I have about eight years of experience as a marketing executive. I’ve managed content, demand generation, events, public relations, and product marketing projects at various points in my career. But I didn’t do it all myself. I worked with supportive teams, great marketing agencies, and some not-so-good agencies.
Along the way, I learned lessons and picked up tricks to suss out the good from the bad.
One common thing to look out for is a bait and switch: Sometimes, agencies will have their most senior people come in for the two big pitches and then have their two junior account executives be the decision-makers and executors on your account.
What other red flags should you look out for — not just in a marketing agency, but in an SEO and content marketing agency as well?
If I were evaluating content marketing agencies today, I’d look for these six red flags. Look out for agencies if they:
Every agency has a core proficiency. Ogilvy, now an advertising, marketing, and PR agency, started out as just an advertising agency with a strong focus on consumer insights. Weber Shandwick, a global PR firm, was at one time best known for crisis management with their crisis simulator and training session called Firebell.
So when you come across a marketing agency that claims to excel in several marketing disciplines, challenge them on it. Ask them what they’re best at and take note of how they respond. When they get to the case study section of their pitch, pay attention to the common themes to understand their core skill set.
As for us, we don’t do it all. We do SEO, content creation, and link building. Our content creation consists of researching, writing, and editing articles to meet your keyword strategy. And our team is made up of professional editors, SEO experts (with side projects that prove their competency), and experienced project managers who hold the Growth Machine team accountable to on-time delivery.
Cut to the chase and say this: Your team is clearly talented in X and Y. But what is it that makes your agency so special? What would your happiest clients say you helped their business achieve?
And when they answer those questions, follow it up with: Can you tell me more about how you conceptualized and executed that plan?
I have frequently met (and admittedly, worked) with agencies whose status or KPI reports were chock full of their proprietary metrics and scores. One PR agency swore by impressions tracked in their “homegrown software” and insisted that one media placement secured “hundreds of millions” of them. Pressed where they got that metric from, they admitted it came from a circulation number touted by that magazine from three to five years prior.
I also worked with one content marketing agency who presented the findings in their content audit in their “custom content matrix” where they tallied up the number of blog posts and sales collateral my team created, identified which type of content had the least amount of deliverables, and based on the smallest number, advised that was where the greatest opportunity lied.
When you get to talk metrics with your potential agency, don’t be afraid to ask where they’re getting their numbers from and how. If they tout impressions, ask if the source was Google Analytics or a publication’s self-reported circulation number. If they brag about leads generated, ask them how they define a lead and what type of conversion results in one.
In the case of content marketing, your agency should be comfortable giving you easily verifiable insight into more SEO-focused metrics, such as keyword ranking and backlinks.
Cut to the chase and say this: Let’s say my CMO just put a 1:1 on my calendar for this afternoon to ask about our content progress. How will you support me in pulling a couple of KPIs in a pinch?
The trick is to get them to answer what they’ll do if they have to grab a couple stats within a moment’s notice.
It’s better to hear that they’ll send you a link to a custom Google Data Studio dashboard instead of hearing that they'll need “more lead time” to tell you what your top five ranking pages are.
When you’re hiring an agency, it means you’re looking for a team who has more specific expertise than you, so it’s important to feel confident that you can trust them and learn from them.
But no one wants to be mined for free advice. Think about some small problems you’d want them to help you solve, and ask them how they’d tackle one of those problems. Show an interest in learning about their own philosophies in the marketing discipline at hand.
For instance, we at Growth Machine strongly believe that with the right knowledge and tools, anyone can grow their organic traffic. So we created a free seven-part email course on building your site from scratch. It gives you specific advice on setting up your website correctly, explains how to create a keyword strategy and content plan, and offers some quick training on SEO tools.
If someone can take our course and yield the results they wanted, then they didn’t need to hire us for our services. But if they took our course and still want to hire us, then we can feel more confident that this new client trusts us — and in turn, that client will feel safer for having chosen Growth Machine.
Cut to the chase and say this: I don’t know the nuances of content marketing that well. Can you tell me how you would go about thinking through a content plan in a noisy or competitive space?
Listen for specificity. If they talk about “finding a good keyword strategy and then owning those keywords,” that’s too vague to be helpful. A good content marketing agency will articulate how they identified a good keyword strategy in a given space, how the content plans across a handful of clients differed, and they’ll even have recent examples to back this all up.
It’s one thing to be pleasant and friendly. But when I hear an agency tell me that everything my team is doing is great and that we just need to keep it up, it’s a huge red flag. After all, if everything is so wonderful then why would I need to hire an agency in the first place?
I was particularly frustrated with one SEO agency I worked with. I’d been a longtime content creator with limited technical SEO expertise, and I was looking forward to learning about their keyword strategy.
They offered a long list of broad key terms without any metrics such as search volume or keyword difficulty.
When I gently pushed back with, “Are you sure these are the right keywords for our business?”
They immediately backed down, “We can change them if you want.”
I tried again, “You are the experts and I trust you. But I worry that these terms are too vague, similar to one another, and will be hard to rank for.”
They offered, “You make an excellent point! If you’re not comfortable with this list we can start over. But we’ll need another two to three weeks to put that together for you.”
This awkward dance continued for several minutes before reaching a dead end. It wasn’t that I wanted to hear that I was brilliant or to hear that they were wrong. I wanted expertise.
But mostly, I was bothered that they spent weeks putting together this keyword strategy, only to be willing to abandon the plan after I asked one question. It showed a lack of insight. It showed me that even though they weren’t willing to stand by their own work, they didn’t mind billing the numerous hours spent on it.
Cut to the chase and say this: I have X and Y instincts about my content program, but I don’t know if I’m right or wrong. What do you think?
Framing the question in that way opens up the conversation for them to choose a point of view without having to be confrontational. It also shows you’re willing and eager to learn from them.
This is crucial for any marketing agency to ask, especially one who is creating content for you. A content agency, by the very nature of their work, needs to exude your brand with every word they write.
If an agency doesn’t ask you questions about your audience, it either means they think they already have the answers (they don't), or they simply don't care (that's bad).
If you’re starting your site from scratch, you may not yet have a tangible audience, but you do have a sense of the audience you’re aspire to have. Make sure your agency is in tune with the audience you’re trying to reach and that they know what sales or conversion goals you ultimately have.
Cut to the chase and say this: How do you envision writing for my audience who knows a lot about X but not a lot about Y? How do you think about conversion goals as you write the content?
You’ll understand if they see the nuances between writing for the goal of brand awareness vs. educating readers vs. nudging the reader to buy something. And you’ll also get a sense of their overall writing philosophy.
When I’ve narrowed down my search to one to two agencies, I dig deeper into pricing: how it’s structured, what’s included, and whether there are any hidden fees.
The tricky thing is there isn’t one set structure for pricing. Marketing disciplines, agency sizes, and project or program types can all vary.
So what should you keep an eye on? Retainers and slush funds.
A retainer in of itself is not a red flag. It’s common to pay a monthly retainer for marketing agencies who do ongoing work that isn’t always tied to a specific deliverable, like a set number of blog posts or videos each month.
For instance, you’ll probably pay a PR agency a set fee to cover the cost of pitching to reporters, to supply you with briefing docs for each interview they secure for you, and to help you with general talking points. But if that PR agency asks you to commit to a retainer but also charges you a separate fee for them to write messaging and pitch to reporters, that’s a red flag. Ask what work is inclusive of the retainer and see if that works for you.
Another fee to look out for is a slush fund. A slush fund is reserved money that you can use for expensive last-minute marketing opportunities. Need a video for an advertising slot you suddenly secured? Need your agency to print booklets or flyers and distribute at a last-minute event? Agencies can tap into your slush fund so that they don’t have to fully cover the upfront costs.
This can be a good thing for both of you: They’re not breaking their bank, and you’re not worried about having to quickly pay a huge invoice.
But here’s the red flag: Sometimes, agencies will ask you to commit to a slush fund — to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars — and then you’ll lose that money if you don’t spend it within a certain time frame.
So how can you avoid or better understand these fees?
Cut to the chase and say this: What ongoing work is included with this monthly retainer? How do you decide what requires a separate fee? If I opt out of doing a slush fund, how can we work together nimbly on potential last-minute opportunities?
When people ask us what we charge, we’re transparent about our breakdown. We’ll tell you how much we budget for our writers, and how the costs are spread out across upfront strategy and planning, and the overall content production process.
Whittling down the list of potential agencies is hard enough, let alone getting to the final stage and choosing one agency to work with. But you know your team and your business best. Plus, armed with this set of questions, you’ll now be better prepared to make that decision.
And we’d be remiss in not saying that if you want to start the conversation with us, contact us and we’ll get back to you by tomorrow.
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