As with any business relationship, to be successful, the client–agency partnership depends on both parties establishing and delivering against a mutually agreeable set of performance expectations. However, the agency search process and eventual hiring of an agency feels more like finding a spouse, without the luxury of a courtship. Unfortunately, the true expectations of the client and understanding which expectations matter most are often left out of the discussion. While every client–agency relationship has its own idiosyncrasies, it has been our experience that if you ask the following five questions—and like the answers you get back—you will have a far better understanding of whether, as Taylor Swift would say, “… it's gonna be forever / Or, it's gonna go down in flames.”
Will I ever see you again?
The flipside of this question is “Who will really work on my account?” It is not uncommon for an agency to have a dedicated pitch team. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you recognize that a good portion of the people you’re meeting during the pitch phase are unlikely to work on your account in the future. You have every right to ask about the level of experience and the number of agency team members who will be directly involved in your day-to-day business. You can and should ask how the agency’s accounts or projects of similar size and scope to yours are staffed and how that may change over time. Not every project warrants or has the budget for the highest level of talent, but you deserve to know exactly what and for whom your budget dollars cover.
What kind of commitment are we talking about?
Speaking of budgets, structuring compensation has historically been one of the most confusing aspects of client–agency relationships. Project-based billing? Retainer? Mixed? Choosing the wrong structure can cause a lot of unnecessary animus on both sides. The simplest structure is fee for project, which is a fixed bid price for a predetermined scope of deliverables. Everyone knows what they start and walk away with, assuming the project follows the initial scope. An hours-based retainer is only slightly more complicated. The client commits to a minimum number of labor hours each month and pays for those hours up front. At the end of the month, any discrepancies between the hours paid for and the hours consumed are usually reconciled. A mixed project/retainer structure can be the most cost efficient for multi-project, longer-term engagements, but it requires the most reporting and reviewing. There is no “right” way to structure an agreement. A good agency will work with you to create just about any equitable structure you require. Asking a lot of questions about your options up front and about the level of detail the agency is prepared to provide will go a long way toward building and maintaining a transparent, healthy, and lasting partnership with your agency.
How will I know this is working?
Gone are the days when any marketer could get away with saying things like “You can’t measure that, it’s an awareness thing.” Everything is measurable given the proper preparation and timeframe. Ask any potential agency partner what tools and methods they employ to measure success. Their answer should require some input from you on what measures are important to your strategy—awareness, conversions, page rank, social likes and shares, and so on. In general, your agency should be able to offer you a variety of tools and methods for evaluating and reporting on success from a long-term strategy or a single tactic.
Would you mind if I see other people?
Marketing in our current communications environment is complex. Executing well across the spectrum of connection points increasingly requires drawing on a variety of specialized talents and expertise. While digital agencies can certainly provide services that support many of these connections, it is unlikely they are the best resource to handle all of them. You should ask any potential agency partner how well they play in the sandbox. Ask about their experience working on cross-vendor teams for their other clients, what worked well, and what could have worked better. Listen for how they characterize moments of conflict and resolution; it will tell you a lot about how they will fit into any team you are building.
What should I be worried about?
Experience with your business or industry is likely table stakes for any agency you’re evaluating. When you ask them if they know your business, most could honestly say “yes.” However, that doesn’t mean they are thinking about your business, your industry, or how it will be affected by market conditions or technological change going forward. Asking the agency what you should be worried about could reveal their nuanced understanding or foresight about your industry, your competitive landscape, and your challenges.
“You love the game.”
Of course, this is not the be-all and end-all question set for your next agency search, but they go a long way toward avoiding an agency nightmare dressed like a daydream.