Evaluating Atlanta Marketing Firms

Growing your business requires smart marketing choices.
How will you choose your next marketing firm or digital agency?

For small businesses, choosing an agency can be a daunting task. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of firms to evaluate. Making the wrong decision can be costly, or disastrous. Before you start researching the dozens of Atlanta marketing firms, you need to decide what type of agency best suits your needs.

Types of Atlanta Marketing Firms

Atlanta has several different types of marketing firms:

  • Traditional Marketing Firms provide a broad spectrum of services, including traditional advertising (tv, print, radio, outdoor), printed sales collateral, trade show and event marketing, direct mail/direct marketing, and often a mix of digital marketing services, as well.
  • Digital Agencies and Digital Marketing Firms also provide a range of services, including web and mobile app development, SEO, Paid Search/PPC, conversion rate optimization, Display Advertising, web analytics, data-driven design, User Experience (UX) design, and Social Media marketing and advertising.
  • SEO Specialists and Search Marketing Firms specialize in driving web traffic to their clients’ websites through SEO, Paid Search, blogging and content writing, link building, and inbound marketing.
  • Ad Agencies work to increase brand awareness and sales through storytelling in both traditional (tv, radio, print, outdoor) and digital (web, social) media.
  • Branding Agencies strive to improve their clients’ brands through brand identity development, visual identity systems, brand storytelling, and positioning.
  • Public Relations (PR) Agencies improve their clients’ brand image by securing positive stories about their clients in the media, often by featuring their clients as guest speakers, trusted experts, authors, and/or sponsors.
  • Creative Agencies & Design Studios create unique visual experiences, graphics, artwork and other artifacts that help their clients differentiate and tell compelling stories.
  • Media Buying & Planning Agencies help their clients select the best media, channels, and programs for their message to reach their target audience/s, while also negotiating better terms when purchasing media (such as advertising slots on a television network)
  • Social Media Agencies combine Social Media marketing, channel management, and listening to help their clients reach customers online and to understand how customers engage with their brands online.

A large agency has vast resources and experience but may work primarily with large companies and be less likely to give your small business the attention it needs. They’re also likely to charge more because they have greater overhead. On the other hand, a small marketing firm or boutique agency may have difficulties keeping up with your needs, even if their rates are more attractive. Finding that Goldilocks just-right fit is key to getting service, value, and results.

Generalists vs Specialists

If you need something specific—say, a new website—your best bet is likely with a specialist. If you have a wide range of needs—perhaps a new website and more leads—you might choose to work with a larger firm with broad capabilities, or to partner with multiple specialist agencies (a web agency and an SEO specialist, perhaps). Keep in mind that managing multiple agency relationships takes more time, and requires some collaboration between your agency partners. Sharing mission-critical documents (like a Brand Brief, Site Map, or web analytics) and organizing conference calls can help get people on the same page.

Culture and Personality

From your first impressions of a marketing firm’s website to your subsequent calls and meetings with agency personnel, you should listen to your gut. Is this a company that would work well with your team? Do you share the same values?

Meet the Team

What’s the personality of the team you’d be working with? Are they formal, or casual? Seasoned professionals, or energetic upstarts? Picking the right team is about more than just finding the right skill set; you’re looking for a reliable partner. Does the thought of being on a long road trip with this team make you excited? Or nervous? When you narrow your selection down to 2-3 agencies, ask to meet the whole team and consider the fit.

Work Samples

Ask to see samples of the firm’s work, but don’t settle for pretty pictures. A great portfolio can be misleading; you want to hear the story behind the work. Did the agency develop the strategy? Direct the creative process? What results did they achieve?

Results & Outcomes

Always look beneath the surface for the real results: What problem was the firm addressing? How did they come to this solution? What were the results? Are they still working with this client? Does their client support the story? Do you trust the case study?

References

Once you’ve narrowed your selection down to a handful of agencies, ask to speak with 2-3 current clients. Most agencies have a roster of satisfied clients, so if they don’t offer references, take it as a warning. Even if you do hear glowing reviews, keep in mind that agencies aren’t likely to connect you with clients that didn’t work out (and trust me: no agency has a perfect track record). Ask tough questions, but look for integrity and quality, not perfection.

Capabilities & Core Competencies

Whether you choose to work with a generalist or a specialist, you’re hiring expertise, knowledge, and experience. It’s important to look beyond the elevator pitch, portfolio, or case study to find out what capabilities your marketing firm brings to the table.

For generalists, ask what their core competencies are, how long they’ve been practicing, how many clients they’ve served, and what the results have been. Be careful not to select a generalist who scores highly on some of the capabilities you need, but is challenges to speak to other needs.

When hiring a specialist, don’t assume that their focus on a single capability makes them experts. Ask about their process for getting results, and what makes their approach uniquely better than competitors.

Industry Experience & Domain Knowledge

Many Atlanta marketing firms specialize in a specific industry vertical. How important is it that the firm you select has an intimate understanding of your business? For many clients, there’s significant value in partnering with a marketing firm that already knows the business, the target market, and the competitive landscape. Specialty firms who concentrate in one or two industry verticals often have more experience and knowledge about the marketing tactics that have worked in the past. Ask how many companies in your industry the firm has worked with, and what kinds of projects.

It’s also important to note two common disadvantages in working with industry specialists: some firms do not acknowledge conflicts of interest in which the agency is representing two or more clients in the same space who compete with one another. Generally, there are no rules or laws protecting companies from conflicts as there are with many professional services (such as law firms). Large Search Marketing firms are a good example of marketing firms who do not typically avoid working with two or more companies in the same industry vertical.

A second red flag with industry specialists is applying cookie-cutter routines to solve client challenges, rather than treating every client as unique. Repeatable processes are important for quality control, but applying a one-solution-fits-all approach to common industry problems often results in weak outcomes: undifferentiated brands, me-too websites, etc. Ask your marketing firm candidates how each would approach your unique challenges.

Years in Business

Atlanta has far more marketing firms today than it did a decade ago. The majority of these agencies are less than 5 years old. While most new agencies are run and staffed by experienced professionals, younger businesses are often run by first-time owners who don’t have a long track record of success. As you evaluate Atlanta marketing firms, ask how long they’ve been in business, and what percentage of clients they’ve retained since they started. Client retention rate is a good indicator of past performance.

A small business can spend a few thousand dollars on a modest, professional website…or tens of thousands. A brand identity can cost hundreds of dollars, or hundreds of thousands. It’s not always clear that cost and quality go hand in hand. At the end of the day, Value is most important; but how does a business owner or marketing director know how much to spend, and what value to expect in return?

The High Price of Low Cost

An all-too-common mistake is to spend as little as possible on marketing, and then realize it was a waste of money. Spending $3,000 on a simple website that meets your basic needs might be a good investment, but having to redesign that site less than twelve months later because it fails to address your core marketing goals is not. Running an ad for a short time (before it reaches “recall” with your audience) may be affordable, but it very rarely produces results. When you interview Atlanta marketing firms, be frank about your budget and ask how much they recommend to achieve your goals. No reputable agency wants to build a brand platform, website, ad campaign, or marketing program that’s set up for failure.

How Much Should I Spend?

In an industry with few certifications and rates ranging from less than $5/hr to well over $200/hr, it can be frustrating to know how what a fair price is. Looking at work samples alone—a logo, an ad design, a website—is rarely a reliable way to judge quality or expertise. Case studies, testimonials, and references also go only so far.

Price, in most cases, should be a late or final factor in choosing a marketing firm, after evaluating fit, capabilities, and other factors. Even then, price needs to be comforting, not disrupting: if the marketing firm you favor charges three times what you budgeted, you’re starting with the discomfort of hoping they provide three times as much value. That puts pressure on both you and the agency, complicating your mutual interest in success. Better to find another starting point—such as a discovery process or small project to test the fit—or to lower expectations or requirements.

A one-off, custom Lamborghini may be an exciting way to get across town, but a Toyota will do the job.

Projects vs Retainers

Most businesses expect predictable pricing, if not a fixed price. Most Atlanta marketing firms work on both a project basis and a retainer basis. Project-based pricing is ideal for providing a fixed price based on an agreed-upon scope of work, which can often be expanded by the client through change order requests. Retainer-based pricing is attractive for businesses with a monthly marketing budget who want to execute a number of marketing programs over months or years. Retainers are also common for recurring marketing programs, such as SEO, an ad campaign, or Social Media Marketing program, which requires regular, monthly effort and/or ad fees. As you evaluate marketing agencies, ask how they charge based on the services they provide.

Finding Great Value

For every business that wants to spend the least to get the most, there’s a marketing firm that wants to charge the most to do the least work. Businesses and agencies that value long-term partnerships often generate the most value for one another: a marketing firm that produces results repeatedly over time is a valuable asset to any business; a business that values good work and partnership is key to any thriving agency.

Look for Atlanta marketing firms that have a proven track record for long-term partnerships and you’ll find great value.