Hiring the right marketing partner can reap big rewards for your company and help you beat your goals.
Choosing the wrong partner can lead you down a path of despair while you watch your investment in time and cash vaporize.
Sounds a little dramatic? There are companies all over the world who feel like they got little value out of a relationship with a marketing freelancer, consultant, or advertising agency. Your company may be one of them.
Companies look to hire outside marketing help for a variety of reasons, and it’s not because their internal marketing teams aren’t able or willing to do the work. Companies typically look for marketing help when they:
- Want an outsider’s perspective that’s free of internal politics.
- Need to hire expertise in a specific area that they don’t have with an in-house team.
- Must develop new strategies and implement technologies plans they don’t have internally, or lack time to create on their own.
- Have internal marketing teams are simply overwhelmed with existing projects.
The single goal of this guide is to provide you with the tools and knowledge to hire the marketing help that will help and add real, tangible value.
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From Freelancers to Consultants and Agencies
A step-by-step guide to picking and hiring a marketing partner to help you beat your goals.
DETERMINE WHAT KIND OF MARKETING HELP YOU NEED
Marketing has dozens of specialties
You may start your search determined to find a resource to improve your organic search positions and revenue, but as you continue your search, you may decide this approach is too narrow to help you achieve your goals.
When you focus on marketing specialties, it's easy to twist your search in multiple directions, leading you to compare apples to oranges and possibly making a poor decision with a poor outcome.
Instead of focusing on the areas of specialty, the best hope for finding the right marketing partner is to focus on outcomes.
- Do you need more revenue?
- More customers?
- Increased efficiency in your marketing budget?
As an example of how easy it is to get twisted and turned around, Gartner produced this Digital Marketing Transit Map. They cataloged 1800 vendors and their services to create this map.
Keep your search easy. Keep your focus on your desired outcomes and company goals.
FIND THE RIGHT KIND OF MARKETING PARTNER
Freelancers, consultants, and agencies all bring something different to the table
Your company has goals you need to meet; sales goals, customer goals, company goals, to name a few.
You’re looking for help outside your company to meet and beat your goals, but you also don’t want to pay for more work than you need.
If you need to build a road, you need several elements:
- You need to know where you’re going and set the ideal direction.
- You need to know what kind of road will last the longest.
- You need to build the road.
Hiring outside marketing help is no different than building a path - each type of marketing partner can help you in different ways.
If you already have the plan for the road, a freelancer may help you lay the bricks. If you want the fastest, most efficient way to get the road designed and built, a consultant may be your best pick. If you know, you need to get from point A to point B but aren’t concerned about the specifics an agency may fit the bill.
So, what type of marketing partner is best for your company?
There’s a project management principle that states: “Good, fast, cheap - pick two.” The same holds true for hiring outside marketing help.
The Iron Triangle
The Iron Triangle or Triple Constraint looks like your worst enemy, when in fact, it’s your best friend.
Every project has constraints. Finding a marketing partner also comes with a set of constraints. The Iron Triangle will force you to evaluate your priorities, and these priorities can then be applied to the type of marketing partner you’re looking for and narrow your search.
Marketing Organization Types: The Breakdown
Every type of marketing organization has pros and cons. Below is a breakdown of some of the advantages and disadvantages of the primary forms of marketing organizations.
- Freelancers can be cheaper and faster than consultants or agencies
- Freelancers are relatively easy to find through networking and sites like Upwork or Guru
- Deep specialization in one or two specific areas (web design, copywriting, SEO, etc.).
- Usually networked with other freelancers with different or complementary specialties.
- Freelancers can require hands-on oversight and guidance. Focused only on execution.
- Freelancers may lack the strategic experience to guide a program.
- Because of the volume, finding a high-quality freelancer may take time as well as trial and error.
- Freelancers typically have a narrow focus on one or two areas of specialty.
- Consultants usually have a depth of experience across multiple marketing disciplines and bring a level of expertise you won’t find with a freelancer. Many consultants have extensive experience across multiple industries and have spent years working inside companies.
- Smaller, independent consultants will have a good, working knowledge of company operations and how to navigate political landscapes.
- Consultants usually have a keen sense of developing strategies to help you reach and beat your company goals.
- Small, boutique consultants can give you more 1:1 time and attention.
- A consultant may not be able to help you implement the strategies they help you create (make sure to ask about implementation when talking to a consultant). They may have a roster of trusted partners/freelancers to help implement the solutions they recommend, or they may have a group of trusted partners within the consultancy to assist with implementation.
- Understanding your business and developing an effective strategy takes more time than merely executing - this makes consultants a little slower than a freelancer when delivering work product.
- Large consultancies can be cost and time prohibitive.
- Small consultants can only handle a small number of clients simultaneously.
Agencies (marketing and advertising)
- Agencies typically have multiple staff members on hand who specialize in different marketing disciplines.
- Agencies may have access to more expensive marketing tools that freelancers and even your business may not be able to afford - they spread the cost across multiple clients.
- Agencies may work with multiple clients in the same industry, shortening the “onboarding” time to understand your business.
- Small agencies can offer a high level of specialization and creativity.
- Agencies can fall prey to a “never say ‘no’ “ mentality. Meaning if you need help in a particular area and they don’t have the right specialty in-house, they’ll hire a consultant or freelancer to fulfill the work, and will mark up the work and pass the additional cost to you.
- You pay the salaries of the people within the agency as well as help cover agency overhead in your monthly invoice, regardless of whether or employees work on your account.
- Once agencies have your business, they’ll typically turn the bulk of the work to the lowest-paid employee to preserve their margins.
- Agencies are reluctant to let accounts go even when the work is out of their specialty or staff is burned out.
- Agencies have a high turnover rate, estimated as high as 30% annually.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU SEARCH
Setting the framework for your search is key to finding the partner who will make the most significant impact.
Well-meaning business associates and industry colleagues may be quick to flip business cards and make introductions when you mention you need marketing help.
But just because a competitor or trusted colleague hired an award-winning agency, doesn’t mean you can afford to hire a similar agency, nor does it indicate the referral will be able to help you reach your company goals.
Question 1: What makes your company unique?
Knowing what makes your company different is a key advantage, but sometimes, your company won’t stress differentiators in the business because the cash is rolling in at an acceptable level and your company may be “holding its own” vs. your competition.
Any decent agency or consultant will want to dig into your business and understand how and why your company is different from your competition, and you should be prepared to answer this question.
- Is your product or service superior to your competitors? How?
- Does your company offer exceptional customer service?
- Are you a lower priced or higher value alternative to your competitors?
- When presented with the option to buy from you or your competitors, why do your customers choose you?
Sometimes this is a question that’s hard to answer – especially if you’re a commodity-based company. Identifying key points of differentiation may be the issue that drives you to seek outside marketing expertise. Doing an internal differentiation evaluation is an exercise well worth the time, even if it’s only to show how you and your competitors are similar.
Question 2: Who are your best customers?
A variation of the Pareto Principle states, in general, 20% of your customers drive 80% of your revenue.
If you have a chunk of customers who drive the majority of your sales, you’re not alone. It’s in your company’s best interest to understand this group of customers.
Who are these customers? What do they have in common? What do they NOT have in common?
Doing a full-fledged customer segmentation study isn’t necessary for you to find a quality marketing partner, but you should be prepared to speak in very general terms what your ideal customer looks like (and sometimes, what they don’t look like).
When an agency or consultant asks you who your most valuable customers are, think beyond demographics and geography.
Dig a little deeper and be prepared to discuss attitudes, beliefs, and values (psychographics) your most valuable customers share.
- What makes this group of customers valuable?
- What do they have in common?
- What don’t they have in common with other groups of customers?
- Do you know how they found you?
- What do they buy from you?
- Do they complain about your products to your customer service teams?
If you can attach any data to this (for instance, if you ran a promotion or campaign that drove high-value customers to your business), this is a potential goldmine of information for your organization as well as an agency or consultant.
Question 3: What’s your budget?
Whether you have $10,000 or $10,000,000 to spend, you need to know your available budget or, at least, have a rough idea before you start talking with freelancers, consultants, or agencies.
A quality marketing partner will do one of two things when talking budget:
- They will tailor their proposal to fit your budget (if you need a car to get to work, a Honda will get you there, just not with the panache, speed, and cost of a Ferrari).
- They will refer you to a trusted partner who will help you reach your goals but can also accommodate your budget.
If they aren’t willing to adjust their proposal or refer you to a different vendor but instead, they want to help set your budget for you, congratulations, you just dodged a bullet and eliminated a company that only cares about its bottom line and not the health and welfare of your company and employees.
Knowing your budget, or even an estimated range of what you have to spend will allow you to narrow your focus on selecting a potential marketing partner and whether you look at a specialized freelancer, full-service agency or a boutique consulting firm.
Not sure what your budget should be? Here are some general guidelines for setting a marketing budget:
- New companies (in business from 1-5 years) – 10-20% of your gross/projected revenue. You have to get customers, great customers, to ring the register, and these customers need to know who you are before they’re willing to spend cash with you.
- Established companies (in business 5+ years) – 6-15% of your gross/projected revenue. You probably already have some brand equity and an established customer base that requires a lower investment to engage or re-engage.
A word of caution, these are generalized guidelines and every business, and competitive landscape is different.
QUESTIONS TO ASK MARKETING VENDORS
Whether you’ve opted to go to the freelancer, consultant, or agency route, a quality marketing partner should be able to answer the following questions:
Do you guarantee your results?
Right out of the gate, this is a trick question.
No reputable marketing partner will ever guarantee results. Why? Because humans are messy and your marketing partner doesn’t have control over key issues within your company (employees, customer service practices, inventory, shipping, etc.).
Instead of looking for a rock-solid guarantee, reframe the question: Does a pro golfer have a better chance of winning a round against your uncle who only hits the links three times a season? Probably. Experience counts.
What are your areas of specialization?
Every marketer and legitimate agency has a “wheelhouse” they operate within. If a freelancer, consultant, or agency says they specialize in “everything” or they’re a “full-stack marketer” be wary. “Jack of all trades master of none” isn’t just a witty saying.
Everyone has a specialty or niche that they excel within and your marketing partner shouldn’t learn on your dime.
What industry expertise do you/does your company have?
Deeper experience in specific industries is a plus (especially if they’re highly regulated industries or have a high compliance threshold), but it doesn’t always guarantee success.
Closely related industries or depth of marketing expertise can quickly overcome the lack of specific, industry knowledge.
How many clients do you work with at one time?
If a freelancer, consultant, or agency restricts the number of clients they work with at one time, you’re more likely to get more personalized, and faster response times to questions and project returns.
If a potential marketing partner doesn’t set limits on the number of clients, ask how they would prioritize an emergency project or changes to a project against other client work.
Will you pitch my company?
Freelancers and consultants usually don’t pitch (spoiler alert, we don't pitch or answer RFP's). Agencies can be more open to the idea.
Why? Agencies will often recoup the cost for the pitch on the back end (and out of your pocket). Freelancers and consultants usually take a different, more personal approach to signing clients and view pitching as giving away free work.
Note: A pitch is not the same thing as a personalized proposal.
Will you do a free audit or consultation before we sign an agreement?
Requesting a high-level assessment is usually a reasonable request, and it can help demonstrate competence in a particular marketing discipline, without asking for the detailed “free work” commonly found in a pitch.
Will our agreement be exclusive or will you work with our competitors?
Some freelancers, consultants, and agencies will sign exclusivity agreements. Others will not. A Non-Compete shouldn’t be confused with a Non-Disclosure Agreement.
It’s important to understand where a potential marketing partner stands before you sign an agreement.
What breadth and depth of experience does your team have?
Learning about the team’s experience can ease your concerns or reveal serious red flags (you don’t want someone right out of school or a random brother-in-law who took a class back in college working on critical aspects of your marketing programs).
When talking to an agency, their answer will also give you a good idea of the programs they execute in-house, and what they outsource.
Will you use tools or humans to implement programs and projects?
Marketing technology and tools are vast and broad, but nothing replaces human oversight. Tools provide the information, but people interpret the results.
Marketing automation and AI in marketing is a good thing, except when it’s not. It’s always wise to have human intervention at every step and leave the tools to the monitoring and reporting.
Will you produce all the work in-house or outsource part or all of the work?
A fair and relevant question given cheap and sometimes substandard work done offshore.
Understanding the process for in-house quality control can make or break the results of your marketing.
Who owns the strategy and assets created during our engagement?
If a marketing partner retains the copyrights to the strategy and assets during an engagement, they will most likely charge you for long-term usage, or they will repurpose the assets for another client.
Holding copyrights after you've paid for work could be a red flag, pay attention.
If working remotely, what tools and processes will you use for regular communication?
Freelancers, consultants, and even agencies may not be local to you and your business. It’s one way you can get the level of quality you need, without geographic constraints.
It’s best to get clear on regular communication practices, site visits, and travel billing policies and costs if you require marketing resources on-site or regular in-person visits.
Follow up question: Would you be willing to adopt the tools we use?
If a marketing partner relies solely on email for communication, but your company uses Slack, Jira, or Trello, you’re not only going to have communication problems, but critical pieces of information might be missed or overlooked, resulting in faulty work product and frustration.
What process do you follow to help us reach our company goals?
This question will provide insight into how a marketing partner’s work and thought process. Using an established framework is good, but if they shoehorn your business a pre-defined template, it’s an indication they don’t respect the unique aspects and needs of your company.
What are the biggest successes and failures you’ve had for your clients?
No one is perfect but understanding how a marketing partner will adapt and learn to challenges is key to establishing a relationship that’s beneficial for your company.
Beware any freelancer, consultant, or agency who talks about "big wins" for clients but refuses to share the metrics or prove their value.
How will you bill my company?
Some freelancers and consultants work on a project or hourly basis. A retainer agreement is common with agencies and some consultants.
Understanding what your cash outlay will look like is key to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship - no one likes a surprise at the end of the month.
If we sign today, what can we expect of the next 30 days, 90 days?
Understanding the onboarding process for a freelancer, consultant, or agency will help ease your mind and establish credibility. Setting and meeting expectations are important for both parties.
How will we end our engagement?
It’s a hard truth that relationships don’t last forever (the average length of a relationship with an agency is now about three years).
When the time comes to end the relationship with a marketing partner, you need to know what you own, what the transition plan will look like, and if you’re entitled to take all of your raw data and files with you. Also of note, understand what will happen to data in proprietary software or how to transition any hosting services for websites or assets created for your company.
Some of these questions may seem basic and you would think they should be included in any kind of agreement, but you would be shocked and surprised at what is and what isn't included in contracts and statements of work.
The sole purpose of this guide is to help you be a better consumer of marketing services and to hold those in this industry accountable for their behavior. We firmly believe that you deserve to work with a better class of marketer and if this guide helps you make a smarter decision, we all win.If you want help developing a list of questions for your own company, need a sanity check on a potential vendor, or if you want to know how we could help you, please drop me a line here and we'll find a time to chat.