Evaluating an Agency: A checklist

Now that you have selected an agency and started working together, how do you evaluate them and their overall performance.

Of course the most obvious one is their performance and delivery. An agency who does not perform and cannot deliver against set KPI’s would not be around for long. But there are other factors as well to consider.

But Performance does not just mean the achievement of KPI’s, you also have to look at end to end service delivery, or what I have put together as the 3 C’s.

  1. Consistency – or ‘Reliability’
    This refers to how trustworthy the agency is, and not only in their performance but whether they perform well regularly, or is it more unpredictable? There are other factors which can affect performance including the market, targeting, budgets etc. however this factor is purely on the agency.
    – How quick are they to action points?
    – Do they need detailed instructions? or can they be trusted to look after your best interests?
    – Is their performance regular? or do they have moments of peak performance followed by low performance sporadically?An agency should be consistent in their performance and if not it should be backed up by good reason. They should look after their clients interests and not be afraid to disagree or question plans. They should be pro-active to suggest new and innovative ideas and if left to their own devices can deliver results consistently.
  2. Communication – or ‘frequency’
    This refers to how easy and more importantly how often do they communicate with you. Is it just that weekly call to go over reports or is it more frequent where you’ll can discuss new happenings and strategy?
    – Who makes the first step in communicating?
    – Do they communicate only if there is something to report? or do they check in with you more frequently?
    – Do they follow up with you on any action points? os is it you doing the following up?It is vital that the agency communicates frequently and of items of value. They should not hesitate in providing updates, even if it is unsolicited. They should also be easy to get in touch, and get back to you within a reasonable timeframe. That being said, the onus is not only on the agency but also on the client. Communication needs to work both ways. You should keep the agency updated on any new happenings or events within the company, which can affect the strategy or can inspire new ideas. You should be easy to get in touch with and also follow up with the agency and get regular updates. Interest needs to be shown by both parties for effective communication.
  3. Clarity Рor  Transparency
    This to me is one of the most important points. One of the most frustrating aspects I face in dealing with agencies is when they are vague in their communications. There is no clear indication given for what they are working on, or how they are working on your account. How is the budget being used and how do they account for the time spent by their executives?
    – Can they explain what they are doing and how they are doing it?
    – Are they vague or give ‘blanket’ explanations such as ‘we are working on it’?
    – Can they justify their actions or the steps taken?It is very important that the agency is honest in their communication. While of course they may be certain trade secrets they do not wish to share or a certain method to their madness, if a client requests for information this should not be withheld or for agencies to act superior in their knowledge. That does not mean that the client is always right either, or that an agency knows better. Both parties have important information and a different style of working so it is important to work together.

So this is just a small checklist of what I believe to be the most important factors (besides performance) in evaluating an agency. Of course no agency is perfect, or will fit all criteria. There will always be some limitations in either size, budgets, or expertise, but this should give you a general idea on what to look out for in a good agency.

Do you have any other items to add to the list? Or what is your evaluation criteria?

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How to choose the ‘right’ digital agency

Choosing a suitable agency can be a highly daunting task. There are a multitude of qualified agencies all promising to be the best in their respective fields; how do you find these agencies? do you choose a full service agency or a more specialized one? I’ve put together a few tips from my experience of trying to find a good agency.

  1. Full – Service or Specialized?
    Firstly, it all depends on what’s the reason for getting an agency. Is it to handle all digital services or for a specific activity such as social media, search marketing etc. If it is for all digital services, then a full serviced agency would be more beneficial. This is not only because they have a wide variety of skills which could benefit the company, the more investment larger agencies receive, the better discounts and services they will provide. If you are looking for a specialized service then usually smaller boutique agencies are preferable. This is because they are more focused on a specific activity and can provide dedicated services, for a smaller budget.
  2. Local or International?
    If the target market is located within the UAE, then a local agency would be essential, but what if the market is global or in another country? Is it better to have one agency handle all markets or find a local agency within that market. Again this is dependent on the overall business strategy of the company. Most agencies find it more cost effective to go with one global multinational agency who have localized agencies in other countries, it makes it easier to deal with and they provide an integrated strategy, but if it is only one or two other markets then perhaps it is better to invest with a local agency there.
  3. Locating Agencies
    The next step would be putting together a list of agencies based on your requirements. Ideally the best place is to look for them is on Google (and being digital agencies I would expect them to have a strong presence online). Full serviced agencies can be found by looking for ‘digital agencies’ or ‘digital marketing agencies’. It is important to keep in mind that most traditional brand / creative / media buying agencies have also entered this space and offer complete digital services, so you can find agencies using those search terms as well. In the search results (SERPs), you can find out more about about each agency through their meta title, or their PPC results. In each of the ads, agencies specify if they specialize in a particular activity such as ‘SEO’ or they are complete ‘digital marketing’ agencies. I also prefer using third party sites such as: https://digitalagencynetwork.com/agencies/ or using organizations such as eConsultancy and their preferred lists which provide recommendations.
    It is important to consider the location of these agencies.
  4. Selecting & Shortlisting Agencies
    Once an agency list has been created, it is important to narrow them down. This is one of the more daunting tasks that need to be done. It is important to look for the following: Clients, Experience, Awards, Case Studies.
    Most agencies will have a client list on their site, but it is important to understand what work has been done for their clients. If they work on social, then check out the social pages and see how they are being managed, if they are handling search, review their SEO or check out their PPC ads to see how they are set up. Most agencies also have multiple case studies to support their claims. But it is not enough to say what work is being done but what are the results that have been achieved. Finally, it is also useful to look at what awards (if any) have been won by the agency and for any specific work.
  5. Deciding on the agency
    Once a shortlist has been put together the next stage would be to either send a Request for Proposal (RFP) or ask them to send across a proposal based on your needs. An RFP is a structured document with a list of requirements, however it is also possible to contact them and ask for a proposal. It is up to your discretion to provide a budget for the activity or not. In most cases businesses are not sure what the budget should be, so they ask the agency to advise which is quite normal, however it is important to consider how the agency costs. Is it a percentage of media spend or a flat fee, this would affect how much is taken by the agency and what’s left for the actual spend, so the final decision would be based on overall budget.

Is there anything else to consider, that I may have missed out?

Marketing: In-house vs Outsourcing? Finding the Balance

When it comes to marketing does it make sense to have in-house talent or would it be better to outsource to a specialized agency?

Most companies fall somewhere in the middle of this broad spectrum, where in-house marketing strategy is supported by agency execution, of course this also depends on the type of marketing activity which is being performed.

Most Brand marketing, is usually done in-house, where agencies are used to support specific tasks such as creative concepts and execution for a marketing campaign. Campaigns can be short or long term, with multiple agencies working on a similar project.

For Digital marketing, decisions have to be made on an activity level as different channels need varying levels of expertise. The decision is also dependent on the number of projects or brands that need to be worked on. Digital Marketing channels include:

  • Social Media
    This is the most common and ‘go to’ channel for digital needs, however there are a lot of factors to consider before deciding to outsource. Firstly social media takes a lot of time to manage, develop and engage. Many businesses choose to employ a dedicated executive to handle social media accounts especially if there are multiple channels, multiple brands, or the company is involved in a lot of events and live activations. Having an in-house resource means they are more familiar with the brand, the target market and language style to ensure a seamless experiences across other advertising channels. However outsourcing to an agency has its own merits. Agencies have more experience but care has to be taken they don’t do similar work with competitors, agencies also charge by the number of channels they need to manage, how often they post and the number of events they are expected to cover. Also social posting needs someone who can create a brand story, and most agencies are not well connected to the brand or to the target market to understand their needs and what they respond do. Of course this is not to say that agencies cannot do a good job, they can as long as there is a good understanding. So this decision needs to be made on a business level and looking at the cost / benefits of either option. If the business has the resource then social is an activity which should be kept in house and close to the brand.
  • Paid Media
    This activity refers to digital advertising across multiple channels such as social, Google Adwords, Display etc. Media buying is usually an agency led activity. There are a few businesses who do it in-house, but this is dependent on the the number of products or the overall size of the business. If it is a small company with one or two products it is relatively easy to manage this activity in house either by a marketing exec or direct by business owner; however if this is on a larger scale, then it is more profitable to outsource this to an agency. Most agencies work on operating margins, therefore while they conduct media buying they can work across multiple accounts to get better deals. Advertising optimization is also a time consuming and specialized activity which requires professionals with experience or managing campaigns can be an expensive affair. They are also more in tune with the different ad formats available and which would best for the media activity. But most agencies usually charge either a minimum spend or % of overall media spend which may work out better depending on the number of campaigns that are being run. Possibly one solution to this is to let agencies manage the media buying and optimizing while having in house expertise to manage the campaign strategy, channel selection and overall plan.
  • Organic Search
    A highly specialized and often technical activity, organic search is a long term investment and requires a high level of expertise and connections with media and bloggers for link building, and an understanding of website architecture to review technical SEO. Most businesses outsource this to agencies, who work on a retainer basis and conduct a set amount of optimization activity per month. However it is strongly recommended to have in-house SEO expertise who can set SEO strategy according to overall business strategy, cater to business objectives and review agency activity.

There is no easy decision when it comes to in-house vs. outsourcing of marketing activity, the best option is to review the below factors before making a decisions:

  1. Size of Business / Level of Activity
  2. Cost & Marketing Budgets
  3. Digital Expertise required

While there is no ‘one’ overall solution digital marketing requires a combination of in-house brand management and digital know how combined with the execution expertise, industry experience and media buying power of agencies. Usually a merger of experts from both sides of the business proves to be overall beneficial for the business; it’s all about finding the right balance.

So, how does it work in your company?