An essential partner for your organization, your creative agency should be evaluated annually. 

In my not-so-distant former life as a corporate marketing director for a financial holding company—running four business units’ marketing and branding operations—my sanity was often saved by the strong relationships that I formed with a creative agency.

When it was time to brainstorm the big projects such as the annual print and digital advertising campaigns, my creative agency partner was essential in bringing those campaigns to life. Or, when we created really cool and fun-to-attend corporate marketing events, it was our partnership with an agency that often infused just the right amount of creative juice to make those successful.

Today, as the owner of a startup marketing agency providing those essential creative services, I’m certainly an advocate for businesses and nonprofits of all sizes to seek out the services of a creative partner for projects large and small. For a marketing coordinator or director, an agency can certainly serve as a relief-valve of sorts when project volume seems insurmountable.

Whether you’re thinking about reaching out to a marketing agency for the first time, or you’re wondering if your current agency relationship is getting kind of stale, here are five tools to effectively evaluate or select your creative agency relationship. 

Tool 1: Needs Assessment

The process of building or maintaining an effective relationship with an agency begins with an outline of your hopes, dreams, and immediate needs, which could include:

  • A new Website or other digital efforts
  • Corporate visual identity and branding/rebranding
  • Event marketing
  • Sponsorship / partnership valuation
  • Campaign management and design (print & digital)
  • Weekly project support
  • Planning and strategy

Your needs assessment should include input from your management and sales teams on what they’d like to see in an agency relationship, too. Your executive team will let you know their appetite for negotiating (or not) an agency retainer, and sales team members can give you pointers on what’s working well for them and what needs improved upon in your marketing efforts. 

Tool 2: The One-Off Project

When selecting an agency, I’ve never really fixated on their experience in a particular industry, but how well they execute—creatively and strategically—on projects. There’s no better way to measure creative capacity than to give an agency you’re interested in the opportunity to work with you on a small but impactful project.

Some folks refer to this as a comp project, but I’m not a fan of asking someone to complete work for free. By selecting a project(s) that is small but challenging, you can generally test the agency’s capabilities and how they are to work with from start to finish.

Tool 3: Marketing Plan Development

As a former corporate marketer, I was always surprised that none of the agencies that I hired showed interest in seeing my marketing plans or making themselves a part of the planning process. But I think this is extremely valuable to your organization and marketing team—whether you have an agency relationship or need one in 2020. Here’s why.

Every marketing director could use some help. Agencies are excellent at building expertise and resource networks that might provide a solution to an area within your organization’s marketing plan that is being weakly accomplished. By being a partner in your planning, your agency should be able to identify where they can add value on projects throughout the year.

Another suggestion here is to measure a possible long-term agency relationship by having an agency develop an integrated marketing plan for your organization. An integrated marketing plan generally takes about three months to develop, so this is a great project for a September through November timeframe to see if you want to bring the agency on as a partner for the next year.

You can see Red Collar’s marketing planning process as an example here.

Tool 4: Face-to-Face Meeting

There are an increasing number of virtual marketing or creative agencies who work with clients daily via email and Zoom meetings—and there are the brick-and-mortar agencies who rarely have or take the opportunity to meet with their clients through a traditional meeting.

Even though I work virtually with many of my clients, I make it a point to work in their office at least a few days each quarter to build rapport and credibility with their team. With your current agency, set a monthly project meeting over lunch or coffee and work through current and upcoming projects. If you’re interviewing an agency, insist on a few in-person meetings so they can meet your team and get a sense of your culture. 

Tool 5: Retainer Review

I mentioned earlier that your executive team probably has some valuable feedback on their appetite for signing a retainer or contract with a creative agency. I wanted to expand on the importance of using this as an evaluation tool.

About eight years ago, I was on the phone with the owner of an agency to discuss an important project that was becoming contentious, when she started screaming at me through the phone and saying some pretty hateful and personal things. Unfortunately, I had to wait out the remaining four months of our contract before I could part ways with the agency. That cost the company that I was working for at the time around $24k to just wait out the end of a bad relationship. (The agency owner ended up retiring and closing up shop, by the way.)

Make sure that your agency retainer or contract is structured in a way that makes you feel comfortable about your monthly charge—and gives you an exit ramp if the relationship starts to sour.

I prefer to negotiate a monthly flat fee versus an hourly rate. As an agency owner, a monthly relationship lets me set aside hours for a client so that I can anticipate their needs and be responsive throughout the month. Also, I generally don’t require a retainer and instead will build a two or three-month fee into an annual agreement that lets us amicably part ways. 

The Bottom Line

A creative marketing agency can be a valuable asset to building your organization’s brand and increasing revenue. An agency often has the resources that can augment your marketing director’s efforts, create effective campaigns and branding, and implement planning and strategy beyond your current capabilities.

Your agency relationship should add value to your organization, and it should come with an exit clause in case things go wrong. I believe in accountability and results, and I believe in forming a solid relationship built on credibility and trust. This requires getting to know my clients in person, understanding their ongoing marketing needs, and providing valuable insight and knowledge that contributes to their well-being and success. Those are all elements of an effective relationship you should have with an agency.

As you evaluate a current or new agency, fully understand your needs and provide an opportunity for the agency to earn your business through a one-off project or series of projects where they can prove their worth. And, make sure there’s an off-ramp built into your contract where you can part ways in peace.

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