To many, I must seem like a curmudgeon who hates agencies. I often write about their failure to do this or that, or their overcharging for so little worthwhile output. Today, I’ll broaden the scope a bit and try to create a list of expectations you should have and that your agency should meet. Some will be blatantly one-sided, others may seem obvious. In the end, though, you’ll have a list of things to help you determine if that agency you are going to hire has what it takes to deliver the goods for you, and some points you need to consider from their side as well.
Most agencies work on a model of overlapping time. This means you do not have a dedicated resource assigned to your work, despite what you might otherwise be told by an account rep. The account rep’s job is to maintain the client. To keep the workflow moving for them and ensure the client is happy. Sometimes the rep will also be part of the initial sales cycle, in which case their workload includes making the sale happen. If telling you there is a dedicated resource for your needs gets the sale, most sales people will state just that.
Your goal should be to understand how many hours of time will be applied each week to getting work done for you. Whether a dedicated body exists to serve you matters little. Getting time assigned matters, though. It’s perfectly reasonable that an agency would not have a dedicated person on hand for you. I mean, before you, this dedicated resource would be idle, costing them money. Thus, it’s unlikely the person is dedicated solely to your account. To clarify this a bit, I’m not talking about an account rep here – that you will have – I’m talking about dedicate search marketing expertise. You need to know how much of the agency’s dedicated search marketing expertise (or social marketing, or paid search expertise, etc.) will be allocated to your needs.
The agency will try to tell you “it’s a lot of time for you”, but press them to be honest and realistic. Give you a hard number. Ten hours might not sound like much, but its one quarter of the work week, so I’d say that’s a lot of time. In reality, even a few hours a week dedicated to your needs could have a huge positive impact for you, so don’t think down on an agency who says you get 5 hours per week of time. Their goal isn’t to do the work, but to tell you what needs to be done.
Look to meet their experts. I have never trusted an account rep to inform me that their experts know their stuff. I’m hiring the agency to be a force multiplier for me. Basically, I don’t have enough of a headcount to manage the work myself, so I need help. I want to be assured that help knows their stuff. I have no interest in being a training ground for newbies trying to enter a career path. I can tell you first hand that while the number of top experts in the various online marketing fields is continually growing, they don’t all work at agencies.
Therefore, you need to take the time to meet the folks who will be assigned to do the work you’re asking them to complete. Ideally, each person you meet will have experience doing the task assigned to them. Social folks should have their own maintained presence. SEO’s should be able to point to their own websites and note success in past efforts – and I don’t mean for other clients. Paid search folks have it a bit easier as theirs is a world which is pretty well defined. Still, you’ll want an accounting of results.
The bottom line here is that you need to know you can trust the troops, and trust that they know their disciplines.
When dealing with a consultant, this is often a very different experience. Usually the consult is for a dedicated point of knowledge, and their time may well be 100% dedicated to your project. The downside to this personal attention is their time with you may be limited. Fail to book them for another month or week of work and don’t be surprised to learn their calendar is full for the coming week or month. Most consultants can and will work with you on things like this, as loyalty does matter to them, but they may also run into walls they simply cannot move.
Some companies find it better to hire a series of consultants on different topics and blend the final output together in-house. This is an excellent way to facilitate learning internally. Where most agencies don’t offer dedicated training (or do, but its depth is lacking), consultants can often be counted on to develop dedicated training materials (at a cost, naturally) to help your teams learn the ins-and-outs of a particular discipline.
Depth of knowledge
You can be a jack of all trades and a master of none, or you can master something at the expense of broad knowledge. Most agencies will possess some knowledge of organic search marketing. They will probably possess more knowledge of paid search and even some knowledge about social media marketing. It’s your job to figure out how deep this knowledge extends. Many times, they will be very strong in one area, and only moderately knowledgeable in others.
For years, many agencies pursued paid search marketing exclusively, so their depth of knowledge surrounding SEO is lacking. Essentially, it’s based on the knowledge of their staff. Today’s better agencies have not just a person with the title aligned to SEO work, but those individuals do in fact possess hands-on knowledge. This is where’s it’s back to finding out who will work on your job and for how much time. Having a Director of SEO with 10 years of experience on hand is great. But, is that person working on your project?
Two years ago I was asked by a well known agency to swap “seo best practices.” Essentially, they felt I could learn from them and they could learn from me. A couple weeks went by, and eventually they sent me their list of best practices. A document containing 7 bullet points. That’s what they went over when consulting with clients about organic search optimization. I felt like a heel for not sharing my own, and as time passed, the conversation was dropped. I still look back on that surprised at how simple their list was. My own list has 40+ top-line items for review.
Never assume a large brand agency knows it all. Often, they don’t. Be particularly careful when engaging with offline agencies trying to reposition themselves as online agencies, as well. These folks are usually still on a learning curve and are banking on their offline brand equity to help them gain clients to learn through.
Agencies and consultants run businesses. They are hired, expert help, brought in to help you accomplish a goal on time and to a budget. This means, essentially, they are not one of your family. They do not work directly for your company, and all conversations around “we’re here for you”, “your business comes first”, “we treat everyone like family”, etc., can be tossed aside. Though nice sentiments, its part of the sales pitch in most cases. I’d say 85% of consultants and agencies hit this pile. The other 15%, however, are solid folks, worth listening to who really meant when they say you are a priority.
The agency’s job is to provide enough satisfaction to you to keep the billing cycles moving. That’s how they stay in business, after all. So, while this might sound like a “boo” and a “hiss” against them, it’s not, it’s just a fact. A fact which you need to keep in mind. After all, once a 3 month contract is signed, you’ll be billed each month, whether you get the work done or not. And therein lays the rub.
You cannot hold the agency or consultant accountable for work your own team or company has failed to execute on. I realize this may seem obvious, but even years later, when asked if you’d hire them again, you need to be clear about your own company’s failure to execute work on time. If the agency or consultant put their time into the work, delivered to you as promised and your end let the deal down, that doesn’t count against them.
With that in mind, be very careful before hiring an agency or consultant to ensure your side is ready for the work. This means you’ll have a lot more work to do than just hiring the third party vendor and introducing people to facilitate conversations. You’ll need to know in advance the types of work your team can accommodate.
After all, the agency will still be paid, because they did the work for you. Your team not being ready to implement the suggestions can lead to a large waste of time and money. If you want clean URLs, and the agency can guide the work on this, can your team accomodate the work items? It’s a big project in many cases, so be ready.
Don’t be afraid to use your own knowledge to ask the tough questions of any agency or consultant. Most will happily answer your questions or readily admit they’ll need to follow up on certain pints. Just be sure to dig in the corners, ask them to explain their process for building links. Ask to see sample websites they actually place links on. Try to understand their methodology for selecting sites to target. If they tell you it’s “proprietary data”, push harder. Don’t simply trust they will select the right sites for you – that’s a dangerous move.
Are they seeking exposure for you in dedicate niche social spaces, or just on Twitter? There are literally dozens of extremely focused niche social spaces online today, and these numbers grow every day. Chances are good there is a space targeted at the same people you want to use your website, so be sure the company or person you hire is savvy enough to know to look into those opportunities.
Don’t be afraid to ask for references. In fact, come prepped with a list of websites pulled from the agency’s own brag page, and ask for contact info for those who worked with the agency. If the agency balks at getting you in touch with them, ask why. Your goal should be 5 minutes with past clients to ask them about the experience. Critically ask those past clients if, knowing what they know now, would they hire the agency again for the same work?
Ask the agency to prep sample work for you. You want the people who would be assigned the everyday tasks on your account to prep sample work items direct from your website. This isn’t to get free advice, but rather to see the quality of the work you’ll get. Same with reports. If the agency starts talking about ranking reports and how well you rank on branded terms, walk away.
Don’t be blinded
Social today seems like oxygen for marketing efforts. Both online and offline marketing efforts are seemingly in dire need of a “social infusion”. Be careful here, because if you’re being pitched coverage that relies heavily on social media to bring success, you could find yourself hurt if the agency relationship goes away. Who will maintain the social footprint? Who will continually update spaces and accounts with new information?
The trick with social is to understand its only one piece of the puzzle. It’s an important one, but not the only one. Used properly, social can create excellent channels of feedback from clients and meaningful interaction with users. Many agencies and consultants can manage this well for you, though you should be clear about boundaries, message focal points and end goals well in advance of allowing anyone to move into the social world on your behalf.
It’s unlikely an agency or consultant would willfully do harm to your brand; but the fact is, they don’t know your brand and space as well as you do. They are also not as invested in it as you are, so you need to remain constantly vigilant to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth and no damage is happening along the way. In short, turning over control to do the work does not absolve you of the responsibility to ensure the work is done correctly. And by “correctly”, I mean it is completed according to your rules and needs.
In the end, you goal is simply to make the most informed decision possible. Legitimate, solid agencies and stand-up consultants won’t bat an eyelash at your probing questions. A lot of side stepping, questioning and vague answers should have you concerned.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.