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The No BS Guide to Hiring a Marketing Agency - All You Need to Know

Kacper Staniul
Kacper Staniul, Growth Marketer and Maker of Scrapbook

If you’re considering engaging an agency for the first time, I created this guide just for you.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • When and why you should hire a marketing agency
  • How much their services cost
  • Questions to ask when evaluating different firms
  • The different pricing models agencies use
  • Red flags to watch out for

...and much more.

I tried to make it as actionable as possible so you can begin your search ASAP.

After reading this blogpost, you’ll be fully prepared to find a digital marketing agency that will hopefully become your long-term partner.

Let’s dive in.

How to hire a digital marketing agency

There are five steps to help you select the right firm for your needs:

  1. Make sure you’re actually ready to hire
  2. Pick the type of service provider
  3. Make a shortlist
  4. Reach out and interview
  5. Make the final decision

Let’s go through each of them in detail.

Why and when you should hire a marketing agency

First of all, it’s key to understand when is the right moment to engage a marketing firm.

While it’s wise to keep the operations lean in the early stages of growing a company, there comes a time when you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) do everything yourself.

So if you’re still unsure if it’s the right moment for your company to hire a marketing agency, here are some situations where an external marketing team would be a smart move:

  • If your marketing team is working at full capacity.
    You already have an in-house marketing team but it’s not able to take on more workload, you can use an agency to work as an extension of your team.

    For example, if you have a content strategy in place but need extra resources to create more blogposts or videos, an agency can help you scale it up.
  • If you want to explore a new marketing channel.
    Testing a new channel (like social ads) might require resources and skills that your team doesn’t currently have, e.g. to create landing pages. In this situation, Hiring a specialized landing page agency will save you a ton of time compared to finding and onboarding a new full-time employee, and will also be cheaper.

    Only after the agency helps you validate the new channel, you can plan a long-term strategy and put together an in-house team to scale this channel further.
  • If you’re entering a new market.
    Entering a new market may require specific, niche expertise, and acquiring it would take a lot of time and effort. Finding a marketing firm focused on this particular market would save you plenty of mistakes and effort.
  • If you hit a plateau.
    When you’ve been working on a specific marketing channel for a long time, at some point you will most likely hit a plateau and run out of ideas for how to keep growing.

    One of the most common examples of this I see are companies that are working on improving the conversion rate of one of their key landing pages and don’t know what else they can test to move the needle.

    In this case, getting an unbiased, fresh perspective from an experienced third-party expert in the form of a landing page audit can do wonders.

Another compelling reason to hire a digital marketing agency is that your in-house marketing team will be able to learn from the agency’s experience.

Communicating closely with their domain experts will upskill your team and hopefully enable them to take over later on. You can consider it a complimentary training.

Also, good agencies already have their processes in place, so you don’t need to build them from scratch. This can be a huge time-saver and something your in-house team can take over as well.

So if one of the above points describes your situation, you’re in a good position to start looking for an agency.

Types of marketing providers

Before you start browsing through the “best of” agency lists, you should decide what kind of agency best suits your needs.

Here are the main types of marketing service providers:

  • Full-service agencies are kind of like a whole external marketing team specializing in one industry like for example DTC marketing or marketing for private equity firms.

    So if you hire them to run social ads for your DTC (direct-to-consumer) ecommerce company, they will have the media buyer, copywriter, designer, and landing page developer to manage the whole process from start to finish.
  • Niche agencies specialize in one narrow skill like SaaS email marketing or landing page creation. They can be a good supplement to your team if it’s missing some specific skill set.
  • Freelance marketers can either be generalists or specialists. Depending on your needs and company stage, you should decide what type suits you best.

A generalist might be a better fit early on when you’re still testing multiple channels and have yet to figure out the long-term strategy. It’s often a more affordable option than an agency.

On the other hand, a specialist could work great as an extension to your team when it can’t handle more workload or when it needs a third-party expert perspective to help overcome some obstacle.

After you decide on the type of marketing provider, it’s time to make a shortlist of potential partners.

Finding the right marketing agency

According to Clutch, there are over 88k marketing agencies in the world.

That means you need a quick way to narrow down to only those that might be a fit for your specific needs.

Here are the sources I recommend you use in creating your shortlist:

  • Your network is usually the source of the highest quality referrals and should be your starting point. Ask your employees, colleagues, Twitter/X and LinkedIn networks, and online communities for agency recommendations. They will give you honest opinions and insights you won’t find anywhere else.
  • MarketerHire and Mayple connect you with some of the top marketing freelancers and consultants on an on-demand basis. Their big advantage is that they do the (very thorough) vetting process for you. As their acceptance rate is under 3%, you can rest assured that you’ll be matched with only the most skilled marketers.

    Also, trying both platforms is risk-free as they give you free credit to start - $500 on MarketerHire, and $300 on Mayple.
  • Clutch is the largest directory of agencies (and not just marketing) on the Internet. You can filter by expertise, location, average project size, agency size, and more. The downside is that the testimonials you’ll find there come mostly from their happiest customers, so take them with a grain of salt.
  • Upwork and Fiverr are marketplaces that let you find mostly low-cost freelancers. It doesn’t mean that they are low quality though as you can find some gems. It just takes a lot more time (and patience) than on pre-vetted marketplaces such as MarketerHire.

With these sources in hand, you can begin to put together a shortlist of agencies (or freelancers) that you’d like to reach out to and get to know better.

Questions to ask a marketing agency

Hiring a digital marketing agency based on online reviews alone is very risky.

You need to pick one that has the skill set that matches your needs, has experience in your industry, is easy to work with, and of course, one that you can afford.

To make sure you’re on the same page in terms of expectations, it’s crucial to set up a call and discuss what the agency can do for you. This way, you’ll reduce the chance of any misunderstandings further along the way.

If you as a founder don’t know much about marketing, I recommend taking your in-house marketing lead on the call with you to help evaluate the agency.

Here are the most important questions to ask a marketing agency to ensure it’s a good fit for your company:

  • What is your experience doing marketing for companies from our industry? Can you show us some example results from your previous projects?
  • How do you stand out from other agencies like yours?
  • What is your approach to X (e.g. testing landing pages, link building, optimizing ads, etc.)?
  • We’re struggling with X. How would you start to fix it?
  • Who is going to be working on our account and what is their experience?
  • How does communication and reporting look like? What communication and project management software are you using?
  • What KPIs are you using to measure performance?
  • What kind of results and in what timeframes can we expect?
  • What software are you using (if relevant)?
  • What does the onboarding process look like?
  • What does your QA process look like?
  • What is the pricing and what does it include exactly?
  • Are there going to be any extra costs? Who covers the software expenses?
  • How long is the contract and what is the notice period?

This conversation should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect by working with a given agency.

After you interview all companies from your shortlist, you’ll be able to use your intuition to pick the one that is the right fit for your needs.

How much does it cost to hire a marketing agency

Short (and not-so-helpful) answer: in general, it costs $500-$10,000/month.

To get a long answer, we have to consider all factors that impact the price such as:

  • Type of services
  • Project scope
  • Agency experience
  • Project duration
  • Company location

Then, the pricing model:

  • Retainer-based - most common, where you pay a fixed monthly fee based on the agreed scope.
  • Project-based (aka value-based) - used for one-time projects with a fixed scope, e.g. a CRO audit, creating a landing page, or redesigning a website.
  • Percentage of ad spend - you’re billed only based on how much ad spend the agency manages for you (usually in the 5-20% range).
  • Performance-based - while few marketing firms use it, some charge their clients only per result, guaranteeing a positive return on investment. For example, Google Ads agencies charging only for customers generated with campaigns they manage.
  • Hourly - mostly used by freelancers or ongoing projects with an unspecified scope.
  • A combination of the above - most ad agencies and media buyers often charge a fixed monthly retainer plus a percentage of your monthly ad budget.

So while it’s hard to say what the average marketing agency cost is, it’s useful to compare the quotes you get after interviewing the firms from your shortlist with the cost of a new full-time hire.

And based on Glassdoor’s data, the average salary of a marketing manager in the US is $90k.

Of course, this doesn’t include the time needed for onboarding, benefits, software, and other related expenses that hiring a marketing agency doesn’t involve.

Red flags when hiring a marketing agency

Lastly, as in any industry, there’s a good deal of agencies that are either incompetent or trying to exploit company owners who don’t know much about marketing.

So here are the red flags you should watch out:

  • Promising guaranteed or instant results - nothing in business is guaranteed and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Unbelievable customer case studies - as the point above, your gut feeling is probably right.
  • No transparency or hard data - if the agency doesn’t mention specific results they generated or use generic phrases such as “big improvement” instead of specific numbers, you know something is not right.
  • Not eating their own dog food - would you trust an SEO agency that doesn't have a blog or a landing page agency with an outdated website full of stock photos?
  • Not sharing access - if a marketing firm doesn’t let you access or control your own accounts (e.g. website, ad accounts, Google Analytics, etc.), it’s a huge no-go. You should always have full control over any accounts and assets that the agency creates for you during your contract. It’s a non-negotiable.
  • Using shady or black hat tactics - while they may generate quick results, they never last long and will be detrimental to your company in the long run. Heard about the viral SEO heist?
  • Referring to themselves as gurus/wizards/ninjas/magicians/hackers - when you hear an agency mentioning any of these terms, just stay away from them as far as possible.

Key takeaways

Hiring a digital marketing agency can have a lot of benefits for your company but it’s crucial to do proper due diligence first.

To recap, specify your needs and pick the right type of agency first. Then, make a shortlist of those you’d like to get on discovery calls with. Next, ask them some of the questions I listed earlier to get a feel if the firm will be a good match for your needs. And lastly, make the final decision and negotiate the contract terms.

I hope this guide gave you some clarity about the marketing agency hiring process.

If you have any other questions or need specific recommendations, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter/X or LinkedIn.

Good luck in your search!

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