How to Drill Down to an Agency’s True Capabilities

Marketing agencies pretend to be full-service entities when they really only specialize in a number of capabilities.

Selecting the right agency partner comes down to two things: capability and chemistry. Capability is about whether or not the agency can execute on the ask. Chemistry is about how the agency approaches the partnership.

However, there are over 120,000 agencies in the U.S. alone. Many agencies identify as “full-service” or “integrated,” but are they really? Do they really have demonstrated experience in every marketing discipline? Maybe they have…but what are these marketing agencies best at?

This obscurity, coupled with the fact that many agencies will say almost anything to win new business, makes it difficult for client-side marketers to discern whether an agency would be a good fit for their brand.

Cut through the clutter and assess potential agency partners’ performance capabilities instantly using the following tactics:

Tactic #1 - Case Studies

A case study is a perfect testament to how the agency strategizes and executes on work for comparable companies/industries, or within a specific capability. Not all case studies are created equal, however.

A true case study has five elements to it:

  1. Challenge - The problem the client tasked the agency with solving.

  2. Approach - The path the agency took to determine the strategy/solution.

  3. Solution - The tactical approach the agency used to solve the client’s problem.

  4. Results - The metrics or KPIs (key performance indicators) that were impacted by the solution.

  5. Examples - Pictures and/or media that showcase the work done for the client.

When looking over agency case studies, client-side marketers should pay special attention to:

  • Relevancy - How does the case study apply to the brand? Ask for case studies that the agency has created for comparable businesses (think industry, target audience, product/service, etc.). If the agency has no case studies for companies in similar industries, ask for case studies around the specific capability.

  • Strategic Approach - How did the agency gather information and how did they leverage that information to craft the solution? How did the agency map out the strategy? Did they leverage data to inform their approach?

  • Outcome - What were the metrics presented in the results section? Do they make sense for the project’s initial ask? Actionable metrics like revenue lift or conversion rate increase have more weight than vanity metrics such as impressions or “likes.”

  • Visual or Tonal Elements - Pictures and copy present in the case study that indicate whether or not the agency’s creative style could work well with the client’s brand.

If the agency provides multiple case studies that are relevant to the client’s industry and ask, then they may be a reliable candidate.

Tactic #2 - Client References

Sometimes, in a pitch, an agency will do or say whatever it takes to win the client’s business... but working together is a different story. Client references are a great tool for understanding what an agency truly does best.

Asking for references from clients who had either a comparable challenge or a comparable business can help a client narrow down a list of agency candidates. When contacting these references, be sure to ask questions about chemistry - collaboration, receptiveness to feedback, responsiveness, etc. - in addition to questions about the agency’s capabilities.

Tactic #3 - The Sample Project

Similar to purchasing a car, mitigating the risk of selecting an agency partner may require a bit of a test drive. An agency could be good on paper but terrible in reality - and vice versa. If time and resources allow, it makes sense to begin the partnership with a low budget engagement to see if the partnership works.

By test driving the partnership, clients can gauge the marketing agency’s collaborative and strategic approach. More and more brands are taking this route when selecting a partner because it exposes them to a wide array of agencies at little to no cost.

Related: Alternatives to the RFP Process

Bonus Tip - If the agency isn’t passing your tests, make a deal.

Suppose an agency lacks demonstrated project experience in a certain capability, yet they have excellent chemistry or an established relationship with the might make sense to still give them a chance! Cut a deal with the agency: let them learn on your dime so long as that work is done at a discounted rate.

Tactic #4 - Contact Setup.

Asking for all of the above will help clients filter out any unqualified candidates - but that takes time and resources. Fortunately, Setup acts as a shortcut to this process for marketing leaders. At no cost to client-side marketers, Setup connects brands with capable and qualified agencies.

How it works - We assess each of our agency partners’ true capabilities through our proprietary Agency Assessment process. This assessment evaluation allows us to vet each of our partners, while uncovering the true strengths, weaknesses, core capabilities, and client experiences.

Have a current need that needs the expertise of a marketing agency? We work with a variety of vetted, qualified marketing agency partners who could be the perfect fit - Contact us for an introduction to a capable and qualified marketing agency !

Want to continue the search solo? Check out our collection of agency selection resources: