How to Hire an Email Agency

How to Hire an Email Agency

It may seem self-serving for the long time CEO of an email agency to write about how to hire an agency. I certainly recognize that I am biased, but so is everyone. I will be as candid as possible. I also think that having worked for one for the world’s largest agency holding companies (NYSE:OMC — 75,000 employees, $16B annual revenue) for the last 14 years I have an uncommon perspective in the email space.

I expect others to write buying guides to agencies. What to buy and what not to buy. What’s essential and what isn’t. Strategy and creative versus technology and platform. Cross-channel generalist versus email specialist etc.. Instead I want to write about what agencies are selling.

Vital questions

The important questions in life are about “who” and “why” not “what” and “how”. This is certainly true when hiring an agency. Look at any RFP though and you’ll see the majority of questions are “what” and “how”.

For this reason any agency will have the basic “what” and “how” down, or at least have answers to those questions. To say any may be a bit of a stretch. There are certainly agencies that play a fake it til they make it game, but a solid RFP will weed those out. If you’re in doubt ask “who” and “why” for each of your what and how questions and you’ll quickly spot the fakers.

But even with the addition of “who” and “why” most RFPs focus on services and costs and those still are not the fundamental questions.

Selling dreams

Some years ago I realized that though agencies are service organizations really successful agencies don’t sell services. They sell dreams. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. For sure, bad agencies sell pipe dreams and capable agencies sell services. Really good agencies though sell a dream — an aspirational vision of the future.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s critical to have a clear picture of where you want to go. If all you want is to maintain the status quo through basic execution you can get that from an ESP, ISV or systems integrator. An agency should deliver far more. They should ensure your organization moves forward. That your marketing in a year’s time is fundamentally different to and better than your marketing today. But in my experience there are a couple of pitfalls when buying into an agency dream, and they also relate to “why” and “who”.

Why?

The first pitfall is not asking the “why” of the vision. As the saying goes, “the grass is always greener”. A vision of the future will always look attractive and an improvement on your current state.

If you’re buying a vision you must determine whether it’s where you want to go as an organization. Is the future that’s being presented the right one for your organization? Why do you want to go there and why there instead of somewhere else?

It may sound obvious but I’ve seen many organizations seduced by visions of a wonderful but irrelevant or unachievable Utopia. Not because the agency misled the client but because the client didn’t fully know itself.

Who?

The second pitfall is not asking the “who” of the vision. The focus in RFPs is typically on practices (functional areas) and cases (experience) but this can be misleading. You’re buying into people and it is essential to know who you’re buying into.

When an agency gives a case study knowing who did it is key. Are those people still at the agency? Will they be working on your business? Just because their team in London did it three years ago does not mean their team in Los Angeles can do it next year. Additionally the experts and thinkers presenting the vision may not be involved in your work day to day or at all.

If you buy into the advice and insight of experts (industry experts, agency Vice Presidents etc.) do you know if those experts will have any involvement in your account? How deeply into the agency’s day to day practices do those experts’ insights reach? Know who you are buying.

Summary

This is my advice when selecting an email agency.

  • Understand the product — what is their vision, what are they truly selling?
  • Ask why — why are they selling it and why is it right for you?
  • Know who — at every level, from the top to the bottom, who are they selling?

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