5 Warning Signs When Working with an Agency

Written by Jamie Prince, founder – flourish

I became an agency owner in 2009, during the Great Recession, after seven years spent directing corporate communications for a luxury real estate company. At my former company, my responsibilities straddled the fence between public/media relations and marketing communications, and that included working with our company’s outside agency partners.

I’ve been on the client side, as a part of interviewing agencies, listening to their pitch presentations, seeing the way they justified their value to the organization, and experiencing client service first-hand. When I left corporate life to start my own firm, I took some of the key observations and lessons I’d learned from those agencies with me – desiring to emulate what was good, learn from what was bad, and avoid the ugly altogether.

Now that I’m the one preparing proposals, pitching to prospective clients, and working continually to raise the bar on our clients’ experience, I have had the good fortune of being able to use my past position in the client seat to convey a clear, accurate, and confident vision of what partnering with us will look like.

Since last March, everyone is examining their bottom lines, and assessing what’s working, what’s not, and what’s simply not worth the time and energy right now. More than ever, business owners need true partners… the kind of people who shoot straight, bring ideas to the table, keep a constructive eye, and approach the situation as if this is their business, too.

Here are five warning signs that you may need to re-evaluate your current agency, or if you’re in the interviewing stage, pause and reflect before proceeding into a contractual relationship.

You’re going to be a small fish in a big pond.

How large is your organization’s marketing budget compared to the size of the agency you’re interviewing? Chances are, if the agency is large, it got that way by virtue of partnering with large brands who are investing substantially in marketing and promotion. Typically, these organizations have in-house team members who are already very skilled in marketing, and become managers of the agencies (like I used to be in my corporate job). Your organization, on the other hand, may not be large enough to justify an in-house marketing professional. After all, that’s the reason you’re outsourcing! Once you sign the contract, be aware that the significance of your account within the agency may be indirectly (or directly) minimized.

Your client service team is comprised mainly of junior associates. Most agencies follow the same model for human resources and team-building: the most senior-level team members play a strategic role and have little day-to-day contact with the account, the junior-level professionals manage the account, and entry-level associates provide the daily support services for the account. But this doesn’t seem to match up with the image they presented at the pitch. The most experienced leaders within the agency were your points-of-contact throughout the process of the agency’s earning your business, but once you said yes and got started, you were handed off to a different set of team members. You feel a bit misled.

There’s no formal or regular opportunity to review performance metrics. At the beginning of your relationship, did you and your client service leader develop key performance indicators (KPIs) together? This is critical, because it’s the definition of what success means to you. If you’re not receiving a monthly report of what’s being done, the effectiveness of those tactics, and recommendations for constant improvement based on data, then the agency may not feel confident enough in what it’s doing for you to share those with you. Or, in many cases, they lack the skills to develop and be held accountable to dashboards.

Actual project costs seem to always exceed original estimations. Good work takes time, and time is money. It is certainly a skill developed over time to correctly estimate project costs, especially when the relationship between the agency and the client are new. But after a reasonable learning curve, estimates should match up with actual costs to your organization once the work’s completed. Consistently underestimating time and costs for projects may be a signal that the client service team is inefficient in its execution, or that they shorted the estimate based on ideal scenarios instead of realistic ones.

Credit: The Incumbent Agency, Bored Panda

You get pushback when you express your ideas, opinions, or constructive criticism.

Creative types are known for being prideful. It’s clearly the agency’s role to provide recommendations based on best practices to achieve the objectives you desire. After all, that’s why you hired them. You know your business better than they ever will, though, and it’s imperative for your client service team not only to acknowledge that, but to depend on your valuable insights in order to arrive at the best way forward. If you feel as if you encounter resistance every time you open your mouth, it can indicate that your agency doesn’t actually respect you or view you from a perspective of authority.

Credit: The Incumbent Agency, Bored Panda

Agency partnerships are critical to organizations of all sizes, but one agency doesn’t fit all businesses. It’s important to do your due diligence from the outset, and listen to your gut. If you sense yourself hesitating, pause and ask why. Too much is on the line for time, money, and reputation to be handled with less than extraordinary care, particularly during the times we currently find ourselves in.

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