What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “Marketing agency”?
I’m always cautious when I hear it. As a marketer right away I would want to know what is your area of expertise and competitive age. Gone are the days when traditional marketing was limited by offline promotions, events, newspapers, TV and radio. Welcome to the 21 century digital era, where we wake up and go to bed with our phones on the bedside table. A study shows Americans spend over 40% of their day time on screens: it’s 7.5 hours of screen time, almost half of the time being awake. Smartphones, tables, PCs, desktops, TVs are part of our daily life.
It’s 2023 and according to Meltwater, more than half of the world population is active on social media. Now what does it mean for brands? We need to be more creative and data driven in order to reach our target consumers. Consumer journey has become so complex, brands now have to deal with 100s of touchpoints across numerous digital platforms, and all often in addition to the traditional channels, in order to convince a customer to make that purchase decision.
When you are a startup, and from my experience in smart tech products, often led by a team with an engineering background rather than sales and marketing, how are you supposed to make smart informed decisions related to product launch, promotions, pricing, sales strategy and distribution channels? Oftentimes teams seek help from outside and have to choose the right partner to support them in their growth journey.
Marketing agency vs consultant vs freelance
First big step is done, you have identified you need marketing support. Your next step is to identify where to get it from and in what shape and form. Typically startups would be looking for help when it comes to strategy, planning and execution. Here are some of the questions you would want to ask yourself as a team lead and it is always around Who, What and When:
- What shall we do? – this falls into a strategy bucket.
- When shall we do it? – once you identified the “what”, next step is to plan how to get it done and when.
- Who shall do it? – thats’s a big one, execution is often your key to success and you would want someone with experience and knowledge to lay out the ground work to make sure you are not wasting your time, doing something just for the sake of doing it, but rather have key metrics in place tracking your success.
Startup is a team sport, and if you don’t have the right team in place, some bridges may burn before you run out of time. We can’t know it all, and it is only ok to seek expert help.
I worked with many marketing agencies, freelancers and consultants in my career and I can tell you, often times it’s not the question of choosing one or the other, but choosing to work with one and the other depending on the area of expertise, as value added by an agency would often differ from the one of a consultant and a freelancer.
Marketing agency: how to choose the right one?
Depending where you are in your journey, whether you are starting out or looking to pivot, scale and grow, if it is your first brand or product launch, you would want to seek support from someone who’s “been there, done that”. Simply put, this will save you tons of time and help avoid many mistakes. I met dozens of founders along the way, and every single one of them had at least one bad experience working with an agency, and it’s always the same old story where they’ve been promised ABC, spent X amount of money and got zero results.
Are all agencies really that bad?
The answer is no, but you have to choose the right one to help you at the right time for the right level of support for a specific project. So how do you choose the right one?
Some of the obvious answers would be: ask around, ask for referrals, get a recommendation. But what if you don’t have one? And all that’s left is Google search with millions of search results and no clear direction.
Here is my strategy when selecting which marketing agency to work with:
- Type of a marketing agency. Identify what kind of agency you need. Marketing agency term nowadays is way to broad. You want to choose the one that has it’s area of expertise: it could be ads, influencers, creative, crowdfunding, PR, events, etc etc. I would not choose an agency who “does it all”, for me it’s a sign on low level of deep knowledge and rainbow of clients from various industries where you may risk to get advice that would fit a Saas service, but not a hardware product as an example.
- Agency size. Look at the size of an agency. As a startup or a small business with lower budget, you don’t want to be wasting time reaching out to agencies who already outgrew your current level of business. It is as simple as that. As a startup or a small business you want to work with an agency who understands your needs, shows a certain level of flexibility and can dedicate the right amount of time and resources as you deserve.
- Account manager. This leads me to the next crucial point: you want a dedicated account manager, a one-point-of-contact that you can go to whenever you need. And trust me, you will have so many questions, change requests, clarifications needed, you want someone on the other side to be in the know and able to provide you with a timely response.
- Industry knowledge. Choose an agency that previously worked with products or brands from your industry. This will help to shorten the time for an agency to get to know your product or brand, what you currently offer and get a creative spin of what else you could offer. You want them to know your industry, your customer, their pains and needs, so they could help you to frame a solution and package it nicely so it becomes irresistible for your target consumer.
- Tools and reports. One of the things I always ask as part of the selection process is what kind of tools the agency uses that help them achieve success and what the reporting looks like. You may expect to receive a sample report where you can see the breakdown of certain metrics, KPIs, progress status, benchmarks and comparison.
- Pricing model. Ask for a quote and see if the price is right for what you need and can afford. Good practice would be to request a proposal from at least 4-5 agencies. You want to have 2-3 that fit all of the above points before you make a decision. Where and when possible, you don’t want to lock yourself into a long term contract and fixed monthly retainers. Again, depending on where you are in your journey, you want to have a partner where you grow together and their success fee is directly related to your success. Example: when choosing a performance marketing agency, as for revenue share with 5 to 10% of sales, when this number gets too high, ask to switch to percent of ad spend. At this point you would already know which ads work or not and have benchmark metrics to control your spend.
Once all formal boxes are checked, the decision is yours. Last but not least, let’s not forget the human factor. At the end of the day whatever we do, we are in people’s business. You want to simply like who you spend your time with during the regular meetings, someone who is responsive, reliable and trustworthy.
Marketing consultant: do you really need one?
Being a consultant myself I see the role of a marketing consultant very different compared to the one of an agency.
Remember we said that startup is a team sport? Oftentimes startups are bootstrapped and choose to save a penny or two where possible. When it comes to building a team, this may mean having a young team that is super energetic and motivated but simply lacks experience. This holds the risk of not being able to make the right strategy decisions, wrong cost and budget projections, wrong choice of metrics to look after among others.
And this is where someone with experience, who has been through a similar journey comes into the game. You don’t expect a consultant to help you work on your daily or routine tasks, but one can help you build a framework, a structure that your team can follow and execute so they run their marketing function better.
Launching a product or brand is a game with many unknowns. Research shows that 20% of small businesses in the United States fail in the first year, 50% within five years, and 65% within 10 years. Some of the reasons behind the failure are lack of financing, lack of research and wrong target market. Now the trick is to be in the 80% that thrive in the first year. A good consultant can help you pave the way, set the strategy right, make introductions to the right partners and network to help you succeed.
When choosing a marketing consultant follow the same principles as when selecting an agency, giving bigger priority to the one with industry knowledge and experience. Additional benefit of having an external consultant is having someone from the outside who is not tied up in day to day operations, where often teams fall into a trap of routine and lose focus. Having someone with a fresh pair of eyes always helps to give new perspective, identify priorities and set the vector for future development.
I hope this article was helpful to you and you have a better picture of how to choose the right level of support for your marketing needs.
- How long should a startup ideally commit to a marketing agency or consultant before evaluating their performance and considering a change?
When a startup commits to a marketing agency or consultant, a reasonable timeframe for evaluating their performance would typically be around three to six months. This period allows for the implementation of marketing strategies and the gathering of enough data to assess their impact. However, this can vary depending on the marketing channels used and the specific objectives set at the beginning of the engagement.
- Are there any red flags to watch out for in the initial stages of engagement with a marketing agency or consultant that could indicate a potential mismatch?
In the initial stages of engagement with a marketing agency or consultant, some red flags to watch out for include a lack of clear communication, no defined strategy or measurable goals, and a one-size-fits-all approach to your marketing needs. Additionally, if the agency or consultant is not asking detailed questions about your business, target audience, and objectives, it might indicate they are not sufficiently invested in tailoring their services to your specific needs.
- How do startups navigate confidentiality and intellectual property concerns when sharing sensitive information with an external marketing agency or consultant?
Navigating confidentiality and intellectual property concerns involves setting clear boundaries and agreements from the outset. Startups should ensure a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is in place before sharing any sensitive information. Furthermore, it’s important to clearly define what materials or strategies developed during the engagement are considered intellectual property and who retains ownership. This can be outlined in the contract, specifying the rights of each party regarding the use and distribution of the materials created.
If you are looking to pivot in your marketing strategy, and find this article helpful, get in touch to discuss how we can achieve this together.