies in touch with key stakeholders to say, “this is what we’re doing, and this is why we’re doing it. As an agency, if you make yourself available to do that type of thing, it can be very helpful for the client.”
“Be open and honest with each other. If the board aren’t happy with something, be transparent about why they’re not happy and have a collaborative discussion about what can be done better so it doesn’t happen again. This way, it feels like you’re sharing the responsibility rather than going to the agency and putting it all on them.”
Andrew believes as the client, you should be open to being challenged to think about your work. “If you can get clients to think about the challenge in a different way, this helps to overcome a lot in becoming a valuable addition to the team.”
It can be easy sometimes to treat an external agency as a 'supplier' or solution provider - however, if you're trying to build a long-term partnership, avoiding this kind of transactional relationship is crucial.
Even as 'the client', it's important to remember that you have as much responsibility as the agency to get to know each other and build the relationship into something that can be long-term - and it's why we call great brand-agency relationships 'Mutual Success'.
To do this, Phoebe recommends putting in real time to get to know the team.
“You need to be able to feel comfortable around each other and be able to talk to each other naturally. This lends itself to a very open and honest working relationship. This is the backbone to a successful client-agency relationship.”
For Aaron, it’s all about remembering that an agency is supposed to be an extension of your own team. This means being transparent and honest about when things go wrong as well as when they're going right. “It’s about not treating the agency like a line on an excel spreadsheet and calling them a ‘provider.’”
They key behind any successful relationship is not the service itself, it’s the people behind that service, and how they work together with you towards your common goals.
“It’s having trust that if you need something done, then the agency are going to help you because that’s why they’re there.” – Emily
Aaron sums it up perfectly by saying “It’s about people. It doesn’t matter how many dashboards you’ve got or flashy decks. It’s about people, and jumping in together.”
With thanks to our experts:
The GO! Network exists to help build proper relationships between brands and agencies. As a free-to-use marketing intermediary, we find the best marketing agencies for your needs to give you a better chance of success in the long run. Start your search here.