Ten Questions to Ask Before You Hire a New B2B Agency

Posted on by Beth Negus Viveiros

Choosing a new agency is a huge commitment for any B2B brand. How do you know if a shop is really the right fit for you?

We talked to several B2B shops from the Chief Marketer 200 to get their take on the questions brands should ask agencies (and themselves) to find their marketing soulmates.

  1. What’s the agency’s vertical market expertise?

Can they share recent references and case studies of companies similar to your business both in size and focus? How long have their current clients been working with them? Do they have experience with companies similar to yours, with comparable products or challenges?

“Every vertical market has its own vernacular, and you need to speak the language of the customer you want to market to,” says Howard Breindel, partner at Desantis Breindel. “An agency needs to understand the business they’re representing.”

Howard Breindel

There’s a big trend towards convergence in the agency world, notes Breindel. Digital, branding, advertising, PR—you name it, every agency says they do it today. This, he says, can lead to brands hiring the wrong agencies for their needs. “It’s an interesting challenge, because you might not get [a shop] that’s the right fit.”

Always make sure you’re meeting the team that will actually work on your account, not the business development team, says Breindel. Also, get a sense of what level of talent will be working on your account. Will you be getting senior level creative, or the JV team? 

  1. Is B2B really their specialty?

Is business-to-business a major focus for the shop? Do they have expertise in both demand gen and branding? How long have they concentrated on B2B, and do they have the necessary skill sets you need to accomplish what you need?

Gary Slack

“An agency doesn’t have to be 100 percent B2B to be a good fit, but if B2C is their main focus, there can be a danger of the B2B clients being treated as second class citizens, and not getting the more senior teams to work on their projects,” says Gary Slack, chief experience officer at Slack and Co.

The size of agency is also something to consider, says Josh Albert, vice president, business development at Godfrey. If a marketer believes they’re going to bring large amount of business into an agency, how will the agency handle it? Will they outsource, or hire more team members to pick up the slack internally?

  1. How do they measure—and show—results?

Reporting is more critical than ever before throughout the B2B sales cycle. Often, it takes longer to convert and you need to know what is driving those conversions, and how an agency will partner with you to optimize the process, notes Ashley DePaolo, president at CommCreative.

Ashley DePaolo

“Ask agencies for examples of how they connect sales and marketing and connect the dots to provide closed loop reporting,” she says. “Agencies should be able to talk about how they can shift strategies and deal with changes—today, we all have to adjust and be nimble.”

  1. Are they thought leaders?

As with many B2B buying decisions, the agency search process today often starts online, with prospective clients doing a lot of searching on the web before they reach out.

“Look at the content an agency is publishing—is it relevant or helpful to you? This is a way to quickly disqualify agencies that don’t have your perspective,” says Albert, noting that in this new world, many brands are actually opting to do pilot projects with potential agency partners to get a sense of how they work, rather than going through the traditional RFP process.

Albert adds that he always likes to ask why the potential client is interested in his shop. “Did they like our work? Did they like an article we published? Did they see us speak at an event? That’s a question that often gets overlooked. If they don’t have a good reason, they haven’t done due diligence.”

  1. Do you get along?
Josh Albert

“Meeting people in person is critical, because at the end of the day, culture is important,” says Breindel. “It’s important to understand how they are going to make decisions throughout the process. “

DePaolo agrees. “We want to partner with people who are as excited to work with us, as we are to work with them,” she says. You should ask yourself, “Do you believe you’ve found an agency that will make the process fun? Will they prioritize your work? How will it work in the grand scheme of all the work they do? Do you trust them?”

Getting together early in the initial qualification process and talking about the business allows the marketer to access quickly if the agency understands their industry and helps uncover immediate needs, says Albert. “After all, both sides ware making investments.”

But remember that getting along doesn’t mean always being in agreement. A client needs be able to challenge their agency—and vice-versa. “You don’t want an agency that is too quick to fold and say yes,” says Adryanna Sutherland, COO at gyro.

Adryanna Sutherland

“Being a Midwesterner, I have a very respectful persona, but at the same time we can push back. You want to hire a company that can bring in a strong outside perspective and respectfully disagree if needed.”

  1. Why are you looking to make a change?

Why are you interested in hiring a new agency? What worked in your previous relationships? Are you happy with your current shop’s work? If not, why not? And if so, why are you searching for someone new?

“We’ll probe whether they’re looking at the agency as a partner over time,” says Tom Stein, chairman and chief client officer at Stein IAS. “If it doesn’t have that potential, it could be a great project but we have to make a hard decision.”

It can be helpful to know what department is driving the agency search process. If marketing isn’t running the show, the agency review may simply be happening because it’s on the corporate schedule and required. The RFP process might be an onerous one, with a crazy tight timetable for agencies vying for the business. “Clients might be on a fishing expedition looking for information,” says Slack. “If there’s an incumbent involved, almost always they have the advantage. [It’s hard to know] if the client really even wants a new agency.”

  1. What is your budget?

It’s hard for an agency to respond to an RFP if they don’t know the budget range for what they can spend, or what they’ve spent or invested in the last year. Holding this information close to the vest might seem intuitive, but it won’t help you find the right partner.

Tom Stein

“We really try to pin people down on their spend,” says Stein. “We have a threshold for what an opportunity needs to generate from a revenue standpoint, and a lot of the time clients don’t want to divulge that. But we should know what the financial situation is, so we can know the resources [for the] account.”

  1. What are the deliverables?

What is your goal? What do you want to have happen when this engagement is over? Awareness? Thought leadership? Targeted media spending? What are they key KPIs?

“So often when we see initial RFP questions from a client, there is a real lack of clarity around what the client is looking for and requires,” says Stein. “It all feels fuzzy and non specific, like a fishing expedition with people putting general questions out there to see what comes back.”

“We highly qualify clients,” he adds. “We will ask as many questions or more than they ask in some instances—if we’re going to go after something, we want to be sure that it is a fit and that our approach aligns with what the client wants to achieve.”

  1. Is your c-suite on board?

Does marketing have support from the highest levels of the organization? Is there a lot of turnover in the management and marketing team? Do you want to collaborate or do you want to be presented to? Who, ultimately, is the agency’s point of contact?

“You need to have someone who will be dedicated to managing the agency relationship,” says DePaolo. “Sometimes it is the CMO and sometimes it might be someone at the marketing manager level. If we get a call from the CEO, we know they’re not going to have the time to dedicate to us, so we need a [strong] point of contact.”

  1. What do other people think?

While many people still see Glassdoor as a place for employees to rate employers, it can also be a good place to get insight into an organization. “We check Glassdoor on every prospect to see rating and recommendations, and to see what people think about their CEO,” says Slack. “We hope our prospects are doing the same for us.”

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