Hiring a marketing agency can be a big milestone for a startup. It usually follows an intense period of creation and a rewarding series of hard-earned validations. Often, it signals a new set of aspirations. It means there’s a product that works, some customers who think so too, and a galaxy of prospects that you’re ready to start dazzling.

It also means your founders are out of hours in their days and the management team is out of arms and legs. It can mean you could use some more brains on strategic thinking too.

Great – you’ve come to agreement that it’s time for the core management team to extend its capabilities and start to execute the next phase of the business strategy. It’s time to scale. So the question becomes how to choose a digital marketing agency, among 87,712 advertising agencies, 54,548 PR agencies and 6,139 digital ad agencies?

We could just tell you to hit that contact us button on the top right corner of the page, but we’ll do you one better and help you ensure you’re picking the right partner when hiring a PR and digital marketing agency.

Here are a dozen tips for how to hire a digital marketing agency:

Be sure you’re ready to hire a marketing or PR firm.

In looking at hiring a marketing firm, there are some core questions that first need to be addressed. You think it’s time but are you truly in a position to manage a PR and marketing agency successfully? Are you prepared to tell people about your offering?  Are your customers happy with what you’ve built?  Do you have the time to make marketing and public relations a priority? Do you have a sales team ready to close leads?  Do you have leaders or subject matter experts that can eventually become media spokespeople? If you aren’t ready to answer yes to any of these questions, it might not be time for an outside PR or marketing agency yet. But if you are, buckle up.

Of course, it’s important to know what you want to accomplish before you set out. While your company may not yet have chosen the perfect words to describe what you do and how you do it, and while you may even still be testing market fit in multiple niches, there should already be a strong consensus among your team about your startup’s core identity and heading – and its need for a PR or marketing agency

Companies emerging from stealth or entering new markets may see their first priority as refining positioning, messaging, and crafting a compelling narrative that will scale with the company.  For many fast-growth companies, visibility and lead generation is paramount. For most startups, attracting additional venture capital investment or recruiting top talent also represent top objectives. Regardless, goals should be agreed upon in advance of a search to hire a marketing agency.

In choosing a marketing agency, you should also make sure you’re committed to a long-term investment in your firm. While agencies should be willing to work in project orientations, secure and allocate appropriate budgets for a continuous program. It takes time to create results and sustained effort to remain successful. Even a search for a marketing agency costs a startup time-to-market – all the more reason to find the right partner the first time through.

Look toward colleagues for referrals when hiring a marketing agency.

Sending someone to a trusted professional you love working with is extremely rewarding. Give people in your network that opportunity. Just like a great car mechanic or handyman, it’s usually a treasured contact, and they’ll be eager to introduce you to a marketing or PR agency that got them the results they wanted, and hopefully, made doing it fun. Some peers may be more guarded with casual business acquaintances, but will confide to closer professional friends that a particular digital marketing agency is their secret weapon. Asking around is a good way to begin to formulate a short list for consideration and to confirm what reasonable budgets look like for your goals.

Check out admired brands for hints.

It’s also worth doing some research to find out which PR and marketing agencies are used by the brands that you admire and companies you see as like-sized peers or role models. Even an accomplished and well-recommended boutique consumer agency can struggle with B2B technology work, so it’s easier to align with specialists who won’t require a lot of education about your market. Company launch, product launch and funding press releases, industry awards lists, articles in marketing, and public relations trade publications all can put you on the trail of some great digital agencies.

Spy some logos and do some searches.

Nearly every digital marketing agency’s website lists clients and includes case studies. The brands they feature and the stories they tell about how they helped them should give you a sense of whether they might be a fit for your company’s objectives. Try running some Google searches on the brands whose logos the marketing agency displays. You can get a quick sense of media relations results, search engine rankings and perhaps even a glimpse into the marketing funnel that the agency has helped create.

Give a good brief when looking to hire a marketing agency.

Before you start contacting agencies, make sure you have consolidated your objectives, created some rough boundaries for a project scope and are prepared to convey your budget. And importantly, be ready to explain your business to the potential partner. The best marketing and PR agencies are happy to sign and abide by non-disclosure agreements that enable you to share more about your goals, assets and future milestones. Provide a fulsome overview of your business. Tell its origin story and give a sense of its missions and values. Talk about your target audience, the pains your offering eases and which messages are resonating with customers. Discuss the competitors or incumbents and default approaches you’re challenging. Tell the agency where you want to go and why.  

Zero in on scope when choosing a marketing agency.

Help refine the scope early on by discussing the objectives and how much budget is available. Some programs can be planned for reaching the destination as quickly as possible; others must stop for refueling mid-journey. The best marketing and PR agencies should be able to build programs that optimize for either scenario. This means sometimes you must work backwards from budget while other times you are seeking to maximize impact during a timeframe. Remember that it’s not ideal to use up all your fuel and then hit pause – you end up giving up a lot of hard-earned ground to competitors if you suddenly go silent, and the perception of steady momentum is important for startup companies. So create a budget line and scope that is sufficient and sustainable and volunteer it early in the search.

Get a sense of how the agency thinks.

Getting specific about your startup’s needs and assets from the start of an agency selection process is important, to determine subject matter fluency and team chemistry quickly. Every team is expert at the work they’ve already done – learning whether they maintain a repeatable process to achieve results is key to finding a great agency. When talking with agency professionals about past client successes, ask questions that help you learn about how they designed content marketing campaigns, arrived at media relations strategies, and formulated and executed the digital strategies and tactics they used to achieve results. These are all part of key questions to ask before hiring a marketing agency.

Ask them how they see you.

When considering an agency’s proposal, get a sense of whether the team understands your company’s story and your current chapter. When preparing questions to ask when hiring a marketing agency, assess the firm’s thinking for signs of recognition of your culture and whether they are able to grasp your tone, even speak your language. Get a read on what research and analysis they’ve done to add to your brief and inform their initial recommendations.

Forgo running firms through a gauntlet – but do ask for ideas.

Large companies with prescribed procurement processes and multi-market budgets often use request-for-proposals (RFPs) to gather and assess agencies. Sometimes these include long sections that try to assess subject matter expertise, sections for detailing past related work, even questions about approaches to hypothetical scenarios. This is probably overkill for most startups, which can benefit more from allowing agencies to take a more consultative approach to scoping work. You may find that it becomes quite clear right out of the gate that a marketing agency would be a great fit.

While it’s often worthwhile to ask for a proposal and provide some guidelines, you probably shouldn’t expect a comprehensive plan after an initial conversation or two. That said, an experienced startup marketing agency should be happy to show you some of their initial thinking and how they arrived at it. See how they go about brainstorming. Ask for some basic campaign concepts and about what timelines might look like for building them out.

Don’t obsess about an apples-to-apples comparison.

You’re not buying apples. There is no single ideal shape or standard cost for a marketing program and you can’t buy it by the pound. Avoid buying by the tactic (i.e., 5 press releases) or the outcome (5 placed articles) or trying to calculate cost vs. promised results. Forcing each PR and marketing agency to rationalize down its spectrum of offerings to a pre-prescribed set of deliverables limits the strategic scope from the start. While asking how success will be measured is important, it’s difficult for agencies to accurately predict tactical results. Some firms are willing to be overly optimistic in their results estimates in order to win your business, which creates expectation mismatches from the start. The best PR and marketing agencies are most careful about avoiding overpromising and are usually the ones that overdeliver. They work by leading with your business objectives (i.e., raise awareness among developers) and work with you to devise the right mix of tactics to meet them.

Seek alignment, but embrace creativity.

Whether a public relations agency or a digital marketing firm, when assessing proposed approaches, look for signs that the team has listened carefully to you and are beginning to understand your business. You should see reflections of the general strategy you’ve conveyed, your differentiators, and of the insights into the market that you’ve shared. But their ideas should also surface some new thinking. Marketing agency veterans know they can get heads nodding by playing your own ideas back to you, but the best PR and marketing firms present you with new, more daring concepts and vehicles that show their inventiveness and also help them assess your team’s appetite for innovation. The best agency teams crave it.

Move swiftly from proposal to kickoff when hiring a marketing agency.

At the time you request a proposal, give a sense of your expected timeline for making a decision. This is important in working with public relations and digital marketing agencies because they try to reserve for you the capacity of the team members they’ve selected for your account – but they can’t do so forever. Especially when your search for a marketing agency involves multiple firms, it’s very much appreciated when you keep everyone uniformly informed about any changes in timeline.

That said, a quick selection portends a quick start for the program. Research is fresh, ideas are recently socialized and teams are ready to fill brainstorming whiteboards. The work you did setting budget and scope expectations and gathering consensus internally should smooth the skids for creating the scope of work and the contract process. As soon as you’ve picked your marketing agency, start gathering availability from your team for the kickoff.  You’ll want to introduce the agency to sales and product leaders and subject matter experts soon after. This is very exciting! It’s all happening!

The tips we shared should help you start crafting a game plan for how to hire a digital marketing agency. Whether beginning work with your startup’s first agency or selecting a new partner for the next phase of your company’s growth, it’s invigorating and fun to add creativity, brainpower and new personalities to your team. And when you pick the right fit for your company and its objectives, you may find you not only crush your marketing goals, but you also make some great professional relationships you’ll want to share with colleagues throughout your career too.

About the Author

Ian Lipner is a senior communications leader with deep experience in B2B and B2G tech. A SVP at Firebrand, Ian is focused on strategy, messaging and positioning, and media and content strategy.