How Not to Hire a Marketing Agency

For ten years of my career, I did a heavy amount of writing for clients who paid me to help them get their message out. I haven’t provided writing-for-hire services in years, but I still find myself putting my copywriter hat on frequently. In recent months, I’ve considered hiring someone to help me with my online presence. From having sat on the other side of the fence with approximately 150 writing clients over the years, I have a decent idea of what it takes to hire a writer successfully. I also have a very clear picture of how to waste money on marketing. I’ve talked to a variety of businesses owners who expressed a high level of frustration, having spent significant sums of money paying marketing agencies with little to show for their investment. In many cases, the failure was the business owner’s own fault. If you buy a car when you really needed a boat, don’t blame the car salesman when the car sinks to the bottom of a lake.

More often than not, I’ve found that businesses hire marketing agencies without a clear understanding of why. Everyone wants more customers. But what exactly is the role of a marketing agency? How does the service of a marketing agency play a role in facilitating business development? Ultimately, if you own a business, you are the face of the brand. The right marketing agency can help you think through your messaging and devise the right set of words and imagery to convey what your company is all about. But the development of a brand strategy needs to be collaborative.

Competitive Advantage

Do you have a competitive advantage that you can maintain? Do you have any skills or techniques that are valuable and hard to replicate? Do you have legally protected intellectual property? If a larger competitor with 100 times more funding were to open up shop down the street, how easily could they replicate everything you are doing? What would they not be able to replicate? If they decided to squash you like a bug, how easy a target would you be?

Exit Strategy

How long are you planning to stay in business? What is your path and timeline for exit? Are you planning to pass on the business to your kids or sell the business to a private owner? Do you want your company to eventually be acquired? Will you sell your IP and dissolve the company? Your end game affects your marketing strategy. I once met the owner of a small technology firm who paid to have a new web site and social media presence built, shortly before accepting an offer from a larger competitor to sell the company. The web site and social pages were taken down. But the waste of money creating abandoned digital assets wasn’t the real issue. There was immeasurable missed opportunity in failing to recognize and align with the long-term vision.

Scale, Bottlenecks, and Capacity

Are you prepared to hire and train the staff necessary to double, triple, or 10x your sales volume? If you had a huge influx of business tomorrow, would you be ready to deliver with no loss of quality, or would you blow the opportunity? Do you have the data to tell you definitively where the bottleneck in your business is? And where the next bottleneck is likely to pop up? If your company isn’t ready to grow, what difference do you think marketing is going to make? I once spoke to the owner of a construction company years ago who told me he’d run an ad on the radio and then unplugged the phone in his office when he couldn’t keep up with all the calls.


Marketing is not 100% measurable, but there’s plenty you can measure. The key question is: how will you decide if a marketing tactic is working or not? How will you gauge progress toward the overall goal? What expectations do you have for a marketing strategy, and how soon do you expect to see those expectations materializing in the form of new revenue? In what area are you expecting to see an increase? New customers? Direct sales from your web site? Repeat business? Weekend foot traffic to your store? Average ticket size? When do believe it is reasonable to expect to see the needle move? If your answer is a flippant “yes to all of the above, ASAP!”, you’re probably not ready to hire a marketing agency.

Last But Not Least… Budget

Businesses often approach advertising as a gamble. Yes, there is an element of random chance and various factors outside your control. But there is good strategy and bad strategy. There are ways to limit losses and maximize upside potential. Good marketing should bring in useful data and actionable insights. For instance, if you run a properly targeted paid search ad campaign and drive the right visitors to the properly optimized sales pages on your web site, you still can’t guarantee that people will buy. You can, however, learn a ton about who your site visitors are, how they found you, what made them click on your page, and what likely made them leave without buying. Apply what you learn over time, and you’ll see more activity translating into new business and repeat business. From a budgeting standpoint, how much can you afford to lose? What would you be willing to risk, and what would you need to learn from the experience if the strategy fails to deliver?

A marketing agency is like any other professional relationship; there’s give and take. The service provider has responsibilities and the client has responsibilities. I think of the relationship like going to a doctor. If I talk about too many things in the short amount of time I have with a doctor and I fail to mention what’s most important, I will not get the right advice. Knowing the right questions to ask is the key. To have the right questions, you need to have a clear objective.

Marketing is not a silver bullet, and there’s no guaranteed formula for getting new customers. Even if you get those new customers, you won’t necessarily see an uptick in revenue. If you see an increase in revenue, you still aren’t guaranteed to see an increase in the bottom line. Even if your profits increase, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to sustain the increase. Even if you figure out how to increase profitability quarter after quarter, you still may not achieve your overall business objective. Start with the end in mind. What are you really looking to accomplish in your business?

Here’s a thought experiment to try. Imagine an infinite line of customers waiting outside your door, ready with money in hand to buy from you. If you never had to do anything to market your business again, how much money could you make? In other words, if the only limiting factor were your capacity to deliver, how much could you deliver? How close are you to capacity now? If you were to fill the remaining capacity, how much more do you think you would make?

Marketing is a lot of work, and there’s a lot of trial and error. You can read ads everywhere from people claiming to have a “proven system” for this, that, and the other. But every proven system has a shelf life. Franchises have flaws, and step-by-step guides will not cover every scenario. There’s no amount of money you can pay to a marketing guru that will guarantee you a return on your investment. No one is too big to fail.

If you’re thinking of hiring a marketing agency, ask yourself how and by when you expect their service to pay for itself. Until you have a reasonably clear answer, you’re not ready.

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