May 3, 2017

The Complete Guide to Hiring a Digital Marketing Agency

The entire process of finding, choosing, and hiring a digital marketing agency can feel like an uphill battle. How do you know what exactly you need? Or which ones fit your budget, or will work well with your team, or will get you the results you’re looking for? It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

The worst thing you can do is choose the wrong agency. It can cause you tons of unnecessary stress, and waste tons of your business’ money.

You don’t want that, and neither do we. That’s what this guide is for!

We’ve organized the process into knowing the type of agency you need, then narrowing the list down by quality, budget, and relationship fit. At the end of this guide, you’ll have a list of red flags to look out for, and an Agency Vetting Checklist that you can use to evaluate any agency vying for your business.

You can also view this guide as a PDF here.

With that, let’s dig in!

Table of Contents

The Type of Agency You Need

It’s near-impossible to keep track of the countless agencies out there. No two are completely alike, and the range of services and styles is endless. That’s what this guide is here to help simplify!

Before you even start looking for an agency, it’s important to know what you’re looking for- and what you’re not looking for. Since you’re reading this guide, we assume you at least have the concept of a digital marketing agency in mind. Nonetheless, we’ll give you a high-level overview of the other types of marketing so you know exactly what you’re thinking about.

Of course, just saying “digital marketing agency” isn’t enough. There are tons of variations, and we’ll walk you through each one so you know what you are- and aren’t- looking for.

Types of Services

“Marketing” is a broad term and can encompass a lot of different methods. Let’s break it down a bit:

Traditional Advertising

Traditional advertising includes advertising TV, radio, magazines, billboards, etc. Its focus is wide awareness through repeated messages. These tactics typically require large investments. As their name implies, traditional agencies are the longest- standing type of marketing communication agency. With the rise of digital and the lack of ability to measure results, the role of traditional agencies is shrinking with all but the largest national corporations as companies move to diversify their marketing strategies.

Public Relations

PR agencies are focused on getting a company’s name gets mentioned in media, such as newspapers and news television. They focus on getting free press through relationships with traditional news media. Similar to traditional agencies, their results are less measurable. PR is often most useful for crisis communication.


Marketing agencies or consultants are typically used at the beginning stages of new companies or new initiatives to define the brand and provide research. Their services may include branding, deep quantitative and qualitative research through focus groups and surveys, and creating sales or other promotions. Often, these companies focus more on the initial research and planning and let the client handle execution.

Digital Marketing

Digital marketing agencies often perform several services of the marketing firm, along with execution through strategies and tactics on the Internet. These tactics range from search engine optimization, web design, search ads, social media management, e-commerce, content marketing, email marketing, and more. Some firms provide only certain tactics, some provide all of these à la carte, and some provide them all through a consistent methodology.

Types of Digital Marketing Agencies

Now that we have a better picture of all the different “marketing” services, let’s dive into what you’re really here to read about: digital marketing agencies. Even in this industry, there’s no shortage of variation. So let’s take a look at the general categories of agencies you’ll find out there:

Web Design

Web design agencies are typically project-based. As the name implies, they design a website for the client based on its needs and industry trends. They may also provide the initial optimization for search, or maintain a small retainer for updates after the website is created. Many of these agencies are transitioning to include more digital marketing tactics or to become inbound marketing agencies.


These firms take a client’s existing site and optimize it for search engines. They may or may not create new content, such as blogging, for SEO purposes.
Read: What is the Difference Between SEO and Inbound Marketing?

Specialized Digital Marketing

Digital marketing firms execute any number of the digital marketing tactics, such as SEO, design, search ads, social media, blogging, email, and more. They typically provide their services à la carte. For example, they may offer a client just social media management.

Inbound Marketing

Inbound marketing agencies follow the inbound methodology. Inbound plans and executes digital marketing tactics in a cohesive way that focuses on creating relationships with customers and drawing in new leads, rather than sending a branded message out to a large audience.

Digital Marketing vs. Inbound
The Crucial Distinction for Your Business

There’s a subtle but crucial distinction between inbound marketing and digital marketing, and it can mean a lot for your business.


Force Fitness Club is an upscale membership gym in Tampa, Florida. It has a small but effective sales team in place and a marketing person who works round the clock to bring that sales team more leads. The gym’s members are satisfied and loyal, and the gym is doing well from a revenue perspective. But Force Fitness isn’t growing quickly enough, partially because the marketing manager hasn’t been bringing enough qualified leads to the sales team while she tries to juggle lead generation, new membership options, the website, email, and club events.

What she needs is a lead generation pipeline that brings in more leads that are more qualified, so she can hit her numbers, set her sales team up for success, and spend more time on club events.

What Force Fitness needs is a comprehensive inbound marketing plan that makes the gym visible via SEO and search ads, attracts prospects through a killer website, converts prospects into sales leads via engaging and informative content, and delights current members via email and social media. All of these steps that create Force Fitness’ lead pipeline is called Inbound Marketing.

Questions to Ask Yourself

What are your current marketing strengths and weaknesses?

Is there a single specialist who can fill in a critical gap, or do you need a fully implemented method to support one side of your marketing?

Who creates and owns your brand?

Do you need somebody telling you how to brand yourself, someone executing your brand (an order-taker), or something in between (a marketing partner)?
Read: Know What You’re Marketing With the Five Whys

What goals do you have for your marketing?

Are you trying to grow awareness, get more leads, close leads into customers, increase revenue per customer, or something else? Find out if an agency has experience in what you’re looking to accomplish.

Should your agency be specialized for your industry, or specialized for the kind of marketing you need?

Some agencies specialized in certain industries, such as “Fitness Center Marketing.” Is this industry understanding important, or will it produce boxed results that may t one business in your industry, but not you?

Do you need your marketing agency to work together with your sales team?

Do you have a sales team in place? If so, your agency needs to be willing to work closely with your sales team (after all, a smooth lead flow is best for everyone!)

Do you need a one-time project, ongoing maintenance, or active marketing campaigns?

What do you need based on your goals and your current strengths and weaknesses?

Will a prospective agency work well with the other agencies or internal marketing you have?

You may have one agency for digital marketing, one for out-of-home advertising, and an in-house person who designs print materials. Your agency needs to be willing to work with all of them, instead of being an independent island.

Where is the agency located—and does it matter?

While it’s certainly nice to have your agency down the block, with today’s communication environment, that may no longer be necessary. Maybe you only need someone close enough that you can meet in person occasionally, and have phone updates more frequently. This one’s entirely about what feels comfortable for you.


You understand quality. You can tell good marketing from bad, you know what your customers like, and you know what is standard in your industry.

If an agency can’t perform to those standards and those of your own business, they have no place on your shortlist.

The best method you have to understand the quality of the work an agency will produce for you is to see the quality of the work they have produced. Look for portfolios and case studies, and don’t just look for what looks good to you. See if they have real data to demonstrate that they can help you accomplish your business goals.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Does the agency have case studies or a portfolio available?

Look for something similar to your business, your problems, or your goals.

Is their past work professional and excellent quality?

Don’t settle in your marketing. And don’t settle for someone who says, “Here’s what we’ve done, but we can do better for you.”

Do they have the capability to produce the exact results you’re looking for?

If you’re looking for more than just design, does the agency’s past work come with the numbers to support it? This comes back to knowing your marketing goals.

Do they have the ability to work perfectly within your brand?

Find out their onboarding process. Will they get to work right away, projecting their ideas onto your brand? Or will they not work until they ask questions about your brand, your team, and your customers?
Read: In Marketing, Start From Within


Budget is important.

You may cringe at the thought of putting together your marketing budget, and some agencies’ pricing may be staggering to you. Don’t worry, we’re going to take your budget from the very beginning for a solid foundation to work off of.

We’ll go over the different types of budgeting strategies, and then think about what that means for your business and your agency relationship.

Different Marketing Budget Strategies

Your marketing budget is going to depend on your goals, your revenue, your structure, your market space, and much more. The first step to creating your budget is knowing which strategy you’ll use.

Percentage of Revenue

This is an easy and common strategy. In general, small businesses devote around 20% to marketing, larger businesses devote 5-10%, and the largest corporations spend 2-5% on marketing. This strategy is easy to understand, but may not fit more specific goals, and varies significantly based on your other costs and how revenue translates to pro t for your specific business.

Everything You Can Afford

Aggressive but risky. Aimed at fast growth, you start with finding out how much you need to keep the lights on and your employees paid. The rest goes to marketing to stimulate explosive growth in revenue.

Competitive Parity

Find out how much your competitors are spending on their marketing, and budget a hair more. This can be good for staying ahead of competitors, but it comes with its risks. Perhaps a competitor is investing a ton in billboard awareness messages, while you need to bring in leads. Or maybe their marketing e orts and spend simply don’t make sense for your brand. This isn’t a bad strategy, but make sure you have all the information before you employ it.

Desired Market Share

This is a bit more involved. You have to accurately know your current market share, your cost of customer acquisition, and what other businesses in your market are spending. Compared to the Competitive Parity strategy, it assesses the whole market rather than just one competitor. Of course, it takes more information to find.


The Task-Oriented budgeting model allows you to plan out the marketing tasks you anticipate for the coming year, then estimating the costs for each of those tasks. It’s a very straightforward approach, but be careful: remember that cost estimates can vary in accuracy.

Questions to Ask Yourself

What is your current market share?

Look for something similar to your business, your problems, or your goals.

How competitive is your market space?

Don’t settle in your marketing. And don’t settle for someone who says, “Here’s what we’ve done, but we can do better for you.”

Do you have any marketing needs that won’t apply to your agency?

Remember to account for these when creating your marketing budget.

Relationship Fit

When looking for the right agency, you want to think of them as an extension of your marketing team- not as an outsourced service. That means you want to hire an agency that ts in with your company’s vision, mission, core values, and culture. While this step may be the most challenging to observe, it is one of the most important to ensure a healthy and long-term business relationship.

In this section, we’ll outline several tips to help you find a good agency relationship fit.

Get to Know The Team

You’ve heard the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. When choosing an agency, a great website is a good indicator of whether you can trust them, but it’s not perfect. Talk to them, ask for previous work samples, and get to know the agency you could potentially work with.

Schedule an Informal Interview

While you’re looking for a digital marketing company, think of each conversation as an informal interview. Just like you’d interview potential new hires, you want to “interview” your future agency to make sure the two of you can work as a team and they are a good fit.

Enjoy Your Conversations

Once you sign a contract with an agency, chances are you will be communicating with them at least once a month- most often more! Enjoy the company you are communicating with to ensure future meetings will be enjoyable

Your Goals Align

Finally, make sure that your overall goal for hiring an agency is stated and they will work to achieve that goal. For example, maybe your goal is to achieve more leads for the next fiscal year. You want an agency that helps you achieve that goal through every online avenue that makes sense- not one that works just to increase Facebook likes.

Read: Why A Relationship With Your Marketing Agency Is Essential

Sustainable success from digital marketing takes time, planning, and a strong working relationship.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Do you enjoy speaking with them during the “hiring” process?

Don’t set yourself up for monthly meetings that you hate!

Do they answer your questions thoroughly or are they vague?

High-flying responses are attractive, but they may indicate that an agency’s head is in the clouds.

What have past clients said about them?

Check reviews wherever you can, and maybe even call up a few of their former or current clients.

Do they talk more about their own creativity, or about finding and meeting your needs?

While creative awards may be a good indicator of agency success, an agency should never set those goals above your own.

Do they have a specific onboarding process, where they learn everything about your brand, team, and customers?

A good fit means each party knows and understands the other.
Read: The Importance of Researching Your Buyer Persona

Will you get to meet and talk with the people who will actually be doing work for you?

Sometimes you may meet the agency’s sellers, and then once you’re signed, never talk with them again. See if you can meet the doers.

Agency Red Flags

Of course, as with any decision, there are a few red flags that can show that an agency isn’t worth your time.

Agency Vetting Checklist

At the end of the PDF version of this guide, you’ll find a sheet including all of the “Questions to Ask Yourself” from this guide. You can print it off, forward it to a coworker, and fill it in with notes to help guide your decision-making process.

Jon Saxton

Jon Saxton

Jon recognizes passion and works to convey that in powerful ways. With an eye toward what could be and an understanding of how, he brings energy and ideas to everything he works with.