How to hire a marketing agency

Hiring a marketing agency is a big - and expensive - commitment. So how can you do it well, and make sure you've entered a relationship that will produce results?

Modern marketing is tough.

Tried-and-tested tools are less effective, thanks to the plethora of new tactics – digital, social and viral marketing – that give you more choices than ever before but also require considerable expertise to execute effectively

No wonder so many businesses seek an outsourced partner to guide them through the jungle of new and old marketing opportunities and to provide fresh eyes, industry expertise and some perspective

What should you look for when you hire a marketing outfit? To start, look for someone who can go beyond the traditional role of being great communicators and instead become multi-skilled strategists and problem-solvers

You also need to understand that when you outsource the marketing function it needs to be viewed as an investment not an expense. Return on investment (ROI) should be tracked accordingly

An active relationship

Marketing consultants who spoke to My Business claim that the secret to a great relationship is to be active, not passive. The way you maintain the relationship will also go a long way to determining whether you are a nightmare client or a dream to work with

"It is their job to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the marketing and advertising world and choosing the right agency means you have the edge over your competitors," Pulse Marketing Managing Director Lauren Brown says

As media increasingly fragments, communications programs are getting more complex and small businesses rarely have the time to develop in-house expertise across every medium

Using an external agency also helps companies focus on their core strengths, while allowing experienced marketing professionals to develop appropriate plans and campaigns on a tight turnaround and not disrupt the flow of the company. "There's a reason that even the largest companies in the world use agencies – they add value to the business," Brown notes

Companies wanting the benefits of an experienced marketer or public relations (PR) consultant but without the six figure salary in-house operatives can attract can instead utilise the outsourced agency model without bearing the costs of recruiting, training and employee benefits

"They can have access to this expertise in bite-sized options. It is a very low risk, cost-effective solution to get access to expert knowledge that will help you drive your business in the right direction," says Sonja van den Bosch, founder and Managing Director of consultancy Twinlife, which specialises in small to medium business (SME) marketing services

The agency also works with clients to set up the right marketing structure, develop the marketing strategy and plan and then project manage the eventual implementation

"The aim is to become part of their organisation, but always provide an objective outside perspective

We often educate the business owner on marketing and work together with an admin person on the implementation. In this way we transfer marketing intellectual property and skills into the organisation and they do not become dependent on us being there," van den Bosch explains

She adds that this approach means the agency can grow with the client and work on more sophisticated projects as the company's marketing needs evolve

Using an external agency to grow with the company was what Melbourne based IT and communications start-up Brennan IT had in mind four years ago when it made BRW's Fast 100 two years running. CEO Dave Stevens knew he had an opportunity to take the company's profile to the next level

"In turning to professional public relations our aim was to lift our profile, build upon our image and reputation, and reach a new audience through the mainstream press," he said. The company used The PR Group to work on its media strategy, firstly as a growth story, and then positioning the company as an ICT services specialist for midsized businesses. Four years later and with a slew of coverage in mainstream and trade press, Brennan is now an established brand still using the PR Group for its outsourced PR and expanding marketing needs

"Whether it's cloud computing or new approaches to IT infrastructure, it's vital that our voice is heard in the marketplace. The coverage we receive also generates leads, which is of great value whenever we've brought new products to market," Stevens says

The rules of engagement

On the quest for the perfect agency partner, companies need to do their research and look for a marketing consultant who clearly walks the talk. "Do they have a strong brand presence, good web site and good presence on search?" asks Marketing Angels founder Michelle Gamble

"You want to look for evidence that your marketing consultant is good at marketing themselves and has built some brand awareness," she says, adding that ideally they should have at least 10 years experience

Deciding what your company needs from the start will avoid confusion and costly billable hours in the long run. Thanks to the digital uprising the marketing palette now includes an increasing range of issues from branding, product and marketing strategy, media strategy, public relations, to social media and all it's varying online subsets

Defining your needs in a succinct brief from the outset will help you choose the right type of agency which may be a full service outfit encompassing all marketing needs or taking a strategic approach taking on separate agencies to handle distinct tasks such as PR or social media

"The brief is everything. If you can't articulate in the brief what you are trying to achieve and what you want an agency to do, it will be very difficult for the agency to build a program that meets your expectations and desired outcomes," PR Group Director Melissa Shawyer says

TwinLife's van den Bosch also warns SMEs not to get locked into long term contracts initially

"We make our clients aware that marketing and especially setting up the right structure doesn't change the world overnight, but will give long-term success and that we need six months to make a difference. At Twinlife we don't use a cookie cutter marketing approach, as every situation and market is different. Make sure that the agency is not pushing you in a certain direction, because they can sell add-on products. We solely focus on consulting and will always make sure that we give our clients the best unbiased advice." The Public Relations Institute of Australia advises that fees will depend on the size and complexity of your project, the fee may range from $2,000 to $10,000 for each consultancy

Deal breakers

"As any married couple will tell you, relationships take work, and it's no different when dealing with agencies," warns Shawyer

Managing the relationships takes work from both sides. Bad communication is nominated as the most common relationship breaker, Shawyer offers

unstuck when communication channels break down," she says

"The best advice I can give clients to ensure a harmonious relationship with their agency is to understand the process. Often frustration and conflict arises when the client has unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved," she adds

Brown urges clients to set expectations at the beginning of the relationship. "If service is your top priority, tell them that. If you want monthly planning meetings to evaluation programs, put that in your brief. As an agency, we are more than happy to commit to whatever will make the relationship successful and efficient, but we need to know expectations upfront so we can ensure delivery." Availability is also a key deal breaker. "A common frustration for many agencies is when a client wants to be seen in media, however will not be available for interviews, or is not open to advice. Educating senior executives about how the media works is vital to manage expectations and also ensure commitment and availability," Shawyer says

This is also an issue when agencies need direction or validation from clients to move ahead with projects

Agencies therefore suggest that companies appoint an internal go-to person to handle all liaison with the agency, ensuring accessibility

Scheduling regular meetings and status updates with your agency will also help get the best results

While many companies keep an agency on a retainer and use them as needed, this is not the most efficient use of your agencies' resources

"It is also important that you set clear expectations around delivery, service level agreements and performance. At The PR Group, we always ensure that we have in place a short-term activity schedule and long-term plan with clear objectives and measurement criteria to make it easier for all parties to track and measure performance and outcomes. We recommend weekly progress meetings. In many cases a telephone or even online conference can suffice. What is important is that the lines of communication are open to maintain momentum," Shawyer advises

A casual affair

An emerging trend for businesses still working out what kind of partner they want for their marketing needs is using online services like

The web site draws on a pool of two million members offering their outsourced services

"Small to medium businesses around Australia are beginning to outsource absolutely any job. Marketing is one of those functions, with copywriting, Google AdWords management, brochure design, and all manner of marketing work being outsourced for a fraction of the cost," CEO Matt Barrie says

Barrie says businesses are paying less than one tenth the cost of a local marketing agency

The service also offers milestone payments where the job you are outsourcing is split up into several components. The freelancer gets paid only when certain milestones are achieved, reducing risk

While the cost savings can be impressive and competitive, the service is a remote one and comes with the possibility that your marketing or PR consultant is based offshore. So more sophisticated needs such as meetings with stakeholders or media or in-house work does not apply here

Yet for start-ups or companies that only need aspects of their marketing needs covered on an ad-hoc basis, services such as this offer a convenient solution

"While internet-savvy companies were the first to outsource work to, the paradigm is changing. We're seeing mum and dad stores in regional areas, start-ups, and even well-established multinationals outsourcing jobs," he says

The GFC also spurred a wave of growth for the service. "Although we're privileged to not be too heavily affected by the GFC in Australia, it has still forced businesses to tighten their belts, and the best way to do this is to cut costs by outsourcing to affordable freelancers around the world."

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