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What to Look for in a Startup Marketing Agency?

I founded Draft.dev to help startups better market themselves to software developers. I liked the idea that I could help them speak to developers authoritatively, while supplying a service that most developer tools startups struggle to replicate internally.

We primarily work with venture-funded startups. Clients often come to us with more money than time and would prefer to lean on an experienced, niche marketing agency instead of hiring everything in-house.

However, every startup I’ve talked to struggles to find a marketing agency that’s right for them.

So in this piece, I’m going to give you an agency-owner’s perspective on finding the right partner for your startup. I’ll share some of the qualities you should look for, pitfalls you should avoid, and tips from other startup marketing agencies on finding the perfect client-agency fit.

Why Is Finding the Right Agency so Hard?

Part of the problem is choice; there’s too much of it. There are more than 86,000 advertising agencies in the U.S. alone, and frankly, a number of them aren’t very experienced at what they’re doing. 

Then there’s the fact that startups are often evolving companies that haven’t settled on a product-market fit. We once worked with an early-stage startup that a couple of months into the relationship, decided to completely retool their product, target customer, and go-to-market strategy — and we had to pivot with them. 

This kind of thing is very hard to do. As a client, you can’t reliably assess your agency’s ability and effectiveness when you shift the goalposts in the middle of a campaign. What’s more, you create sunk costs that make ROI very hard to measure.

Internal Clarity Is Crucial

Clients get the most out of their relationship with us after they have clearly identified their marketing mix and the role content plays in it. It makes for a much more productive engagement when you know where most of your leads are going to come from and you only need the external expertise to leverage those channels.

Before you approach an agency, get a firm fix on your short- and long-term goals. Once you have those, you can reverse engineer a marketing strategy to help you get there. Good agencies will make a point of learning about your organizational goals and will set objectives that you can track. 

Something else startups tend to underestimate is the value of an internal point-person for the agency. As Alex Birkett, Co-Founder of Omniscient Digital says, “A good agency will eventually operate mostly autonomously, but during the first few months, it helps to have a dedicated employee who can be the bridge between internal strategy and goal setting and the agency’s work, as well as a quality judge to make sure the agency is on the right track. Agencies can accelerate your progress in a given area, but there are always things you know about your company and industry that an agency will have to learn.”

People working at a marketing agency

How to Screen Marketing Agencies 

Finding available agencies is easy enough. Tried-and-tested methods for doing this include referrals, online searches, and consulting independent agency rankings and awards. The challenge is screening them so that you end up with a couple that are a good fit. I recommend using a range of criteria to do this: 

1. Niche vs. Full-Service

One of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether you want to go with a specialized agency or a full-service one.

“There are very few full-service agencies out there that do a good job,” says Gerald Lombardo at Gr0. “The only time a full-service digital marketing agency can really make sense is when you’re dealing with very large budgets. Otherwise, if you are a startup, recently funded brand, or small-to-medium-sized business, odds are you are better off with a specialized firm.”

In my experience, niche agencies are much better for addressing specific needs like SEO, CRO, and creative overhauls. A lot of clients come to us at Draft.dev after trying a more generalized agency that couldn’t find writers with the technical expertise that we have.

One of the biggest things to avoid if you’re a startup are marketing agencies that say they can do everything for everyone and don’t really have a specialty. That often means they don’t have much experience and are desperate for clients. Even full-service agencies usually have a focus area.

2. Budget

As a startup, some of the top-tier agencies that require $100,000+ budgets and year-long commitments may be out of reach. Small-to-mid-sized agencies that are more flexible are often a better fit, but inherently riskier because they don’t have as much experience.

At Draft, we typically look for quarterly commitments at a minimum. Sometimes, clients want just a few articles to begin with or are restricted by their funding cycle. In this case, we’ll often refer them to a freelancer or even a competitor that we trust to do quality work. This ensures the client has a good experience, and many come back to us when they want to scale it up, because smaller players will struggle to handle engagements with larger volumes.

3. Experience

Experience with your industry and channel is very important, but be wary of relying on it too much. According to Jim Huffman, CEO at GrowthHit, it can go both ways. “Sometimes it’s an absolute must and a lack of industry nuance, especially in highly regulated spaces like fintech, healthcare, etc., can kill a campaign. For example, we know Shopify very well with products that sell between $50-$500 and have over 500,000 visits per month.  We can do more in 90 days than most general agencies could do in a year.  However, some companies in archaic industries can benefit from a fresh perspective of an innovative and smart team.”

Typically, with something like D2C ecommerce or technical content, experience can be transformative. At Draft, we’re niched down to developer-focused startups for this very reason. Our biggest selling point is that we only work with writers who are developers and subject-matter experts themselves. 

If you asked a run-of-the-mill writer to work on something complex like “tips for scaling enterprise Kubernetes clusters,” they might be able to create a high-level piece based on research, but they wouldn’t be able to build a demo application, or speak from personal experience. That’s where subject-matter expertise is essential.

4. Reputation

Most of our clients come to us through referrals. You’ll see the same trend in most good agencies out there because clients prefer recommendations when they go shopping for services. This is often the best way to find trustworthy partners that you can rely on.

For startups, verifying an agency’s reputation is even more important, because one bad engagement can set you behind on your targets and affect your growth. Do a background check on your agency by talking to other clients. Look at reviews on sites like Clutch, Expertise, and Yelp to see what their track record is like. If they’re overselling themselves or have left clients in the lurch, you’re likely to find a mention of it somewhere.

5. Transparent Processes

Transparency helps set expectations. It gives the client more information to work with when they’re evaluating agencies, and it reduces chances of a disconnect later on. Through our onboarding process, for instance, we aim to give our clients a really good sense of what we can and can’t do, the timelines we follow, and the workflows we use to guarantee high-quality content.  

I’ll admit, there’s something in it for us too. When a client knows that they can count on us to deliver what we’ve promised, they’re much more likely to come back to us for the same service and refer us to other companies. 

6. Results Promised

Most agencies can’t guarantee specific performance on expenditure, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Digital marketing is complex, and often the agency’s work relies on other inputs from the client that they cannot control. 

Knowing that there are limits on what’s possible can help you manage expectations going into an engagement, and good agencies will tell you as much. As Huffman admits, “I wish I could guarantee results, but it’s a lie. Every business and customer set is different. Instead, we guarantee our process and our output or growth experiments. Usually, the results follow. There are other ways for companies to protect themselves with shorter contracts or a 30-day out.  If you insist on [performance-based compensation], then be open to two things: 1) a hybrid of retainer and performance base and 2) be very clear on how you track the performance.”

How to Vet a Startup Marketing Agency

Once you’ve screened your choices and arrived at one or two you really like, it’s time to vet them. Do not skip this step. Marketing agencies can be quite good at marketing themselves, and you should take some time to verify your agency’s experience and ability. There are a few different ways to do this:

1. Consider Their Body of Work

An agency’s portfolio and public work samples are often the best way to see how good they are at their job. With content and creative agencies, this is quite easy to do, since the results are often published online. At Draft.dev, this is where most of our clients make up their minds. If a client is looking for deeper insights, we also offer them case studies, which illustrate real customer problems, solutions, and results in greater detail. If you’re considering hiring an SEO or performance marketing agency, case studies are essential since their results are much harder to see through a simple web search. 

2. Ask for Client References

Get some third-party validation on the agency. Ask the agency to provide you client references, including from an account that did not go so well. All agencies have had some not-so-perfect engagements, but understanding how they dealt with them can tell you a lot about them. Don’t hesitate to investigate independently either. Glance through the agency’s testimonials to see if they look genuine, and maybe even reach out to some of the clients for a background check.

3. Talk to Multiple Employees

If you’re working in a space where domain expertise really matters, consider asking to speak directly with team leads and employees who aren’t in sales. Gauge their skills and experience to ensure that all the know-how isn’t concentrated at the top levels.

It’s an unconventional approach, but not wholly unexpected. Agencies will usually understand why this is necessary and the truly proficient ones won’t hesitate to accommodate you.

When it comes down to it, hiring an agency isn’t all that different from hiring employees. As a startup, your marketing agency should function as an extension of your own team, aligned with the same values and goals that drive your company.

The key to making a good hire is to work with as much information as possible. Be thorough when you’re screening them and be equally transparent about your expectations in return. Nine times out of 10, you’ll end up with a quality match. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have tips of your own or interesting experiences you’d like to share, find me on Twitter and let me know what you think.

Karl Hughes

By Karl Hughes

Karl is a former startup CTO and the founder of Draft.dev. He writes about technical blogging and content management.