At one point or another in your marketing journey you will need to work with a digital marketing agency to help fill in the talent, expertise or extra bandwidth that you just don’t have or your team is not capable of fulfilling.

Part of the process is evaluating who the right agency is for the job at hand. Ask any company large or small and they can probably come up with at least one bad encounter with a less than stellar experience working with an agency that over-promised and under-delivered.  If you’re a larger company you can absorb some of these mis-steps, learn from them and call it a day. But if you’re a smaller organization or a one-man shop it can be devastating as you probably don’t have leftover budget to do the project or campaign the right way with a better agency.


How to Find the Best Digital Marketing Agency


I’ve vetted independent consultants, agencies and software vendors for various projects, service providers of all shapes and sizes. I’ve made as many mistakes as the next guy. But I’ve also been fortunate to work with some great people. Here are a few things I can share with you to help you avoid those costly mistakes and find the best digital marketing agency that’s right for your needs.

Network and Ask for Referrals

Friends don’t let friends work with crappy agencies. It’s in your associate’s best interest to share service providers who do a great job because it reflects poorly on them if it doesn’t work out.

You know that network of contacts you’ve built up on LinkedIn? Use them! Reach out to a number of your colleagues and ask them who they work with. You’ll likely come up with a handful of service providers right away.

Google Them!

Stalking. Googling. Same thing. It may be a bit creepy, but it falls under the research category. Look up their company name in Google (or Bing or Yahoo, or whatever search engine floats your boat). Search for terms like “<agency name> review” or “<agency name> sucks”.

If they’re active online you may come across reviews, accolades maybe even examples of some of their work that’s publicly available.

Bonus Points for Thought Leaders in Their Field

Do they blog? Do they answer questions on LinkedIn Q&A? Do they post some of their best ideas on places like Slideshare or Quora? If so, they should get extra bonus points for pushing the boundaries and being a thought leader. At least you’ll get a comfort level of the expertise level of the people you could be working with. It beats finding out the hard way…. finding out they’re not the right fit AFTER you’ve paid the initial retainer fee to work with them.

Don’t Look for the Agency with the Biggest Name. Look for the RIGHT Agency

If you are looking for someone who has solid SEO chops (as an example). The agency that does SEO for Zappos may not be right for you, even though they’ve got a stellar reputation with great results. Why? A few reasons….

  • Find the agency who’s done work similar to what you’re requesting. Someone who’s worked with similar companies such as yours. They’ll likely be able to deliver just what you need and none of the stuff you don’t. And will likely be in the price range that you’d expect.
  • The biggest baddest agency out there will charge top dollar. They *may* have earned the right to do so because they carry with them experience and expertise that you frankly might not need right at this moment in time.  For example, if the top dollar SEO you have on your list is well versed in enterprise ecommerce SEO, and all you need is someone to optimize your blog…that hourly rate has a whole lot of expertise billed into it that you probably don’t need.
  • Bigger isn’t always better. In some cases smaller digital agencies and lesser known agencies (and at times freelance consultants) will work harder for your business than a larger one. You don’t want to be classified as the “B-class” client. You want to be the “A-class” client with whoever you end up hiring b/c your business is important to them.

Ask for 9 References

That’s right, 9.

I came across this by accident actually. I had originally asked an agency for 3 references but couldn’t get a hold of the contacts they provided. After several requests for more references with similar out of office challenges; by the time I got around to the 6th through 9th reference I got a pretty realistic picture of the level of service the agency provided.

Every company has their top 3 references tucked away in their back pocket. Some even cultivate clients that are meant to be on their reference list. Those are the references that will never say anything disparaging about the agency. But when you ask for 9, they have to start digging deep into their client list and that’s when some weaknesses start to come out of the woodwork.

First off, expect weaknesses with every agency you meet. No one is perfect and each one will have their flaws.

But when you ask for a longer list of references you’ll get a good mix of references who had a stellar experience as well as references who had run of the mill experiences with the agency in question. That’s when you can start learning about where their weak points are.

  • Are they weak in regular communications?
  • Do they have a tough time meeting deadlines?
  • Are they overcharging or have poor invoicing practices?

When you ask for that many references the truth starts to come out. And sure you may not get a complete list. They may settle on giving you just shy of whatever your number of references you’ve requested, but the point of the exercise is to get access to recent clients who can share what the average experience is like working with the agency, not necessarily the best experience.

Ask for the A-Team

During the pitch, you’ll get the biggest, best and brightest that the agency has to offer. But make sure they don’t pull a bait-n-switch and stick you with the college intern once you sign the contract.

Ask for profiles of the individuals who will be working on your account and get it in writing that the people you’ve come to know and love during the pitch sessions will be the same people working directly on your account.

Some agencies have high turnover and making sure the best people working on your account is something you’ll have to keep tabs on to make sure it happens. You do not want to be paying top dollar for the B-team.

Add Them on LinkedIn!

Through the evaluation process you’ll be meeting specialists, strategists and account managers. For the folks you encounter who may be potentially working on your account, add them on LinkedIn. This extra bit of research will give you a much broader picture of who you may be working with!

So there you have it. A few pointers to get the few bad apples out of the way so you can find the really good ones.

If you liked this post and think others would benefit from it, please don’t hesitate to share it! I’d really appreciate it!

Happy hunting!


Hey there, I'm Marc!

I'm the Director of Growth Channels @Hootsuite. I've worked in digital marketing since 2000 for agencies, startups and companies like Electronic Arts & SAP. Thanks for checking out my site where I share digital marketing strategies on how to increase website traffic and generate more revenue.

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