When looking for a new marketing agency to partner with, CMOs and marketing executives must ask the right questions as they try to figure out whether the agency could handle the work and drive the results they desire. Usually, it all comes down to five themes: B2B experience, business model, quality of thinking, people, and execution. If those five things work, results will follow. Here are the top 10 questions you should be asking your prospective agency of record to see if they’re a good fit.
1. HOW MUCH OF YOUR REVENUE IS HARDCORE B2B MARKETING?
The smartest CMOs know there’s a big difference between agencies that say they do B2B marketing and agencies that only do B2B marketing. Do you want an agency who today is working on selling soda water through a drive in window, and tomorrow puts on their B2B hat, trying to drive leads for a technology company through a complicated VAR channel or distributor network? Get specific, and understand what agencies are doing. Not for just one client, but for ten. Smart marketers dig deep and aren’t impressed by just big brand names and pretty pictures.
2. DESCRIBE YOUR MARKETING AND BUSINESS SERVICES – WHAT IS INTERNAL TO THE AGENCY AND WHAT IS OUTSOURCED?
Understanding an agency’s full array of marketing and business services, and their business model is important. You hire an agency to understand your strategy, brand, and tactics; to execute those services over a full array of deliverables to drive results. You want agencies that will drive your marketing needs end-to-end. You might start with a small project, but the long-term relationship is where agencies provide value. Smart marketers also know that agencies do not do everything in-house; sometimes they outsource to freelancers. This helps agencies manage bandwidth and allows them to seek experts when needed. The best-run agencies internalize 75%-80% of their business (not including media buys). That helps control the marketing services and final product while meeting customers’ rush orders. Know the agency’s business module and make sure it fits you as the client.
3. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
You didn’t see this one coming, did you? The single best question I have been asked (only a few times) by CMOs is “Can you describe your thinking here?” I’ve seen this asked when presenting spec work or even when presenting case studies. Why ask the question? CMOs and top tier marketers know when you do spec work it might not be on target…but how you got there, the thinking involved, is critical. You don’t know the brand well enough yet to be on point, but a good thinker will drive results. The same is true for case studies. The CMO might not like the final end product as a case study, but they don’t know the thinking that went into it and the reason you went there. B2B marketing is a thinking game. Good thinking that’s tested will always drive results.
4. WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR STAFF AND THE PEOPLE I’LL BE WORKING WITH?
An agency relationship is just that, a relationship. It is not about one project but hopefully a variety of work over a period of time that touches a variety of people on both the client and the agency side. Great marketers want to know about the staff they will be working with on a daily basis. Did the top dogs of the agency build the relationship and are they turning you over to a bunch of novices? Is the staff made up of B2C marketers masking as B2B marketers or do they have many years in the B2B space either in a B2B agency or actually working inside B2B companies? Is the agency full of recent college graduates or seasoned B2B professionals? Will you learn something from them or will the CMO be educating their team? CMOs know it is about the people, not the name on the door.
5. WHAT PROCESSES DO YOU EMPLOY TO ENSURE YOU EXECUTE EVERY TIME?
CMOs and great marketers know an agency should be able to explain its processes and how they impact the work that goes through the agency. Asking about the strategic and planning process and how it’s utilized to drive results is hugely important. Understanding how an agency prices, how they communicate (status calls, creative and project briefs) and how they provide customer service are important to know. CMOs know and can articulate their company’s workflow process and they expect agencies to be able to do the same. It is not sexy, but a great process delivers consistency, execution, and results.
6. HOW DO YOU APPROACH EACH STAGE OF THE BUYING CYCLE?
This is a natural continuation of point #5. Just like an agency should be able to clearly articulate their pricing and processes, they should also be able to articulate their strategies to reaching audiences. In short, they should be prove they can clearly define an audience profile at each stage of the purchase cycle.
In an age of hyper-segmentation and personalization in marketing, with more channels than ever before, this is of course no small thing to ask. But you can start by determining whether your potential agency has a handle on the basics. These include:
- A fundamental understanding of the traditional AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) sales funnel
- The ability to engage audiences through lifecycle marketing
- Whether the agency is staying abreast of all new and upcoming marketing trends as well as changes in the B2B buying journey
Mind you, it’s okay if the agency in question lays out their approach in broad strokes so long as they have a clear plan of attack. After all, the specifics of each marketing strategy during various stages of the buying process will vary from project to project. Your agency should be pliable while still having clear goals. Most importantly, you need to give them the freedom to communicate and improvise when campaign strategy calls for it.
7. HOW WILL YOU TARGET CONTENT TO OUR AUDIENCE?
If you’ve gotten through these first six questions and the agency in question hasn’t even mentioned content strategy, they likely won’t be a good fit. Content strategy plays a crucial role across each stage of the buying cycle for any marketing campaign. Blog posts, vlogs, white papers, webinars, case studies, eBooks, interviews, live event streaming—these are all examples of content that can and should be implemented at every stage in the buying journey.
A solid agency will be able to define where each piece of content fits in the buying cycle according to industry, brand, and product. Like in the B2C world, more buyers are researching potential B2B companies online before communicating with a sales rep. So your potential agency is going to realize these initial online touchpoints are the wellspring of all future marketing success, and they will have specific content strategies to achieve it.
8. WHY IS YOUR MARKETING AGENCY A GOOD FIT FOR OUR INDUSTRY?
There are reputable agencies that have been around long enough to acquire at least some measure of expertise in many different B2B industries. Naturally you’ll want to keep these agencies in mind when narrowing your list of options. Beyond that you’ll want to focus on those agencies that have a process in place to acquire any additional expertise needed to execute a successful campaign for your specific product
So while expertise in your industry is part of being a good fit, so is that agency’s ability to collaborate. It’s a two-way street in which you’ll want to make your brand available to the agency during the content-development process. If the agency is armed with the appropriate info, they can then craft ideal content and your only role at that point will be vetting and approval.
The risk here is that the brand goes beyond an advisory/information-resource role and starts trying to craft the campaign themselves. You’ll always want to give the agency the info they need to craft a campaign tailored to your brand without micro-managing their process. It’s a fine line, but one that can be negotiated with proper distance, time-management, and expectations.
9. HOW WILL YOUR MARKETING AGENCY INTEGRATE WITH OUR SALES PROCESS?
This is a crucial question because, while each agency and sales team is different, the potential for misalignment is always a risk. What you don’t want is to hire a marketing agency that’s only going to create silos within your organization. How do you determine this, then? You’ll know if the potential agency asks the right questions.
If the agency asks about the types of leads and data that the sales team tracks, that’s a good sign. If they’re concerned with attribution over the typically long sales cycles of the B2B world, that’s also positive. If they’re concerned about all this plus they want to know about any incentives, such as bonuses, driving the sales team, which might drive quarterly activity, then you’re looking at a blue-chip prospect.
10. HOW WILL YOU BALANCE BRANDING WITH HITTING REVENUE TARGETS?
If there’s anything close to a trick question on this list, it’s this final query. No brand should be focused on just hitting revenue targets no matter the cost. If you have such hard targets that hitting them means sacrificing top-of-the-funnel awareness of your brand, well, that’s playing the short game, and it will probably be a loss in the long run.
A good, creative agency is going to offer an answer that balances a full view of the sales funnel with sales targets. They’ll know which lead indicators to track so that if the balance gets disrupted they’ll know it immediately and can change tactics accordingly.