Choosing a marketing agency: selection tips for novice and experienced marketers; or, a few thoughts on how people like us get chosen

Choosing a marketing agency: selection tips for novice and experienced marketers; or, a few thoughts on how people like us get chosen

A checklist for agency selection to help form long lasting marketing and design agency relationships.

How to Choose a Marketing Agency to Help You Meet Your Goals

Many marketing agencies boast about their creativity, innovation and ability to push boundaries. But getting your marketing right isn’t ONLY about making your organisation look cool and distinguishing you from the competition. It’s about capturing the interest of potential customers and encouraging them on their journey from unaware to purchase.

But how do you go about finding an agency that will help you achieve this? Here are a few tips to bear in mind…

1. Have a particular project in mind but be open to new ideas

Even if you’re looking for a new agency to come in and transform your approach to sales and marketing, it’s a good idea to have a specific project in mind when you first make contact. This will make a solid foundation to start from, which will help you gauge the way an agency works.

Common starting points can be a brand review, product launch, website, events, video or a sales campaign. Consider an activity that will help to prove the agency’s strategic worth.

However it’s also worth being open-minded and willing to listen to an agency’s advice and ideas. You might find that you end up engaging them to work on a completely different project from the one you’d first envisaged. As long as there’s a clear strategy behind the decision, that’s OK.

Whatever project you chose to start out with, make sure agencies know that your end goal is driving sales and that that’s how you will judge their success.

2. The brief and the pitch

The detail in an agency brief varies considerably. You could consider asking the agency what their brief would look like based on what they know of your company and the sector in which you operate. See if the agency can impress you either by how close they get to the brief you have in mind or by proposing a perceptive variation. There are only so many marketing models; the agency should be able to suggest to you a 'straw man' strategy.

NOTE A: The paradox of the all-encapsulating brief is that you are about to ask professionals for their advice so the advice shouldn't be explicit in the brief. If you are not sure what's wrong with you, you'd be unlikely to tell a doctor to prescribe Medication X. Okay, marketers are not doctors, granted. But you could gain a lot simply by asking the prospective agency what they think of your opportunities for growth.

3. Weigh up your options

Do thorough research and come up with a shortlist of agencies to consider. Take care not to ask too many agencies as it only results in confusion, a lot of cost and wasted effort on the parts of too many people.

Develop a check-list of criteria so you ensure that you compare agencies on a like-for-like basis. For example, when you contact each company, note whether: 

  • They respond promptly and with enthusiasm and insight.
  • They show an interest in your company and your requirements.
  • They convey confidence in their ability to help you drive sales.

NOTE B: Score the agency against pre-defined criteria and if it's a pitch score them alike.

3. Check the agency's expertise; an alternative to pitches

You could invite a small selection of promising agencies to pitch or tender for your initial project, to put them to the test. 

However, this will demand some hard work from you and your colleagues to put together a brief that will allow the agencies to prepare a meaningful and relevant response. Defining too clearly what you want an agency to do for you can constrain their creativity and limit their potential to help you.


If you haven’t got the time or inclination for a full-scale pitch or tender process, there are other ways to check an agency’s expertise: 

  • Check their portfolio and case studies to see if you like the look of their work.
  • Ask for further examples relevant to your sector, if you don’t see what you’re looking for on their website.
  • Ask them to email you with a summary of how they could help you.
  • Read through their testimonials with a critical eye – do they look genuine and are they from credible clients? How have results been measured?
  • You could ask for the contact details of a couple of clients to speak to get a picture of what they’re like to work with and what results they’ve helped to achieve.

Some agencies offer free taster services to give you an idea of what they can offer. For example at FortuneWest we offer the equivalent of a health check free of charge, where we feedback on aspects of a company’s current sales-marketing performance and its place in the competitive landscape. This sort of exercise is a great way to assess an agency’s abilities without making a full commitment.

Beware of asking agencies to produce sample visuals before you’ve actually commissioned them. Visuals and associated copy are generally produced at the end of a considered process, not plucked out of thin air. Reversing a proven development process is likely to result in a lot of wasted time all round. 

Note C: Beware subjectivity. You should feel comfortable with proposed marketing plans or designs, but it's the market's view that will determine results. We've experienced a board member who hated the colour green and another whose wife believed the principles of feng sui come first. We've also been tipped off that Chairman's niece likes yellow. None of these subjective insights helps to uncover what is right for a business; and they can prove to be pitch wreckers.

4. Get the right people involved in the decision

When selecting a new agency it’s a good idea to bring together a panel of people with different ways of thinking and priorities. However, it’s important to be clear on objectives and to be careful not to let the selection process degenerate into circular discussions or become too subjective.

Most often we work with the Marketing Director, but not always. If you have an in-house marketing expert, you should of course involve them in the selection process, though they shouldn’t necessarily be the final decision-maker. It can be wise to involve senior people whose focus is revenue growth, such as the MD or Sales Director, to ensure there's concensus.

Note D: Agency selection should not become a competition between your staff and theirs. You’ll know this is happening if there’s too much jargon flying around or reference to faddish theories. Plain speak is key to mutual understanding.

5. Don’t ignore gut instinct

Once you’ve gathered tangible information to help you make an informed decision, it’s time to consider how you feel about each agency.

Which did you feel you had the best chemistry with? Did you get the impression that one of them was better in tune with your thinking than the others? Did you feel more inspired by one in particular, or more confident in the results they could achieve for you?

If you and your colleagues involved in the process all have positive feelings about the same agency, it may be worth letting your hearts rule your heads.   

6. Assess the results

Once the agency you’ve decided to work with has completed their first project for you, make sure to monitor its effectiveness. Be clear on the metrics you’re going to use to assess the difference the project makes, from website visits or, in the case of NFPs, increased volunteers or subscriptions, to enquiries or sales. How do your staff and customers measure the agency's influence?

If the results of the first project aren’t what you’d hoped for, discuss your concerns with the agency. If their response doesn’t inspire confidence in your future collaboration, it might be time to start looking for another agency, again…

FortuneWest provides UK and international marketing and design services, and strategic advice.

Please get in touch to discuss your marketing requirements. 

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