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What happens after your search for a B2B marketing agency begins?

In-house marketers who haven't served agency time might not be aware of what goes on behind the scenes.

This article will shed light on how an agency "thinks," what its people will do during the pitch process, and how you can get the best agencies competing for your business. It'll also help you make a better decision about which shortlisted agency to work with.

First, here are two important facts you might not already know:

  1. Not all agencies pitch.
  2. Not all agencies want your business.

It sounds counterintuitive, but pitching is both hugely disruptive and horribly expensive (costs often reach five figures in time and resources), requiring people to burn the midnight oil while juggling their normal workloads for a one in three(ish) chance of winning the business.

Bigger agencies, as you might expect, have entire teams dedicated to pitching. They consist of talented salespeople trained to impress the socks off you, but, chances are, they won't be working on your account.

If you end up working with that agency, those people will fade into the background, and more "cost appropriate" people will be assigned to do the work. Of course, that doesn't mean your account manager and team won't be fantastic, but that's a risk you might or might not want to take.

If you work with smaller agencies, the people you speak to are the people you're working with. They don't have B-teams. So if you don't like the personalities of the people in the room, they're probably not the right fit for you. And fit is everything.

As for whether they want your business, there are a few things agencies have to weigh up first.

Notably, is the profit margin worth their while? It's simple math: If an agency spends $50K of its people's time on a pitch for a $300K piece of business and its profit margin is 15%, then the financial incentive has disappeared in a puff of smoke before the agency has even started working on the account. (And different types of agencies have very different profit margins.)

That's why you absolutely need to specify your budget in the brief—so you can find the right agency for you. To get good people working on your account, you don't want to be one of the agency's smallest accounts. You'd be better off working with a smaller agency.

So, at a chemistry meeting, agencies will be sizing you up, as much as the other way around. Its people will be asking, "Can we make money from this business?" and, if not, they'll be asking, "Will this give us the opportunity to do some great work that will help us get more profitable clients in the same industry and, possibly, win awards?" Also, importantly, they'll be assessing, "Can we work with them?"

What Happens Next

If the agency is keen to work with you, it will either agree to pitch or—if it doesn't pitch—offer to submit a detailed proposal outlining the approach its people would take.

A good agency will then proceed to pull apart your brief and use its nous coupled with some detailed research to work out its viability—i.e., that it's viable to meet your objectives.

So, do yourself a favor and give those objectives tremendous amounts of thought before you write a brief.

I once met an IT company's marketing team whose brief said the team's goal was to grow leads, targeting European companies with 5,000+ staff. The team members told us what their win rate was (one in four) and what a single sale was worth. All we had to do was multiply the figures and work out how many companies in Europe had more than 5,000 staff (answer: not that many) to work out that even if they tripled their leads, they didn't have a viable market.

We explained that although we could increase their leads, they would need double their win rate to hit their numbers. In that case, it became quickly clear that lead generation was not the whole picture; they needed to fix the bottom of their funnel first.

Value in the Process

A good agency will get its strategy people to write their own brief working back from your objectives. In doing so, they may or may not include any ideas you've had about how to achieve those objectives. That will likely be the most valuable and interesting part of the process from your perspective: What would the agency do without your ideology and expectations clouding its view?

The value of hiring an agency is that from the inside of the jar (where you are), it's hard to read the label. An agency has the position of being an outsider: not dissimilar to that of your client. Unlike the people in your company, an agency will neither overestimate nor underestimate the business.

At this stage of the process, you can expect a good agency to surprise you or disrupt your thinking in some way.

Many moons ago, I took part in a pitch for a major printer company, which was having trouble selling its own-brand printer cartridges to customers. Many preferred to buy cheaper knockoffs online. Its people had done lots of research into why people switched. It's the cost, stupid. We asked them in the pitch: "Has anyone asked those customers who DO buy your cartridges why they do so despite the higher cost?" No one had.

To put it in another way, the company didn't really know its customers, but it wasn't aware of it. (If you're interested, it was partly customer apathy, but mostly because the quality of the name-brand inks was noticeably better.)

Possible Red Flags for Agencies You Want to Work With

  1. You have a procurement person leading the process: This can be an indicator that the profit margin will be too low or that you're more interested in the transaction than the partnership.
  2. You have more than three agencies on your shortlist: Agencies need a strong chance of success to devote resources to a pitch.
  3. You're putting out annual briefs: There's usually a good reason companies are churning through agencies (and often that has nothing to do with the incumbent agency's work).
  4. If you don't have an in-house marketing person or team: Working with CEOs can be tough for agencies, involving lots of teaching of the basics of marketing.
  5. If you refuse to specify a budget in your brief: It suggests you're a price buyer who'll go with whatever agency is cheapest.

Is That Your Final Decision?

After you've seen and digested all the pitches and proposals, you have the tough job of picking an agency.

Start by judging the agency for good fit—in every conceivable way—from personality to size of your business vs. the size of the agency. In an ideal world, you wouldn't be the agency's largest client or, as previously mentioned, its smallest. The third or fourth largest is a good place to aim for. It's the Goldilocks zone.

Next, consider the questions the agency's people have asked you throughout the process—rather than just their answers. That is an absolute indicator of quality; it demonstrates their thinking and their thought processes.

Answers are merely pitchcraft. They can be learned. Insightful questions say far more about their ability to understand your business and think around your challenges.

Last, judge the agency far more by its copy than its design. Design is a crapshoot, and it's an easy thing to fix. But if its people can't write for toffee, nothing will change that. (Sure, they can hire freelance copywriters, but so could you!)

Scrutinize their spec work to see how well they've written about your business so far. Don't worry too much if they get minor details wrong; they don't know you all that well yet. Just look at the quality of the copy.

When Alarm Bells Should Be Ringing

It can be easier to consider what you don't want to see from an agency than what you do. Alarm bells should be ringing if the agency is leading with tactics over strategy.

The agency should be able to show you several examples of its client work (though expect to sign an NDA). Look through it to make sure the agency has altered its approach according to each client's objectives. It's not a good sign if it looks like everything it has produced follows exactly the same playbook—e.g., the answer is SEO-optimized content, now what's the question?

* * *

When you've found your best-fit agency, take a look at the terms of the contract. It's wise to include early reviews at three and six months to check that everything is going in the right direction.

Don't be surprised if other agencies get in touch with you after six months, because they know that is the time when the honeymoon period is well and truly over. If you've found a great agency, you'll be in the happy place and you can politely decline.

More Resources on How to Find a Marketing Agency

How to Hire a Marketing Agency and Build a Productive Relationship

10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing Your Next B2B Digital Marketing Agency

Six Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Marketing Agency

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Looking Past Pitchcraft: How to Find the Best B2B Marketing Agency for You

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image of Jason Ball

Jason Ball is the founder of B2B marketing agency Considered Content, a B2B marketing agency that works with tech brands, professional services firms, and manufacturers. Its B2B Effectiveness Engine—the largest database of its kind—features data insights from 1,000+ senior B2B marketers. 

LinkedIn: Jason (Jay) Ball