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Choosing a Digital Agency: What you need to know

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 17 Jun, 2016
Essential Essential topic

The pressure for brands to select the “right” digital agency to deliver projects and campaigns has never been greater. So what steps can you take to avoid a digital partnership disaster?

digital agency

2015 continues to be a golden era for digital agencies. UK online retail sales eclipsed £100bn in 2014 reflecting the nation’s insatiable appetite for buying online. With digital ad spend increasing by 800% between 2004 and 2014 to £7.2 Billion, brands are responding to consumer demand and investing heavily in their online presence. The rapid growth of online investment and increased availability of advertising platforms means that digital marketing roles have rapidly evolved to be multi-disciplined and complex. Agencies are therefore an attractive option for brands looking to deliver quickly on digital campaigns and projects.

Imagine you’re hiring a member of staff

The process of selecting a digital agency should be the same as for hiring a permanent member of staff. Although the relationship will be different, the selection criteria are similar.


In both cases you want to hire specific skills that deliver value to your organisation. Making sure that an agency is qualified to deliver on a brief and will remain accountable throughout a campaign or project is something you would equally expect of an employee.

Ask probing questions

Agencies are usually adept at pitching for business as they will regularly face the same questions from prospective clients. Often a potted history of the agency with a client list of recognisable brands will be enough to create confidence in their abilities.

Once you’ve told the agency what you want them to do, and how much you have to spend then your digital cards are laid out on the table.

If you’re going to determine whether the agency is right for your business, then you need to ask probing questions about their team, experience and competence. The aim is to understand how the relationship will work and what the likelihood is of them delivering on your goals.

Prepare your brief

Before engaging an agency, it’s important to have considered the following:

  1. The specific problem you want them to solve e.g. “We want to increase brand visibility” or “We don’t have enough traffic”
  2. How you will measure their success e.g. sales targets or KPIs
  3. Your campaign or project budget

Budget can be notoriously difficult for SMBs to define as often they want to invest based on expected ROI. It’s a mistake to hold back on revealing the available budget to an agency, as a campaign or project can be delivered with varying degrees of quality based on spend. It’s important to focus on value, not just cost.

If you’re clear about what you want the agency to do, and the impact that will have on your business, then you should be able to put at least a guide price on what that service is worth.

Do they outsource?

Outsourcing is not in itself a bad thing at all. If work is being outsourced to specialists then it’s more cost effective and scalable than hiring permanent staff without compromising quality. The challenge for the agency (which you should explore) is how well they can maintain these freelance relationships to ensure a continuous level of service to their clients.

Campaign or Project Tracking & Reporting

There aren’t many brands that want their digital agency to disappear into a black hole as soon as they sign the contract. Requesting specifics on the project management and progress tracking including tools, frequency and metrics will give clarity on the working relationship.


Too often, the day to day management is glossed over at the pitching stage in lieu of assessing the agency’s ability to deliver the end goal. Asking questions about tracking and reporting demonstrates that you’re focused on delivery and value and an agency should respond positively to this.

Shop around

Even if you’re 99% sure you’re going to sign up with a particular agency, it’s still worth shopping around for comparable quotes. Saving your budget means it can be spent elsewhere, and speaking to other digital specialists means that you’ll get a different perspective on the right approach for your project on anything from platform choice to advertising channel.

If you’re working with a tiny budget, then try some long tail Google searches varying by UK region to find agencies that don’t have a large advertising spend on AdWords. There are instances of smaller digital agencies and consultants that “white label” their services through more expensive, larger agencies that manage the sales pipeline. This is one way to scale value on a small budget.

Check references

The only time you’ll ever wish you checked an employment reference is when a relationship goes wrong. Make sure you speak to the agency’s references before signing a contract. The right time to check references is at final stage of selection, when you have two or more shortlisted agencies. Asking for references at an earlier stage can be unfair to the agency if you’re not yet serious about signing them up.

Be mindful that delaying reference checks until you’re ready to sign a contract can be too late, as your decision is practically made. This bias in them being the only option on the table means there’s a strong chance you won’t review their references thoroughly.

Negotiate a fair contract

Contract negotiation is something you either love or hate. Often those who love it try and fight the cost up or down without considering value, and those who hate it just pay the list price in order to avoid conflict. Either scenario can end up with a poor deal.


The best negotiation tactic is to be flexible to get what you want. You do this by being clear about your deal breakers, but have a list of concessions you’d be willing to make to get these terms. For example, if the quote is above your budget then that’s a deal breaker. You could bring it down by agreeing to a longer contract term or no break clause.

It’s a very good idea to insert a break clause within the first campaign as a project progress checkpoint. This will tend to be 3-6 months, but should be realistic based on what the project is.

If the agency don’t hit their target at this point, and there’s no break clause then you’re forced to continue to hire an agency that isn’t delivering. This can be a serious, limiting situation and costly to rectify. If there’s justification for the missed target, then the decision to continue or not rests in your hands without having to go through a messy contract termination.

For those looking to develop their negotiation skills, I recommend a fantastic book called “Getting More” by Stuart Diamond.

Get Past The Sales Pitch - Meet The Team

Much like checking references, you should ask to meet other people at the agency when you feel confident in their abilities to deliver. Visiting their offices, and meeting the people who’ll be delivering your work means you get to test the competence and professionalism of the team as a whole.

meet the team

One of my clients recently made a decision not to sign up a digital agency at final stage on the basis that on a visit to their offices, they were unable to get a laptop up and running to present to them.

Many agencies will involve their delivery team at the pitch stage, but for those that don’t it’s good to know who you’ll be working with if you sign up.


The growth of online retail means brands are continuing to increase digital spend and rely on agencies to fill the skills gap. Selecting the “right” digital agency can be a perilous decision, with success being measured by results months down the line.

Brands can drastically reduce the risk of taking on an agency by shopping around and being thorough in their questioning, contract negotiation and reference checking.

Image credits: Shutterstock

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