How to Evaluate and Choose an Agency: What AI Tools Won’t Tell You

This blog was not written by AI. But it could have been.

Starting out on your agency evaluation and selection journey can be a daunting process and it may be tempting to turn to an AI tool like ChatGPT to get an idea of where to begin. That’s a pretty good first step and you wouldn’t be ill-advised in doing so. While you’ll get some pretty good information – my query brought up suggestions like budget, reputation and experience – you’ll miss some crucial nuance that can completely change your approach to the process. Here’s my take on what tools like ChatGPT can’t tell you – essential tips you can only learn from the human experience.

Agencies and consultancies are an invaluable asset for ad hoc projects or even full-scale strategies for any size business (that is another blog entirely). You wouldn’t take up with the first agency that drops a decent proposal in your lap and hope for the best any more than you would book a vacation without reading reviews. You have to do your homework to find the right fit. Having worked on both sides of the equation, from one of the largest PR agency networks to a fledgling start-up, this is a question I am often asked by friends and former colleagues. You finally convinced your boss (or the board) to level up your team and you spent tireless hours on your budget to make it work. Sadly, the common advice out there on choosing an agency partner is just the tip of the iceberg and ChatGPT hasn’t lived it.

Any relationship is a delicate balance between the parties. This isn’t a marriage, but it’s more than a transaction. Get it wrong and hidden costs can drain your funds, send your strategy off the rails and waste precious time you don’t have. Get it right, and you may open your business to new ideas that accelerate your growth.

“This isn’t a marriage, but it’s more than a transaction. Get it wrong and hidden costs can drain your funds, send your strategy off the rails and waste precious time you don’t have.”

Here are five key themes to establish your agency evaluation scorecard:

1. Relationship & Culture

It’s safe to say we’ve all had to work with people we don’t vibe with, and it can be a huge drain on productivity. The same is true of any agency you work with, whether the hidden cost comes in the form of constant miscommunications, passive aggressive back-and-forths or just stress from tense interactions. There’s also the chance for an agency to simply not “get” your vision and provide deliverables that just don’t have any heart. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people, so you need to like each other.

During your selection process, make sure you ask to meet everyone on the team that will be working on your project. If you’re not able to, it could be a red flag that you’d be getting work from a randomly rotating roster of overworked (and underpaid) contractors who are not interested in fulfilling your vision. Add separate line items on your evaluation scorecard for agency leadership and account management.

2. Breadth of Capabilities

You may be approaching an agency and reading this blog because you have a specific project in mind, but there’s no denying that upselling is the name of the game. Assuming you will be offered additional services, do you see yourself growing with this agency and using any of those other capabilities? The opposite issue could also arise, where you end up needing additional capabilities but the agency you’ve selected doesn’t offer them requiring you to repeat the entire evaluation process. Managing multiple agency relationships is challenging. That’s why it’s best to hire an agency that is able to flex with your changing business needs. If you hire an agency for social media in the immediate future but have a website project in mind within the next few months, make sure they have the capacity to deliver both services thereby saving you headaches, time and dollars.

3. Partner Network

Much like people, agencies can appear straight-laced and competent while the company they keep tells a completely different story. No one can do everything on their own, so ask questions about their partners. Do they have go-tos for web support, design and marketing technology platforms? How did they connect? Do they get incentives or kickbacks for making recommendations? Conversely, check they have done their homework on technology platforms, for example, before jumping on the partner program bandwagon. An agency’s work doesn’t happen in a void, so evaluating their partner network is an important way of adding context to the story. Think of this as the hometown visit episode.

4. Business Model

An agency partner’s business model will have a big impact on your relationship. How are they making and spending their money? Are you their biggest account or their smallest? If you’re their smallest account, they’ll have bigger fish to fry and you might get left on the backburner more frequently than is acceptable. If you are their largest account, are they able to provide resources that match your expectations? Does the agency have design resources? Ask questions about options for billing and staffing. Are there options for flexibility to help ease you (and your budget) in and help you scale up rapidly?

As for spending, you may just find that the money you funnel into their coffers is going to pay off expensive leases instead of properly compensating the people that will be working on your behalf. Is it important to you that your agency have an office with meeting space, or are you happy be 100% remote to save on costs? There are no wrong answers here, but it’s a good idea to enter into a new relationship with eyes wide open.

5. Change & Adaptation

Companies operate in a state of constant flux on many levels, be it in budget, mission scope or any other factor. You need to know that your agency is able and willing to respond to sudden changes, crises or even acquisitions without dragging their feet or breaking a sweat. This evaluation criteria is a bit tougher to pin down because it ultimately comes down to mindset (and flexibility within the business model to add additional scope). Leaders with a can-do attitude will be proud to regale you with stories of how they steered the company through uncertain waters, while inexperienced or reticent leaders won’t be very forthcoming. One recommendation is to ask the agency how they would handle a massive scale-up on a tight timeline, or a sharp scale-back and pivot on the same time scale. Their level of willingness and preparedness to answer, as well as the thought put into the response, are good indicators of flexibility you may very well need down the line.

Go Forth and Find Your Perfect Partnership

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a good place to start. The bottom line is, the more time you put into establishing a relationship built upon a foundation of mutual respect and shared values, the less time you’ll spend on frustrating hindrances. You’ll also set yourself up much better for a productive relationship that can flourish long-term. Start with human curiosity, not AI, and you’ll uncover a fruitful agency partnership.


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