25 Jul How to find the right B2B marketing agency
Recently, one of our clients asked for help to outline the process of finding a B2B shop (a friend had moved across the country and was tasked with finding a local firm). This friend was looking for advice from seasoned vets, and since I’ve been on both the client and agency side of the business, our client wanted some ideas to get his friend started.
In a nutshell, an agency needs the experience, skill set, track record and personalities that fit with a client’s culture. Break down your search process into a few basic steps, so you can assign a timeline for each step and narrow down the agency options along the way:
Step 1: Create your checklist
Write down what you need your agency to do. Then create a list of questions to see if the agency has the experience and resources to do the job.
Do you want strategic brand development? Is it for a new business or brand extension, or a tired brand that needs an overhaul? Do you need help with your website—content development, design, coding, SEO, or all of the above under a single source? Is it for a new site or the revamp of an outdated one? What about sales collateral, trade shows or direct response?
Think in terms of your immediate needs, as well as what you might need down the road. If you’re not sure, write down your initial thoughts and discuss further with prospective agencies, for a sense of how they’d approach your business and the recommendations they’d make.
Also, consider logistics. There are times when you need a local firm, although with the technologies we have at our disposal—video conferencing, email, texts, overnight shipping, etc.—being local isn’t as important as it used to be. Just make sure that if they’re in another time zone, they’ll be accessible if you need them outside of standard business hours.
Step 2: Conduct initial research
This can be a combination of online research and discussions with friends and colleagues who can share recommendations.
When you run your initial topline search, refer to the list you created in step one and type in a variety of search terms. Visit the sites on the first page of results and review their content to see which ones resonate the most.
Step 3: Pick up the phone
Call these agencies to introduce yourself, explain what you’re looking for and identify the key person in the firm you need to speak with. Together, you can delve into more detailed information on their services. Ask the questions you listed in step one. Get a feel for how well they listen, ask questions, and their enthusiasm and interest in working on your business.
You can eliminate some agencies at this point based on your discussions. Those that remain can move on to the next step.
Step 4: Request a capabilities presentation
Decide if you simply want it emailed to you or presented in person. After reviewing their presentations, which agencies seem to fit the bill? One or two will stand out at this point, so you’re closer to a decision. You can now request a proposal from each.
Step 5: RFPs
Your RFP can take many forms. You may simply ask for an overview of their initial thoughts and recommendations on your business, a correlation of your assignment to ones they’ve done for other clients, or a project-specific analysis and plan complete with budget allocations. Whatever you decide, avoid requesting creative unless you’re prepared to compensate them for the time and hard costs required (creative takes time, discussions and refinement.)
Measure their proposals against the goals, budgets and internal resources you’ve outlined, and you’ll have a winner.
Questions you need to ask
Our client also asked for a list of questions to ask under the first step in the search process. I came up with eight:
1. Are they B2B specialists?
Unlike B2C or agencies with a mix that includes a token B2B client or two on the roster, agencies that focus on B2B clients have the experience and internal processes to maximize your marketing investment. They’re quick studies at understanding the complexities of your business, so you’ll spend less time educating them. Their development process streamlines the turn time required to generate effective creative that connects to your customers’ needs. Their heightened awareness of the C-suite, budget constraints and internal staff resources you juggle daily makes them better equipped to be proactive, offer recommendations, and connect you to fellow clients or vendors when biz opportunities arise.
2. Do they have industry-related experience?
This is critical. An agency doesn’t necessarily have to have specific experience in your industry, but they should have a solid history and client roster in related hi-tech, manufacturing or professional services.
Also, make sure there’s no conflict of interest because they have a client who’s a direct competitor.
3. What are their top three strengths?
Steer away from agencies that claim to be good at everything. Many offer a full range of services, but there are a few areas where they’ll outshine the competition. Ask them to sum up what they do in a few sentences. It’s a quick way to understand the types of clients they serve, where their greatest strengths lie, and see if their expertise aligns with your needs.
4. Do they have a good track record?
They should be able to share success stories through case studies that prove their ability to deliver results. They should also offer references from existing clients and encourage you to speak with them.
5. What’s in their tool box?
If they develop websites, ask what platforms they use. For example, can they develop in common open-source platforms (making it easier to switch agencies down the road if needed), or do they use a proprietary content management system that only the incumbent agency can use for development?
Ask to see any proprietary tools they’ve created to improve service to their clients. This may be anything from a planning or project management process to budget tracking.
6. What services are handled in-house or outsourced to freelancers/sub-contractors?
Ideally, the core functions of creative development are handled in-house. Your team will understand your business and work with content previously developed to maintain continuity between the various strategies and tactics. (For example, your website’s look and feel should extend to your sales collateral, tradeshow booth, print or digital ads, etc., so there’s immediate recognition of your brand across all the channels that reach your customers and prospects.)
If the agency subs out the copywriting and design, it may dilute their ability to deliver consistent, engaging creative—and in a timely manner, particularly when the occasional quick-turn project crops up.
Ask them to identify business partners they work with on related services—printing, audio/video production, photography, database or direct response fulfillment—to ensure that these additional resources are available when needed.
7. Can they think strategically AND execute tactically?
Some people think bigger is always better, but I disagree. When I directed a $65 million budget for a national restaurant brand, the agencies I worked with assigned a team to my account comprised of a handful of people among their hundreds of employees. I think what’s more important is to understand who those key players are and consider how they’ll work together to support your account. Have they worked together a long time? How do they allocate responsibilities and collaborate within the workflow? Does the agency have the resources to bring in additional personnel for ad hoc projects if needed? Do they approach your marketing needs with a customized program that fits your goals, budgets and internal resources, or do they apply a cookie-cutter approach?
8. Is there a good chemistry?
Let’s face it—you have to like the people on your account because you’ll be working closely with them. They’ll help you and your company grow (and make you look good too!). Think about how they interacted with you when you first met. Did you feel like they were asking intelligent questions and listening thoughtfully to your answers, or were they too busy giving you their solutions before you’d even had a chance to fully explain your situation? Would you feel comfortable having them in a meeting with your CEO? Do they fit with your corporate culture? Are they professional? Empathetic? Do they have a team-oriented approach that will work with your staff?
Ideally, if you do your homework, you’ll end up with a process you can repeat again—and that does happen. When I was an ad director, I had to conduct two additional searches to find agencies that specialized in marketing to specific ethnic groups. Because I’d invested the time to set up the initial search process, spearheading the second and third searches was like unrolling a carpet. And each time we ended up with an agency that helped our company grow.