A company‘s guide through the contemporary online agency jungle
A new digital strategy, a change in corporate direction, the development of an effective tech stack, the expansion of marketing channels– there are many reasons to join forces with an agency. But there are many agencies vying for your partnership. “The solution to all digital problems” and concrete “results within the shortest possible time” sound very tempting, but the reality can be underwhelming. Navigating safely through this jungle of offers and finding the right needle in the haystack can be a real challenge, so it’s important to pick a partner who can actually deliver on those promises.
To support you in your search for an agency, we’ll tell you what you should pay particular attention to when making your choice and guide you through preparation for the initial interview with the candidates. In addition, we’ve created a 10-point guide to better structure your search.
We draw not only on our own knowledge, but also the experience amassed by our clients. We combined our own expertise with their tips and experiences. From innovative startups to large corporations, everything is represented.
Marketing agency vs. digital agency
Today’s (consumer) world is changing quickly and constantly. To stay relevant and competitive in the digital marketplace, it is imperative to be able to react quickly. However, most people are not familiar with digital marketing and communications technology, nor with the necessary tools. Digital marketing agencies can help. They specialise in the implementation of individual online strategies and solutions and have a wide range of technical know-how.
The better you know your own weaknesses and goals, the more concretely you can proceed in your search for the right agency.
This is also the biggest difference between the classic advertising and marketing agencies. While the latter are primarily concerned with holistic brand development and communication, in which the website is just one of many topics, this is precisely where online agencies excel. Search-engine-friendly design, targeted data analysis and a positive user experience are therefore essentially always on the optimisation program.
But: Not all digital agencies work the same way, so not all of them will be able to support your specific needs.
How to structure your agency search
So how do you choose the right agency for you? To answer this question, it is first important to ask yourself the following questions within your own company.
- What’s the status quo? Here, it is necessary to carefully and honestly analyse what is already working well and where things could be improved. Are the technical fundamentals, unique selling proposition (USP), strategy, branding, etc. right, or do they need to be readjusted?
- What is your goal? Once you’ve decided what is currently lacking or in which direction the company should change, direct objectives can be formulated– for instance, generate more reach and sales on Instagram and the like, or implement a customer data platform for data analysis.
The better you know your own weaknesses and goals, the more concretely you can proceed in your search for the right agency. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to assess oneself correctly. In this case, an external view from a management consultant or strategist can be helpful:
„It was important to have an external strategist who could clearly show us where we actually stand. Of course, this was an eye-opener for our managing director, who said ‘OK, that’s not what I would have thought’.” – Christian Hansen from SieMatic.
Another important rule: Don’t do things by halves. If you only turn one screw, you can’t expect the entire apparatus to change. SEA, SEO, content, social media and email marketing – everything works together as a whole and should therefore always be viewed and optimised holistically.
„A company has to be sure that if you want to do something like this, there are no half solutions. You either do it right from the start, or you don’t do it at all. Anything else won’t work at this point..” – Thorben Maybaum of KTR Systems.
Networks, recommendations, and references
Now that the first step has been taken, the next step is to research suitable digital agencies. To do this, you can first get an overview via Google search and take a closer look at individual candidates. The website can act as a kind of business card, where you can pay attention to the following things:
5 points you should look for in a digital agency website
- How big is the agency and what industries and clients has it worked with?
- What services and expertise are listed?
- Is the content formulated in a comprehensible way or is it a mere collection of technical terms?
- Are references and customer testimonials reproduced?
- Is there any knowledge transfer in the form of a blog or similar?
This will give you a first impression of whether the agencies and their content match your requirements. However, a lack of references and experience in some industries is not necessarily a sign of a lack of competence. If you like the service profile, you can discuss your application in a personal exchange.
“I now only work through references. When in doubt, I look for references, if I don’t have any, I like to talk to the agencies personally. […] that’s where I really want honest opinions, and then I like to be convinced, but that personal conversation is essential.” – JoyBräu founder Tristan Bruemmer.
Every client we interviewed also agreed on one point, namely that “you always get the good agencies through the referral business.” Whether it’s the management consultant or well-known companies from the network, in the end, personal references and recommendations convey better than any website what technical as well as strategic competencies are really available.
Create an agency pitch
The preceding self-analysis will help you to prepare the agency pitch or a request for proposal from your potential candidates. For this purpose, formulate a detailed briefing in which you present the most important key data, your problem, and your goals and ideas. Afterwards, collect about 5 – 10 agencies which can offer a possible solution to your problem with their expertise and references in a longlist. Send the pitch briefing to this selection of candidates in order to receive a re-briefing from the other side. From this, you can see if the agency really understood your issue and what strategic approach they are proposing to address it.
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A tip from Paul Hopton, Chief Technical Officer at UNU: Keep your briefing relatively short and concise to cover the most important things – briefings that are too long often go unanswered.
„[…] if you ask a lot of agencies to go into a lot of work upfront, you might get skewed results. So the initial intention is to get a short response back from these agencies‚ this would be our direct approach to your problem‘.“
After you have received the feedback from the agencies, you can create a shortlist. This way, you will keep only a few candidates in the end, which you can invite for more in-depth pitches and initial interviews.
Choosing a marketing agency: the first meeting
Now it gets really exciting, because you get to know the digital marketing agencies better and you can discuss your individual concerns together. You should plan enough time per applicant for this, because after all, it’s about finding a qualified and trustworthy partner with whom you want to work in the long term. Therefore, pay close attention to how the interview proceeds and whether the agency addresses your needs and goals in detail:
First meeting with the digital agency – here’s what you should look out for:
- Did the agency grasp your issue and business model?
- What solutions are presented, and are they realistic?
- Can they present complex topics in an understandable way?
- Where do which responsibilities lie in a future collaboration?
- Is competence, trust and authenticity conveyed?
- What does the cost plan look like?
- Is the contract flexible or is there a minimum term?
- And finally: Is the interaction right on a personal level?
For most companies, a good personal interaction ultimately tips the scales in favor of or against an agency. You should therefore not underestimate this point in your selection.
Digital marketing agency: tips for targeted preselection
As already mentioned at the beginning, there are a large number of agencies that offer various services and work in diverse ways. Startups and inexperienced companies often have a hard time finding the right online agency for their needs. For this purpose, we have compiled five additional tips to help you narrow down your search.
First of all, it is advisable to approach intrusive cold-call emails and phone calls with a certain degree of caution. Usually, quick and often false promises are made that do not relate to the individual corporate strategy– the external agency simply lacks precise information for this. In general, you should categorically reject specific offers such as ‘1st place in Google ranking in just 2 weeks’; SEO adjustments do not happen overnight.
“We can do everything from a single source!”
Anyone who advertises 360° expertise in all specialist areas is usually not able to do anything at all, or is only able to do many things inadequately. After all, no one knows or can do everything at once. It is more important to make sure that an agency can draw on a broad and competent network when in doubt. This way you can be sure that your matter will be handled professionally in the right hands.
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Work only as requested and specified
Agencies that act as pure service providers, strictly following a pattern and only following instructions, were basically not even seen as an option among the companies we surveyed. After all, a dedicated online marketing agency brings external expertise to the table and should proactively contribute to problem solving. If this is not the case, then there may not be any great added value for the company here.
So it can be a positive sign if your potential agency partner argues against one of your ideas and instead makes other sensible suggestions.
Transparency on both sides
The decision isn’t only a jump into cold water for you– the agency should also have precise and detailed knowledge about your business model and your resources. Before entering into a contract, both parties involved should therefore be open and transparent about the opportunities and possible risks of a collaboration. After all, a newly founded startup faces different challenges (including financial ones) than a long-standing large corporation.
Working together instead of going it alone
A reputable digital agency does not sell the perfect cake, but teaches you how to bake it from scratch! This means that the full responsibility and knowledge of newly integrated tools and systems never lies with the agency alone– after all, it is your company. Instead, there should be open communication so that you are involved in all decisions and adjustments and thus also build up a basic understanding of all applications and processes internally, because otherwise you will be faced with a huge data puzzle in an emergency.
Last but not least: Your digital strategy should enable you to react agilely to digital changes. Since no two companies are alike and websites have to meet a wide variety of requirements, problem solving can only lead to sustainable success on an individual basis. A good performance marketing agency will therefore always optimise your business holistically and on all channels.
In addition, the chemistry with the agency simply has to be right. An open, honest and relaxed communication can enrich the cooperation enormously without losing professionalism.
“Especially in the online sector, you have to be creative and test a lot, and sometimes it helps if you can go out for a beer together.” – Tristan Bruemmer.
Are you still searching or are you already performing?
We hope this guide will help you navigate the agency jungle with confidence and choose the one that’s right for you and your needs. What are your tips for finding an online marketing agency? Maybe you have further questions or suggestions for us on this topic? Then feel free to comment on our social media channels. We’d love to hear your input.
Can we support you in your next digital level as an agency? Then feel free to contact us by phone or send us an inquiry via the contact form.
We would also like to take this opportunity to express our sincere thanks to our clients who supported us with their expertise in the preparation of this article.
Many thanks to:
- Torben Maybaum, Head of Sales at KTR Systems
- Paul Hopton, Chief Technology Officer, and Matthias Amrhein, Business Intelligence Lead, from UNU Motors
- Tristan Bruemmer, Founder & Chief Marketing Officer of JoyBräu
- Christian Hansen, Head of Marketing & Digital Business at SieMatic
And now: Chart a course to the next digital level!