There is a massive difference between knowing you need help with your digital strategy and knowing how to fill that all-important void.
When it comes time to do just that, the ever-increasing pool of digital agencies makes it increasingly difficult to evaluate the differences between one marketing proposal (and digital agency) to the next.
As of today, there are over 150,000 digital marketing agencies and consultants in the US alone.
That is a lot of agencies trying their very best to get your attention when all you want is to hire the right team, with the most efficient time commitment possible, and get back to business.
What To Look For In A Marketing Proposal (And Agency)
As a digital marketing matchmaker, we often speak directly with digital agency owners and marketing executives.
A theme that persists in those conversations is that agencies struggle to close new projects.
One specific conversation with an agency owner shed some light as to why:
I fear there’s technical aspects to our proposals that might be confusing. When people go comparison shopping they just pick based on price – or the first one to contact them back. It’s one of the reasons that I set emails alerts when an inquiry comes into our general inbox. I know I may not win on price, but I might win at speed.
There is much truth to this candid insight.
That old saying “it’s better to be first than better” holds up in most cases – and here’s why.
The law of leadership. This applies to any market, service, brand – or proposal.
Law of Leadership Leads To Heightened Expectations
The first proposal you receive, by definition, is a leader. If you send inquiries to five agencies, the first one to get back to you gets an automatic leg up.
What’s the psychology behind this? The timeliness of that response shows a level of diligence and attention to detail. This tends to stick with us as an indication that the agency offers equally attentive and valuable services.
You can see the psychology involved with a timely response to a request for proposal. The quick response shows operational efficiency on behalf of the agency and instills trust in their services.
It presupposes business value, whether correct or not.
All in all, this is why when a business looks to hire an agency, one of the most important deciding factors is who responds to your inquiry first.
And it makes sense. You’re a business owner, not a digital marketing expert. You are short on time so it would shorten the average time to hire. Currently, the average time to hire a digital agency is anywhere from 8-12 weeks.
[With Credo, you can cut that number in half. Our clients hire in just 3-5 weeks!]
Or you’re a marketing director, but you need help with a channel that you do not know well – such as SEO. This adds a level of complexity to evaluating marketing proposals, as you may not be sure what breadth of services you actually require for SEO.
This makes it tempting to accept the first proposal that comes across your desk since you aren’t quite sure what to look for in the first place.
But is this the best way to hire? No. It’s important, but it’s just one variable. Deciding solely on the timeliness of response can be alluring but should not be the sole metric for how to evaluate marketing proposals.
What To Look For In A Digital Agency
So what should you be looking for in a digital agency? This is a requisite step before you agree to any proposal.
In terms of agency pricing, we cover that in detail right here and in our Digital Marketing Pricing Survey.
Now, let’s talk through how to evaluate an agency, including their proposal for you to engage their services.
Communication Is Everything
There is a saying: “Communication solves all problems”. Communication is an inherent part of contacting agencies for digital services and you need to make sure this is a two-way street.
Using the earlier example, when you prioritize one agency over another because they responded to you first, you are essentially saying that you prioritize fast communication. This is a logical priority.
Someone else may automatically choose the lowest-priced agency. Neither is necessarily the ‘wrong’ approach, but both leave a lot of room for potential issues and client-agency disputes down the line.
Why? Smart marketers know many give in to the allure of speed – and others to the allure of price. They know how to get their foot in the door. But what happens after you accept a proposal is what matters most.
This matters because a speedy response can be learned by even a semi-intelligent salesperson. And undercutting prices is an even easier tactic to get clients in the door.
Remember, you are putting time and effort into this process. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
Do it right the first time, and you have a lasting client-agency relationship with a high-quality agency. Skimp on this process and you’ll be right back to the starting gates.
The Decline Of Client-Agency Tenures
The truth is that the average client-agency tenure gets shorter and shorter each year.
Since 1984, the average length of an agency-client relationship has been cut dramatically, from 7.2 years to less than three years today.Forbes, “The Death of the Agency Model: How Marketers Can Adapt”
What really matters is how well and frequently they communicate with you in along your selection journey. Transparency, as noted in the image, is everything during this process.
If you get confusing answers, ask the agency to clarify. If an agency beats around the bush about absolutely anything, take that as a red flag that you will get similar treatment during your partnership.
As the Forbes article notes, the traditional agency-client service model is costly, overhead-intensive, and centered on the agency, not the client, which further erodes trust.
This, along with the sheer number of agencies popping up each year, is a main contributing factor to why so many client-agency relationships get shorter and shorter each year.
The talent pool gets more watered down, making it a chore to identify where the true value lies from one agency – and one proposal – to another.
If you have been here before, you may find our Executive’s Guide to Hiring a Digital Agency an invaluable resource.
“Ask Questions”, “Check The Transparency”, “Meet The Team”
These are all key variables of the timeline to hire laid out in the image above.
The things you want to look for and ask about:
- Are they attentive to your questions and feedback?
- Do they genuinely respond with useful information?
- Do you get the sense you are just another sale to them?
- Are they providing you clarity about how their process works and the next steps?
- Are they getting back to you when they said they would?
- If they’re going to be delayed, are they communicating this?
Tardiness is a warning sign, especially at this stage. If they aren’t able to keep it together this early in the relationship, that’s not behavior to reward with a partnership.
If the proposal is expected on Thursday morning but they deliver the following Tuesday, that’s more reason to look elsewhere.
Of course, it is entirely possible they may just be paying close attention to detail and getting the proposal ready.
However, a deadline is a deadline. If they did not proactively tell you the proposal is delayed, if they can’t stick to the first one assigned, don’t expect that communication to improve.
Similar Working Patterns & Company Culture
Marketing projects rarely end because the numbers are not there. They most often end because the client:
- Does not understand the value being given, because the agency communicates poorly.
- Is frustrated trying to communicate with their agency and dismayed by the long periods of silence.
This is where it all comes back to communication. You want an agency with a customer-centric focus.
For example, if you are a traditional 9-5 business then you may work in long timelines and changes can take a while to get into place. And more importantly, everyone goes home at 5 pm.
If your provider is in a different timezone, that should not deter them from answering your questions in a timely way. But expectations for communication should be discussed during the courting process to assure your expectations are clear.
Make it clear how important communication is to you and that going radio silent is the fastest way to lose your business.
If they like to communicate late at night or on the weekends, or they are allergic to scheduling consistent meetings, then you should probably not work with them. Unless you work on similar schedules, then it could be a great match.
If you like to work fast and communicate asynchronously in Slack/SMS/email, then find an agency that gets that.
If you like to send the occasional update email but don’t like the phone, find an agency who are on the same page.
Culture and working patterns matter, a lot. Beyond all that, rapport is nice to have if you are going to work together for an extended amount of time.
It’s not necessary to be best friends but it sure makes communication a whole lot easier if you get along.
Checklist for Evaluating a Marketing Proposal
Now comes the fun part. You’ve received proposals from the providers you have been speaking with and it’s time to evaluate them and make a choice.
What are the first things most clients look at after receiving a proposal?:
- Length of engagement
While these two absolutely matter. If you have put in the due diligence to vet the agency and understand exactly the value they provide, nothing in the proposal should come as surprise.
The proposal should be a recap of all the conversations you had leading up to receiving that proposal.
They should have taken the time and have the expertise to be able to gauge your budget level and what you need, as opposed to what they need.
If your project is not the right fit for them, for a myriad of reasons, they should not be pitching your business at all.
Any agency short on clients will almost never turn away a client, which puts the onus on you (the client) to make sure you understand exactly what the proposal entails, with clear KPIs and benchmarks.
Your Marketing Proposal Checklist
Assuming the agency did its job, these are the main items to check off within the proposal:
[ ] Did they pay attention to what your business needs and build their proposal around that?
[ ] Have they included expected outcomes, not just the activities that they will do?
[ ] Do they speak to the metrics that matter most to your business?
[ ] Is the budget they propose within your budget that you communicated to them?
[ ] Did they break down pricing so that you know what you are actually paying for?
[ ] Were they clear about what you can expect of them in regards to outputs?
[ ] Do they give you clarity about how often you can expect to speak with them?
[ ] Have they given you a schedule for when they will report progress and the important metrics to you?
These are all table stakes for a marketing proposal.
Notice there was no mention of design. Design absolutely matters but it can also distract from subpar services.
That being said, if a proposal is riddled with spelling or grammatical issues, inconsistent design, and conflicting specifics of services and pricing, that should be everything you need to start looking elsewhere.
Train yourself to look beyond slick design or an agency that is quick to respond. These are both great qualities but nothing close to everything needed to run a successful digital agency.
What’s most important is the substance of the proposal and if it meets your needs. That it takes into account everything you have discussed up to that point and is not a boilerplate proposal with no personal touches.
Ironically, the best proposals are the simplest. Or maybe this isn’t ironic at all? Simplicity and consistency are key in conveying a message that your customers identify with. The moment most people get confused, they check out.
If an agency can’t provide a clean, easy-to-understand proposal, imagine trying to get them to explain the importance of UTM codes in tracking campaign success or the difference between ROI and ROAS.
High-powered, high-skilled agencies don’t spend hours on overdone proposals. They come in as subject matter experts and that speaks for itself. And in the end, that is exactly why you hire them.
If you are struggling to find a quality digital agency, join 6,500 other companies on the Credo Platform today and get access to dozens of pre-vetted digital agencies with skillsets and experience specific to your industry.