In this month’s editorial, we asked our network of leading agencies to share their advice for in-house marketers looking to assess the true capabilities of a potential new agency partner.

In our recent analysis of feedback given during the agency search and selection process, we drilled into the major factors that make or break a potential new marketing agency partnership for in-house teams. Two key themes stood out - capability, and culture.

But whether it's relevant case studies, ways of working, or the expertise of the agency in a required marketing specialism, ensuring a new agency partner is the right fit for your business can take a lot of due diligence.

This month, we asked our network of agency leaders to share the questions and considerations in-house teams need to keep front-of-mind when assessing a new marketing agency partner - and how agencies should live up to the challenge.

What in-house teams need to ask to truly understand the capabilities of a new potential agency

“You need to enjoy spending time with them and feel that they have your interests at heart and that you can rely on them.”

Dave Reed, Founder, Giants & Titans

A successful agency / client relationship depends on chemistry, capability and cost.

Chemistry is the most important of these - after all, as a client you're going to be working very closely with your agency over a long period of time. That means you need to enjoy spending time with them and feel that they have your interests at heart and that you can rely on them.

At G&T this knowledge impacts everything from our hiring policy - we have a strict 'no dickheads' rule - to the behaviours we foster among our team.

Building chemistry also relies on the most important communication skill of all: listening. As the old saying goes, we have 2 ears and 1 mouth, so throughout any conversations with potential new clients we pay close attention to the things they say which they may not have written down in the brief and try to get to know them as people above all else.

“Evidence that the agency has supported similar organisations in the same or very similar markets is a good indicator.”

Louise Reid, Managing Director, The Scott Partnership

Relevant sector experience is one of the most important factors brands should consider when first discussing a new potential partnership.

Evidence that the agency has supported similar organisations in the same or very similar markets is a good indicator of potential suitability. This is especially important if you provide goods or services to highly technical or scientific markets.

We have case studies and recommendations from existing and past clients, as well as journalists, that can help give the necessary reassurance to prospective new clients that we are the right partner for them.

In addition, there is no underestimating the importance of chemistry and fit. Brands should ask to meet people from across the agency to see whether they think they would be the right fit for the brand and team.

We’re in the people business and building trusted relationships is as important – if not more so – than proving technical expertise.

Read: How to Get the Best from your Marketing Agency Relationships

“Enquire about a project failure and how the agency worked through it.”

Daniel Henderson, Client Partner, Athlon

Assuming a level of qualification has been met, such as relevant services and experiences, I recommend that brands delve into the strategic thinking behind the agency's work and where they have added value.

While brands understand their business and audience best, they need agencies that can challenge and push their thinking to achieve the best outcome.

We've noticed that brands now ask about our values, which is encouraging as it demonstrates an interest in aligning cultures. But the question that I'd recommend brands ask, which delves deep into client relationships and value, is to enquire about a project failure and how the agency worked through it.

Like any relationship, they aren't always smooth, but how you navigate through challenges speaks volumes about working as true partners.

Aside from being a friendly bunch to work with, we want to make sure that we build complimentary teams to our clients, finding the right balance of team fit and strategic influence. And building this level of relationship and trust starts from pitch; the team the client see will very likely be the team responsible for achieving those outcomes.

“The agency market is over commoditised - but don't be fooled - price does not dictate ROI.”

Jake Cawdery, Managing Director, Curated

The first thing you need to understand is that the agency space is over commoditised. This means that you will be faced with a variety of proposed retainer/project fees. But don't be fooled - price does not dictate ROI.

The cheapest isn’t necessarily the best value. The most expensive isn’t always superior. Instead, your decision making criteria should identify whether the prospective agency partner is able to immediately laser focus on your commercial objectives for growth.

Are they asking the right questions that truly enable them to align to your perceived value?

Remember, it’s not your job to provide the brief. Instead, the agency should use their commercial understanding and expertise to reverse engineer a marketing brief that demonstrates complete alignment to your growth objectives.

At Curated, this is the approach we follow - we design and develop clever, customer first strategies which go beyond marketing to create tangible change.

“The key question you have to ask yourself is; will the agency treat you as a client, or as a partner?

Kieran O’Brien, Director of Marketing & Communications, Core Optimisation

If you’re in the market for an agency, the key question you have to ask yourself is; will the agency treat you as a client, or as a partner?

The answer has to be partner, as the “rising tide raises all ships” analogy is made for an internal/external digital marketing approach.

Our approach to partnerships is that you will always know 80% of what is right for your business, but a collaborative partner can bring 20% to the table that can make the difference to your bottom line.

We have an in-house team of over 50 specialists working in digital transformation and digital performance across multiple sectors and have a four pronged approach to collaboration:

1. We listen to your challenges, goals and capabilities.

2. We inform you using industry insight and best practice.

3. We adapt strategy and channels in line with market shifts.

4. We deliver to the KPIs set out in partnership with your team.

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“Ask them to describe (or demonstrate) their creative process.”

Colin Cather, Co-Owner & Director, Bottle PR

If you’re looking for a creative PR agency – ask them to describe (or demonstrate) their creative process.

When you want a partner who can keep producing great ideas – not just a one-off campaign – the best ones will have a method for this.

Good creative agencies know that being consistently original can’t rely on one person with ‘creative’ in their job title, or occasionally pulling-off a lucky result from a frantic brainstorm.

At Bottle we have steps we follow, and a way to facilitate the connection-making of different people to get to ideas – every time. Then we use our own criteria for judging ideas before bringing a shortlist to you for a tissue-session.

Sure, some agencies will have great creds, and a trophy-cabinet of creative awards, but you want to make sure it wasn’t dependent on someone who’s maybe not there, anymore.

“Ask; How does your agency's culture align with ours, and how will it manifest in our collaboration?”

Xenia Coker-Espina, Head of Growth, Optix Solutions

The most crucial aspect for brands when evaluating a potential agency partner is aligning values and culture. Shared values support long-term success.

The key question is, 'How does your agency's culture align with ours, and how will it manifest in our collaboration?'

At Optix Solutions, we're on the journey to B-Corp certification, reflecting our commitment to ethical practices. We prioritise transparency, collaboration, and integrity, introducing key team members early for alignment.

Some of the practises we put in place for our clients include kick-off sessions that set clear expectations, regular communication through monthly meetings, quarterly reviews, and annual strategy sessions to ensure alignment with the client’s evolving needs and goals.

Learn: How to Start – and Drive – Real, Successful Sustainability Effort for your Business

“One of the most important yet underrated factors is dependability.”

Matt Hicks, Strategy Director, Lesniak Swann

There’s no one crucial thing to look for – because no two agencies or clients are the same.

It should go without saying that any agency you choose needs to properly understand your business and industry, but one of the most important yet underrated factors is dependability.

Alex Ferguson summed it up well when he said “once you bid farewell to discipline you say goodbye to success”, and whilst showing discipline in pitches might not blow client’s socks off it sure as hell is essential to getting the best possible results from campaigns.

If an agency says it’s going to do something, then it should do everything in its powers to make that happen.

Moreover, it should have the right people in the right roles to make sure that process is as smooth as possible. This strong account management is the key link that takes a campaign from being a great idea to getting great commercial results and winning awards.

Read: Why great campaigns don’t happen without discipline and dependability.

“Tackle the thorny questions around how the working relationship will be facilitated.”

Ash Wright, Chief Commercial Officer, Visualsoft

Brands and retailers looking for the perfect agency partner have their work cut out - not least because there are so many agencies out there, all of whom will tell you what an excellent job they'll do on your account.

As an agency that prides itself on honesty, transparency and a genuine curiosity about the businesses we serve, there are a number of key considerations from both sides that can tell us we are going to have a great working relationship.

Agency support isn't always the silver bullet we would all love it to be, it can be a pill to swallow (but well worth it!). Brands that tackle the thorny questions around how the working relationship will be facilitated and take the time to understand what information and input they will need to provide always perform the best. 

A great question for brands to ask in the process for this is 'What guidance and information will you need from us as a brand, how often and through what channels will we communicate this?'

Read more: What’s Making - or breaking - the agency pitch?

“We love it when clients ask us what we will need from them.”

Ellie St George-Yorke, Director of Client Relations, Definition

The best agency/client relationships are a partnership so when clients take the initiative to inquire about what is required from them, it shows us they are serious about working with us in a proactive and collaborative way.

By acknowledging the need to invest in the relationship, prospective clients reveal a willingness to actively participate in the process. This collaborative spirit creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, making it easier to establish open lines of communication, set realistic goals, and work toward achieving these together.

This also shows us that the client values the agency's expertise and recognises our team as a trusted partner, rather than just a service provider which ultimately sets a strong foundation for a true long-term partnership.

If you're preparing to build out your marketing strategy in 2024, make sure you're getting the most out of your resource. GO! offer cost-free advice on best-practise, provide independent agency recommendations, pitch management, and more - get in touch to get started.