One of the most common questions I get from founders is, “do you have a contractor or agency for X?” followed by, “because our current one is terrible…”.
There’s very little information and advice available on how to select and manage vendors properly. At ScaleMath, it’s safe to say we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, with a fair amount of good and bad management over the years.
So, without further ado, in this post, we’ll share a few things we’ve learned.
Collaboration > Outsourcing (Always)
The first mistake companies tend to make when hiring agencies is treating the relationship as if they are outsourcing the work – delegating it, so they have absolutely nothing to do with it. Of course, ultimately this is a part of the goal of hiring an agency.
Yet while this is part of the goal of hiring an agency – if you truly aim to have nothing to do with it, you won’t be able to control the outcome.
Assuming you hire the right agency, you’ll get people that are experts in their field – the top talent in their respective disciplines. They may even know your industry inside out. But they won’t be experts on your business.
They can’t possibly be. They haven’t sat in team meetings for the last X years you’ve been in operation, they haven’t directly interacted with your customers, and they aren’t the founders of your company.
Never pay an agency and then sit around waiting for them to do their thing and impress you. Once you hire them, it’s your job to help them succeed.
Yet most startups cycle through agencies, blaming them for not delivering when it’s their own fault for mismanaging – or selecting completely the wrong agencies to work with.
At ScaleMath, we do several specific things to keep this in check.
First, we always aim to be as transparent as possible right from the beginning of the sales process (and continue this approach throughout).
To communicate that, in short, we do our best work through collaboration.
Our first deliverable is a sizable article tackling a topic that is very relevant to the business, and has high potential (in terms of search volume).
The longer we wait to tackle complex topics, the longer it will take us to ramp up. Our goal is to share the same high standard from day one.
As we work on this piece, we will do extensive research on our own, but we often also interview people from sales, support, or product teams. This is to speak to people who know the subject matter, understand the customer, and speak their language (because they have been dealing with customer pains, confusion, intrigue, objections, and excitement around said topic).
For those not familiar with content/SEO, or who previously only worked with in-house people (or average agencies), this comes as a surprise, as they are used to considering this just another SEO article.
While in one sense it is, and certainly driving search traffic is the expectation we have too, if you want this to be an article that your brand can be proud of, rather than your average regurgitated article, we need to work together to dive deep.
This investment in collaboration will pay off over the lifetime of an engagement.
You Need A Strong Foundation For Anyone New
Content marketing, at its core, is simple – but it certainly isn’t easy. In fact, it’s challenging, and nuanced, and often takes months (if not longer) to get off the ground.
The moment we sense companies are just looking to check off a box, or experiment by investing in content marketing, we know they are not the ideal customer for us.
We only work with industry-leading companies that have a strong vision. And that’s for good reason – if we did anything differently, we’d struggle to deliver results.
A vision. A leading voice that sets the stage for our work. How are we supposed to lead a team in a direction you haven’t yet set out?
This applies to in-house hires too. You need a strong foundation for anyone new (internal and external) to come in and drive impact.
- Know your audience, know your market, and know your competitors.
- Define your story, vision, and positioning.
- Map out customer lifecycle and GTM motion.
You really shouldn’t outsource this foundational work. There are far too many inputs relevant to this process that come directly from the founder’s brain.
Agencies (like us) can help play a role in this process. Still, if you try to delegate or shortcut your way to a proper foundation, you will get work that may look good on the surface, but ultimately doesn’t allow new internal and external marketing hires to succeed.
Many companies turn to AWS for cloud computing to make it easier to scale quickly (vs. building all their infrastructure on their own, such as server farms). Similarly, it becomes possible for agencies and contractors to accomplish work that wouldn’t be possible using their existing infrastructure. And with the right agency – this at a far greater cost efficiency and output quality.
Some of the things our favorite customers do:
- Fewer chefs and more focus. The more people, the more complicated things become. Too many chefs in the kitchen is never a good thing. The same is true for focus. Our aim tends to be to work towards a handful of goals at a time, so that we can concentrate on producing excellent output, and you can make sure that it’s driving the outcome you want it to (and if not, point us in a different direction sooner).
- Feedback and brutal honesty. Without feedback, we can’t get better. We have workflows that make this possible within our system. Trying to get us to deviate from these creates more friction. But what you should do on this front is set aside time to give us feedback as part of our commitment to ongoing improvement to deliver the best possible end product.
- They get communication. We love working with people who are invested in building great relationships. Like any relationship, that means strong communication, respect, and dedication to making things work with the other party. This includes simple things such as never leaving feedback in a Google Doc via comments without letting the receiving party know elsewhere.
Other Notes and Advice On Hiring An Agency
- Think about the balance of internal marketers and external marketers before you start hiring contractors and agencies like crazy.
- To correctly manage agencies and contractors, you need someone internally to project manage, edit, and review results.
- Early on, hire marketing generalists in-house, and hire agencies as specialists.
- Founders can’t successfully manage more than 1-2 marketing contractors without in-house hiring a full-time CMO (or similar role).
- Don’t hire “fuel” (content and creative) contractors without a growth “engine” and vice versa.
You need both “fuel” and an “engine” for marketing to be successful.
Even great content will fail if you don’t distribute it. Even perfectly orchestrated and targeted campaigns will only succeed if the landing pages convert.
I still see lots of companies that have a broken engine, and don’t even realize it.
This is especially the case with most that invest in content marketing. They often come to an agency (or even freelancer) with basic things such as their CMS needing to be correctly set up, or adequate QA work done on their site. They expect someone to come in and drive traffic in less than a month. In reality, taking on a company like this means you have to work on fixing the engine before you can start pouring fuel onto the fire.
1. Hire vendors that fit your specific business model and stage.
Try to avoid punching above your weight and picking an agency that’s too big for you.
You’ll get the B-team (or even C-team) because you aren’t a high-priority client.
Agency-client fit is essential. And you should quickly sense whether it’s something that the agency you’re interviewing cares enough about.
At ScaleMath, we only have an A-team. It’s not built into our operating model to accept clients that are anything less than a “great fit”. A good fit just doesn’t cut it for us.
2. Hire specialist agencies. Figure out the agency’s core competency, and don’t expand too far from that.
It might seem more straightforward to hire one agency for everything, but you’ll end up wasting money. Content on its own is a specialism we’ve spent seven years becoming great at, and we still have a long road ahead of us, and a big vision surrounding how we’re going to do even more in this area alone. There is no way a single agency can do better at content than we can – let alone better at content than we can AND better at other work as well.
- Writers who specialize in writing ebooks or case studies often aren’t great at writing targeted blog content or website copy.
- Paid advertising agencies are almost always good at campaign management but awful at designing ads, landing pages, and writing copy.
3. Agencies benefit from working with multiple clients – an in-house marketer can’t get these benefits.
This is particularly true for SEO, paid advertising, content, design and PR, and whether it’s simple things like technical issues or validating the implementation of something.
The chances are that an agency in the business for some time has already seen something similar – if not identical. This means they have already validated the potential of something you’re considering, so you shortcut the time. Equally, you benefit from them having much more experience (not in years) but experience in what they have seen.
One year of experience at an agency tends to be anywhere between 5-10 years in-house.