Tips for Marketers Selecting a Digital Agency

Over the last 12 months, I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of clients looking for new agencies or new digital agencies. And I have seen a huge increase in the number of jobs listed on LinkedIn that have to do with digital marketing, social media marketing, or mobile, both on the brand or client side as well as the agency side. This makes sense since most brands have done a variety of tactics in digital and social media in recent years. Now they are looking to take it to the next level by identifying best practices, new ways to better integrate the tactics, and also the right metrics to use to measure effectiveness and business impact or ROI.

How to Tell if Your Agency Sucks at Digital – 5 Red Flags

Unfortunately, most traditional agencies are not well-equipped to do digital, even though all of them now “hang a shingle” and tell their clients they also do “digital.” Clients know better and can usually see right through that. That’s why they are looking elsewhere for real expertise. Even some of the traditional web development agencies don’t know or do digital well at all. They sure know how to make websites, but they are novices when it comes to digital strategy and marketing across all of the new disciplines such as search, social, and mobile.

But how can you tell if your agency really knows digital, or not? Here are five red flags to look out for:

  1. They pitch you a Chinese menu of tactics along with pricing for each before they ask you what your business objectives and marketing challenges are.
  2. There is no explicit correlation between the proposed tactics and the business priorities or objectives of the marketing campaign.
  3. They fail to specify what metrics to use to measure the campaign effectiveness or business impact or fail to define what success means, in terms of the metrics that need to be achieved.
  4. They keep talking about branding and “storytelling” and refer to “reach and frequency” and getting your message out to targeted audiences. In digital, it matters less the number of people you “shout” your ad at; it is more important the right people find your information and use it or pass it along.
  5. There is an inherent conflict of interest – for example, the tactics they recommend are the things they make money on, like the making of web pages or Facebook pages, the placing of media on social networks, etc., and they are the ones reporting analytics back to you to tell you if the campaign was successful or not – how could it not be successful?

Hard Questions to Ask and Terms to Insist On

As a corollary to the above, here are hard questions to ask of the agencies you are considering for deploying your digital tactics:

  1. If they claim to be social media experts, ask them to show you proof. If they show you their Facebook or Twitter page and then cite the number of followers, don’t hire them. They will do the same for you – i.e., count followers (which is the wrong metric to use to gauge business impact).
  2. If they claim to be search experts, ask them to show you proof – which search terms do they actually rank for; can you find any of the articles (if any) they published via search? If they can’t show you this kind of evidence, don’t hire them. They will be learning to do this stuff on your dime and on your time.
  3. If they cite focus groups and surveys (subjective and unreliable method to support subjective and unreliable creative) to back up their claims that the creative “resonates,” fire them before you hire them; they are clearly not in tune with digital – the speed of the “read and react” that is necessary and the opportunity to listen in real time via search and social media.
  4. If they claim to be knowledgeable about digital or claim a specific view point, ask them to show you proof – in the form of published articles, transcripts of tweets, quotes, citations, etc., and the dates of these references. If their experience, knowledge, and viewpoints cannot be backed up by a publicly published track record, don’t hire them.
  5. If during the pitch they bring a hodgepodge of people from “partner” agencies, ask who has actually done work with them on past projects and ask explicitly who will be working on your projects if they win. Most of these so-called partners have never worked together before and you will get subpar service and subpar knowledge as they figure out how to collaborate on your dime.
  6. Insist on project-based scopes of work, with a clear beginning and clear endpoints, timeline, and deliverables. Based on exactly such a scope, ask for project-based pricing too – and always triple-bid every project. This way, you know if the pricing is right and you will learn further nuances and details you may not have even thought to ask for, based on the responses of the various vendors bidding on the project.


Armed with these “watch-outs” and hard questions to ask, any brand can cut through the clutter, jargon, and poseurs and identify the agencies that are truly knowledgeable about digital marketing and truly well-equipped with experienced personnel who will actually work on your projects.

In Part 2 of this column, I will talk about “What is digital strategy anyway?” and the process of collaborative innovation, which is essential to creating the right digital strategy and mapping the right digital tactics and metrics to it to drive the greatest business impact.

This column was originally published on March 1, 2012.

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