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Time For A New Digital Agency? Ask The Right Questions & Avoid Getting Burnt

If you’re reading this it’s likely that your company is going through the process of sourcing a digital agency to partner with, and I certainly don’t envy your position.

Finding a reliable and trustworthy provider that doesn’t bamboozle you with jargon or throw you in to the clutches of their snake-oil salesmen can be difficult – the proverbial minefield, indeed.

Let’s face it, your online presence means a lot to your business. In many cases your online success is critical for the health of your organisation and therefore demands treating with the utmost respect.

In this article I set out a blueprint that you can use to help lessen the burden, and with some guidance, land that perfect digital marketing partner that meets your every need.


TL;DR: The evolution of ‘digital marketing’ represents an exciting opportunity but only if people like you and I are cohesively working together towards the common business goals and setting real expectations.


I’d like to start off with my pet hate. Yes I’m the owner of an agency. Indeed you may think I’m going to be biased. But please ask yourself, what real value do I get from anything that’s free?

Typically a ‘free consultation’ or free audit means one thing, a thinly veiled sales ploy. Your business is worth more than that. More often than not these automated, churned and template driven reports aren’t worth the PDF they’re saved on.

Isn’t your time worth more than a throwaway report?

If you want a level of service that is specifically tailored to and comprehensively supports your requirements, be prepared to pay for it.

Rant over, if you’re still with me, let’s get to the questions!

The right questions to ask

Experience – deliver me this, deliver me that

Larger agencies will employ specific project or account managers to handle your affairs. In a smaller agency like ourselves we use a centrally managed approach where each project has a lead and is guided by the line manager or director (in this case, myself).

There’s no right or wrong answer here. The important thing to remember is what the collective experience delivered for previous customers, can the results be proven and how open are they about their successes?

Q1: “Who will be managing my account and executing the work?”

Transparency – the good, the bad and the ugly

For a lot of people the whole online marketing niche is too smoke and mirrors. Rarely are there proprietary skillsets that infer secrets will be lost if any information is disclosed to the client.

I wouldn’t expect many agencies to give you their warts and all approach, but at the very least a top-level summary of their strategy and how they apply it to your business should be on the table.

From our own experience involving you, the client, at each stage is a win-win scenario for us all. Therefore we run our own internet facing project management software that allows our team to collaborate with yours, securely and in the comfort that there’s a ‘paper’ trail and stuff gets done.

Q2: “How do you keep the process transparent and us in the loop?”

Exclusivity – you’re the only one for me, baby

A catch 22 if I ever saw one. If you tie your agency down to working with just you in your niche then someone is only going to work with your competitor anyway. Better the devil you know?

There’s also the underlying issue of non-disclosure – in some cases you might not know the real situation with who and who isn’t running your competitors campaigns.

That said of course it’s entirely your prerogative and there’s no harm posing the question.

Q3: “Are you or will you be working with any of our competitors?”

Communication – hello, is it me you’re calling for?

Free hotline to the stars? Or I pay you to deal with this so don’t bother my precious time.

Clear and frank communication channels should be agreed upfront before any work commences, it saves any frustrations further down the line.

We work loosely to a two tier model, if it’s urgent give us a call, if it’s project sensitive place your thoughts in the project software. Notice we’re avoiding email wherever possible?

That may or may not work for you – hence agreeing specifics at the start to save any pain later on.

Q4: “What are the best channels to talk and how often should we expect contact?”

Success – you’re winning if your agency is winning

Less of a question and more of a statement, but I’ve never heard a truer word. We as a digital marketing agency are in the business to help you and your business grow. Your best interests are ours, because let’s be frank here in many instances we pay each other’s pay cheque.

If you’re unlucky enough to stumble across one of the few agencies that works for their best interests only, hopefully armed with this questionnaire you will avoid stepping on that particular mine!

Do these results align with your own KPI’s and internal expectations?

Q5: “Can you show us some great case studies that are appropriate to our business?”

Losses – because nobody’s perfect

One of my favourite questions ever because I enjoy answering it – what has been your biggest loss/mistake/failure?

Scary. Daunting! Leftfield? I think you’ll find, it’s honest.

No one is perfect, things don’t always go to plan and it’s a real grounding subject to discuss objectively the “what and why” of such scenarios with your agency.

Q6: “What went wrong and why, but more importantly how quickly did you pick yourselves up, learn and improve going forward?”

Reporting – you’re paying for more than just PDFs

If I had a pound (sterling) for every time we changed or improved our reporting, I’d be forty of your average cups of coffee better off. And boy, do I like fresh coffee…

The general consensus here should be to pin down expectations, set out markers and milestones, and identify those key performance indicators so reports are right for you. Not us.

Reports shouldn’t be a time sink for your agency and they certainly shouldn’t go straight to your recycle bin.

Q7: “How do you report, to what level of detail and what frequency?”

Budget – may I recommend the house wine sir?

Remember is there’s no right or wrong when it comes to pricing services. Some people will tell you “they shouldn’t charge for X” whilst others will counter, “that’s an extra!”

It goes without saying, get a price structure or rate card (or similar) upfront because it will save you a lot of hassle going forward.

If the agency doesn’t have a starting from or fixed price structure, be fair to them, give them an idea of your budget. Avoid falling in to the trap of dancing around the costs involved, negotiations should start around budget expectations otherwise you run the risk of wasting each other’s time.

Q8: “Our budget is X, is that realistic for what we’re asking of you?”

Clients – David or Goliath?

Ask yourself if you want to be an agency’s biggest or smallest client. The issue with being the largest client is that you run the risk of being too big for the agency to handle. Conversely if you’re too small you might not get the same level of service and priority as the larger and higher value clients.

But more than that, if you’re a big business are you the right fit for the agency to scale with you?

I think it’s more important to ask about their ideal client than the obvious “are we the biggest/smallest” because the canned response will likely be a resounding “no” [to save face].

Q9: “What do you look for in a client; or perhaps, describe your perfect client?”

Core Values – work with people you like

Ask any agency and they’ll say there are good clients and there are bad clients. Ask any client and you’ll probably hear the same about their agency experiences.

Aside from the few rare occurrence there are no bad clients per se, the issue is that a client failed to communicate their requirements effectively and/or the agency didn’t do a good enough job educating them how!

When evaluating an agency get to know them on a personal level, their ethos and their way of working. Understanding this foundation is similar to interviewing a potential new employee. There needs to be a sound cultural and organisational bond for the working relationship to be positive and tenable.

Enter stage left; a tricky question that will put an agency on their toes!

Q10: “What is it like working with you on an ongoing basis?”

Creative Control – make it pop! Kill me now…

Stop using the term pop, then we can all just get along – unless of course pink glitter is your thing?

Joking aside the creative control over marketing assets can be a tough decision for both sides. Depending on your desired relations and how much control you wish to allow your agency, you should still be open to feedback and critique (both ways).

If you’re agency does creative, trust in them and give them free reign over your marketing. If you’d prefer a very thorough on-brand change process then be sure to make it critically clear from the start. Remember – no surprises!

Sometimes it worth the risk, being creative and outside the box. Be it unique, zany or simply ridiculous, communicate your comfort zone and let your agency’s creative juices flow.

Q11: “From a creative point of view, what level of input is required of us?”

Contract – tie me down, tire me out

The quality of an agency can be described by the length of their ‘Terms & Conditions’… was never said, by anyone. Ever.

Contracts can be a big deal for some people, less for others. Agency models vary considerably and when it comes to contacts I don’t personally feel there’s a right or wrong way to do business. All I know is that we don’t tie our clients down with lengthy contracts – if the work is good enough, they’ll stay.

If the work isn’t good enough and relations dwindle, why would either side want to fight their corner?

A common sense approach is required of course, do what’s right for you and walk away from an agency that doesn’t fit your comfort zone.

Q12: “Can I see your terms of contract please?”

Milestones – Rome was built in a day, true story

If you’re discussing contract terms you’re on the cusp of signing the deal, exciting times indeed.

So it might be a good time to consider what actually happens after that point.

Many a diligent agency will need a foundation or at the very least a research phase to kick-start any project. Moreover if there isn’t a setup fee this will be factored in to the first months’ time you’re paying for. If you expect them to hit the ground running and build from the off you might be in for a shock. Just take a look at Rome, or a pint of Guinness.

Factor in the pace of work and how the agency expects things to proceed from here.

Q13: “What will the first 90 days of the project look like?”

And finally – walk a two way street

Perhaps most importantly of all, you’re looking for a partnership so treat it as such. Make sure your goals, expectations and any internal KPI’s are laid out to bare from the start. Setting expectations saves any frustrations, embarrassment and arguments (on both sides)!

Yes finding the right agency to partner with is a big, key decision for your company. Yes it can be very tricky and in many cases a lengthy process. But treat each other with respect and mutual understanding, and the many facets of engagement will align that more readily and easily.

Have I missed any killer questions? I’d love to hear your (client and agency side) thoughts on this article, the questions within and your own findings and experiences.

Recap, the checklist of questions

Q1: Who will be managing my account and executing the work?

Q2: How do you keep the process transparent and us in the loop?

Q3: Are you or will you be working with any of our competitors?

Q4: What are the best channels to talk and how often should we expect contact?

Q5: Can you show us some great case studies that are appropriate to our business?

Q6: What went wrong and why, but more importantly how quickly did you pick yourselves up, learn and improve going forward?

Q7: How do you report, to what level of detail and what frequency?

Q8: Our budget is X, is that realistic for what we’re asking of you?

Q9: What do you look for in a client, or perhaps describe your perfect client?

Q10: What is it like working with you on an ongoing basis?

Q11: From a creative point of view, what level of input is required of us?

Q12: Can I see your terms of contract please?

Q13: What will the first 90 days of the project look like?

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Ed Leake

Author: Ed Leake

PPC nerd, founder and Managing Director of Midas Media, Ed started in 'tech' when he was 12 years old, building websites and selling computers from his parent's garage. Outside of work Ed enjoys yet more work, motorsport, attempting to cycle with clip-on shoes and refuelling on fresh doughnuts.

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