February 28, 2018, posted by Admin

Selecting a Digital Ad Agency: 9 Steps to Success

Selecting the right digital ad agency can be an exciting, yet daunting process. The right agency partner can breathe fresh life into your marketing, allow you to gain a deeper understanding of your target audience and how to market to them, and help you hit your goals for the year. However, choosing the wrong digital ad agency can waste budget, resources, time, and potentially, your reputation internally.

Due to the high stakes of this decision, it should be clear that your agency selection team needs to do their homework before the agency search even begins.

Define Clear Needs & Expectations

Hiring a digital ad agency should not be an impulse decision. It’s important to think of your future agency partner in the same way you would a prospective employee. You (hopefully) wouldn’t hire someone without knowing the role they would fill on your team and what your expectations for success would be, right?

Similar to hiring an individual employee, you have to understand your needs and expectations to avoid wasting time. It’s important to consider the role your new digital ad agency would take on within your organization and how they would work with your team.

  • Are you looking for a full-time/retainer partner or a project-based solution?
  • How much time and money are you willing to invest in your agency relationship?
  • What skills does your team already possess in-house and where are the gaps that you would look to your new digital ad agency to fill?

What Are Your Marketing Requirements

Before you do anything, make sure you have a clear goal in mind for hiring a digital ad agency. Is it to create a new brand or evolve an existing brand? Are you trying to increase awareness or drive leads? Is your goal to hit a target sales number? Regardless of what your specific marketing goal is, it should be the lens through which you view your agency search.

Once you’re aligned internally regarding your marketing goals and how your new digital ad agency will fit, think through the specific services that you would look for them to provide to meet your needs. Here’s a list of some digital ad agency capabilities to consider:

  • Website strategy, design, and development
  • Blogging and content creation
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Search engine marketing (SEM or PPC)
  • Social media marketing and community management
  • Video creation and production
  • Email marketing and lead nurturing
  • Marketing automation
  • Measurement and analytics

Future-Proof Your Decision

It helps to approach your digital agency search as if you were adding more employees to your company. The digital ad agency you hire will be made up of people you’re going to see often, and you need to see yourself working with them as if they sat down across the hall from you. You should believe that they understand your organization and your audience. You should feel that you would be able to debate and then celebrate with them later. The right agency is one you trust, so if you notice red flags during your research or the pitch process, it’s best to begin the relationship with transparency and have a discussion about your concerns now rather than regret your decision later.

What Type of Digital Ad Agency Is Right for You

There are many digital ad agencies out there, and their total number seems to change daily due to mergers and start-ups. Not only are there countless agencies, but they come in different shapes and sizes. These variations could have a significant impact on the way they fit into your organization and culture. Here are a few types of agencies you’ll encounter in your search:

  • General: Many large public agencies fit into this category as they typically used to be traditional agencies that have added some digital capabilities.
  • Specialized: To stand out among a large crowd, agencies may have a specialty service on which they focus, such as SEM/SEO or website development.
  • Creative: With a broad range of clients and industries served, these agencies pride themselves on finding unique ways to help their clients stand out.
  • Industry-specific: These agencies have established a particular client type or industry (i.e. financial services, or B2B) in which they excel.
  • Global: If your marketing extends beyond the United States and requires a good deal of localization in other countries, an agency with a global reach may be better suited to your needs.
  • Local: If your marketing is local, to a particular state or region, a local agency may have a better understanding of your needs, audience, and geographic nuances.
  • Large: Big agencies are often very well known and very expensive as maintaining that size requires a lot of time spent on awards and PR to keep clients coming through the door.
  • Boutique: Small, consistent teams may be better at understanding your needs and providing unique solutions.

With boutique/smaller agencies, the team that pitches your business is often the one that would be working on it. However, in most large agencies, there is a dedicated pitch team, and new business wins are handed off to people you may not have met during the hiring process.

Regardless of what type of agency you select, the most important thing is that it’s the right agency for your needs. Can you see yourself getting a substantial return on the time and money that you will invest?

Begin Your Search in the Right Places

Your priority should be to find a digital agency that understands your business and can help you consistently succeed in your marketing goals.

For many, Google is the starting point for their initial agency consideration list. In your online search, you can be specific about geography and the types of services you’re seeking, to begin compiling a list of agency websites to review in more detail.

Check out their Portfolio

An agency’s portfolio should serve as an example of the type of work it does. Pay attention to any work the agency has done within your industry to see if it understands your needs. Ask yourself: Are they versatile? Do you see a range of creative ideas and applications? But don’t forget to consider context when viewing work. Every client has rules and opinions, so look to see if the agency is capable of working within brand guidelines across a variety of situations.

Case Studies and Recommendations

One of the ways of identifying how effective an agency is at online marketing is to look at their case studies and client testimonials. While all agencies will have case studies, consider if what you see is relevant to the particular goals that your organization has set.

Thought Leadership

Does the agency have any white papers, blog posts, or webinars that they offer related to their core competencies? This material is an excellent window into how the agency thinks and approaches marketing challenges. After all, if you disagree with their thought leadership content, will you agree with their recommendations once you’re working together?


Regardless of where your agency is, the fact is that a lot of your communication will be over the phone. However, if you’re looking for a collaborative agency partner, ask the agencies on your list how they would accommodate regular, face-to-face meetings as part of their scope.

Agency Spotter

A great resource to build a short-list of agencies for your RFP, Agency Spotter connects with LinkedIn, enabling you to view ways in which you may be connected to anyone at the agencies themselves or people who have worked with those agencies.

Request for Proposals (RFPs)

Once you’ve done the work of identifying a list of agencies that may fit your needs, it’s time to send them your RFP. A request for proposal (RFP) is the most common way companies finalize their agency selection.

The agencies that you send your RFP to will not know more about your business than you do, so it’s important that your RFP outlines the following:

  • Business and brand background and positioning
  • Summary of desired work and objectives (include any special expectations and considerations)
  • Details on targeted consumers (and customers and retail channels if appropriate)
  • Budget (Some prefer not to provide this, but it’s critical if you want to select the right agency; if you don’t share a realistic budget, you won’t get realistic responses.)
  • Timelines for responding to the RFP and for any campaigns/initiatives mentioned within
  • Your evaluation criteria
  • Contact details for any clarification or discussion

Remember that the more details you communicate about your project, the more likely the proposals will fit your needs.

An RFP Assignment

While it’s often bemoaned within the advertising industry, adding an assignment to your RFP is a great way to understand how the agencies pitching for your business work. Their work should put all of the information that you had provided to them to use, as well as the research and insights they will have gathered on their own. Through their assignment, you’ll be able to judge whether their services and approach are the right fit for your needs.

A lot has changed in the world of marketing, including how to pick an agency, but the need to get the selection process done quickly, efficiently, and successfully is as important as ever. You’d be surprised about how many brands go through a hugely time-consuming process only to fire the new agency within a year. Like hiring people, getting the process right up front will save you a lot of headaches later on. Consider this 9-step approach to get it right the first time:

  1. What do you really need?

The first job is to figure out what you need. While that seems obvious, you would be surprised how many brands don’t think this through. This is even more important today since marketing is much more complicated than it used to be. Brands need many skills (especially digital) that didn’t even exist a few years ago, and all those traditional advertising skills are still important too. This initial process will help you focus on what’s important and shape your selection criteria. Needs are determined by goals. Clear business goals lead to smart marketing objectives, which, in turn, guide you to the strategies, tactics, and capabilities you will need. Many consider this strategic work even more important than creativity today, so if you don’t have it, look for an agency that can do it well.

  1. Pick a selection team and scoring criteria

With an approximate idea of the capabilities, you think you will need, gather the people who will manage the digital ad agency, co-ordinate one or more aspects of their work, and be ultimately responsible for their success. All these people have a vested interest in making sure the right choice is made. With this group, set scoring criteria. This should reflect your priorities. While an agency’s creative capabilities are often important, in many instances, strategic or digital needs might be more important. Make sure that each member of your team scores only areas they understand. Establish the criteria for scoring each area in advance and make sure everyone buys in.

  1. Decide if you can manage multiple agencies or prefer just one

Most large brands need the full complement of capabilities and often hire a portfolio of agencies to deliver. This is fine if you are IBM, which has a huge internal marketing organization that can manage a stable of agencies and gets them aligned and working together. However, for most mid-size companies with lean marketing teams, it’s usually better to find a single digital ad agency that is exactly right for your needs.

  1. RFI 8-12 agencies

Picking the right agencies to put on your initial list is very important. Most brands just ask around for names. This is a good starting place, but it can limit your potential. A good rule of thumb is to take half your candidates from your team and asking around and the other half from other sources. These should include Google searches. If an agency can’t be found through the search, then you should probably steer clear anyway. Other sources are the Society of Digital Agencies (www.sodaspeaks.com) and AgencySpotter.com. Once you have your list, send them your RFI (request for information). This should explain your needs and requirements and require a detailed information response.

  1. RFP to 4-6 agencies

Based on the answers to your RFI questions, reduce the number of candidates by about 50%. To these, you now send your RFP (request for proposal) and include a small project that can give you a taste of how the agency performs.

  1. Enable Q&A

An important part of the subsequent process is the Q&A for each agency.  Many RFP processes that gather written questions and then send written answers back to all the agencies. It is much better to do a call with each agency. It takes longer, but the process that an agency goes through in investigating your situation will give you great insights into how they would work with you. Of all the interactions you have with the candidates, this will be the most similar to working with them. The intelligence of their questions will also reveal their knowledge and sophistication. This stage should be scored.

  1. Review RFPs

Agencies will then submit written proposals. These should also be scored.

  1. Select 2-3 agencies for final presentations

By this time, you have enough information and impressions to select your finalists. They will be invited to make a presentation to your team. It is important to ensure that the team that comes to present from each agency will all be intimately involved with your account. All too often, large agencies use presentation stars that you would never see again. The presentations should be no shorter than 90 minutes and preferably 2 hours. They should be in the mornings over 1-2 days so your team is fresh. Your selection team should also immediately score and discuss the presentations in the afternoon while they are top of mind for your team. You may also want to schedule visits to their offices to get a deeper sense of their culture.

  1. Select winner and back-up

Finally, select your winner, and also select a backup. This is for two reasons. Sometimes in the business negotiation that follows the competitive pitching process, you may not get to an agreement. More importantly, your backup should be your go-to agency if your new agency doesn’t pan out the way you hope.

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