Due diligence when choosing any kind of agency – any kind of supplier – probably says: Ask more than one question. (In fact, I know it does.)
But what’s the most important thing to ask?
The answer is usually a variation on: Can you show us some work you’ve done?
When you ask this, you probably want to see something good, something inspiring. It’s also useful if it’s for a company like yours.
This is the main way agencies vouch for their credentials. (Some might even have shown you ‘creds’ decks.) But is it valid?
It’s not. Here’s why. A couple of years ago I blogged about How do you know if someone is a good writer? And the issue here is similar. It is very hard to prove that what you are being shown is by that agency. Maybe it’s by the agency but the key creatives have moved on. Maybe they subcontracted much of the work and you’d be better off hiring the key person or team elsewhere.
Or maybe the work isn’t really sharable at all. There are plenty of content audits we would never dream of sharing, as they’re not externally-facing. Think of all the projects covered by NDAs.
The short answer is that you don’t know if that agency can replicate the same quality of work for you.
Interrogate your agency
What’s the answer? One exists: that’s the good news. It involves not looking at finished work but asking the right questions of your would-be agency – interrogating them (spotlight in the face and sleep deprivation not compulsory).
Now there are plenty of questions you could ask… but here’s the one you should:
Q: How do you work?
Want a bit more flesh on those bones? You want your contact to tell you about their processes – the at-the-coalface, creative processes. Oh, they’re in commercial and don’t do the work themselves? Tough luck. Either they have to know this or they put someone else in front of you who does.
Here’s what you should expect: an explanation of processes and personnel, including the processes and people unique to that agency. Because who doesn’t want some special sauce?
If an agency can’t explain the processes or won’t tell you about their people, these are big flashing warning signs. If they use third parties, you have every right to know who they are, where they are and what kind of access you can expect.
I don’t care if they put any number of flashy creds decks or videos or ‘past work’ in front of you. You don’t know for sure that these are authentic or relevant to you.
Before I leave, know that other routes are important too. Ask to speak to past clients. Ask what can be done for your level of budget. Ask about effects on your actual bottom line rather than marketing KPIs. Those are good lines of interrogation too.
But the one question to ask above all is about the how and who of an agency, not the what.
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