Welcome to episode three of the Collective Content How to choose a content agency podcast series.
This time round, our hosts Daine Lindsay and Collective Content MD Tony Hallett are joined by senior editors Andrew Smith and Julian Heathcote to figure out how you can best detect and define a content agency’s reputation before choosing who to work with (apologies to David at “Blue Hat”, we’re sure you’re great). Check out the full Collective Content How to choose a content agency guide, available here.
You can also find this episode here;
Andrew: I think if you can find somebody who’s experienced that with an agency and they’re willing to sit down with you for quite some time and go into the exact detail of how this agency helped you, and they listened to you and they overcame certain problems. They came up with options and they took you to the next level, then obviously that’s probably better than somebody from another team saying, “Oh yes, David at Blue Hat is, is amazing.” I hope there’s no agency called Blue Hat.
Tony: There almost certainly is.
Julian: There probably is.
Tony: I bet they’re great.
Andrew: They’re fantastic. You can use this as part of your reputation building process.
One, two, three, four
Daine: Hello and welcome to our How to Choose a Content Agency podcast series for episode number three: Reputation. Today, I’m once again joined by two great guests to help companies choose their next agency wisely. We have Julian Heathcote and Andrew Smith, both senior editors here at Collective Content, to dive deeper into the important matter of assessing an agency’s reputation. And if you want to get your hands on more expert advice on this subject, then please check out the full Collective Content How to Choose a Content Agency guide available on the website, link in the description. But right now, also joining us is Creative Content Managing director Tony Hallett.
Tony: Hey Daine, good to be here again. I think this is a fascinating episode today. Really glad to be joined by Julian and Andrew, who will provide the expert advice. A bit of a scene setter, I think in the first episode we looked at where can you get content from? And we talked about major sources like in-house, agencies, freelancers and a couple of other sources too. And now we’re really getting into if you’re going down the agency route, which is what this series is about, how do you work this out from afar? How do you research an agency? Who do you turn to for advice and checking out whether an agency is the real deal? So, I hope we unearth those sorts of answers and more.
Daine: So why does a company need to consider a reputation when choosing an agency, Julian?
Julian: I think reputation is everything, it says to a person who’s choosing an agency that the agency can do what they are asking them to do. So, it’s always good to ask around people you know, to do your own due diligence, to research online and to find out if the people can do what they really say they can do. Because there’s a lot of hyperbole out there when people talk about themselves online or whatever sort of forum they use to publicize themselves, it doesn’t always match up. So it’s always good to cross reference whenever you’re choosing an agency.
Tony: Colour me shocked Julian, that there’s a lot of exaggeration out there, but yeah, totally agree. Totally agree. Andrew, would you add anything?
Andrew: I would say I agree with Julian, but although not quite, because I don’t think it’s quite everything, but it is certainly one of the most important, if not the most important kind of lever you’ve got when you’re choosing an agency to make sure that you end up with the right one.
Daine: What should an agency want or need to look out for then, Julian?
Julian: Well, I think it depends on what you’re looking for specifically, but you need to find out if the people you’re going to work with, are people you want to work with and can get on with. If you have any kind of disconnect with your relationship with the person or the people you’re working with, then it won’t be a fruitful relationship for either parties. You’ll be annoyed or angry because it’s not worked out for you. And then the agency won’t be happy working for you either. So I think it’s really, really important to really see if they can fulfil your objectives and do the type of content you need, and also find out if they are a good fit, and there’s good chemistry with you and the people in your company.
Andrew: Yeah, and I’d say to that that the ways of working point is really, really important because – I’ll come on to some of the other things that are important in a moment – but simply the style of communication and expectations, is something that you want to get as much information about in advance as possible. And one way of doing that is by asking other people to work with the agency. There are a host of ways to look now, you know, on LinkedIn, you might be slightly skeptical about what you see on recommendations, but it’s still valuable information. One more thing to say is to really look in the mirror and think about what you want yourself, because you may find that an agency is recommended to you by a third party because they always deliver work on time, for example, or that they’re easy to work with, or that they are very, very good at doing kind of future looking thought leadership. So if you want future looking thought leadership and you end up with an agency who can’t do that, but they do deliver work on time, that’s also maybe not the best outcome. So I don’t know the Latin for know thyself, because I didn’t go to a particular school like Boris Johnson or some of this and colleagues. But yeah, knowing what you want yourself I think is a really important factor before you start sort of considering what other people are saying about agencies.
Tony: I think those are really good points. They’re really good scene setters, we’ve talked to in other episodes here about key criteria and how surprisingly in our research over the years, what comes out first, because the obvious contenders are things like quality, price, are you able to meet timelines? And the number one tends to come out is an agency easy to work with? So that ease of doing business that touches on the point. So Julian mentioned chemistry, which is in our next episode, and Julian knows that very well. And Andrew, you touched on ways of working, which again is in another future episode as well, and that’s when you’re kind of getting into the relationship and starting, this right here is before you’ve even before the agency even knows you might be interested in them. It’s like, how do you find things out? So Julian, back to you.
Julian: Yeah, I was going to say so, was going to add to what Andrew mentioned about asking people, I think, you know, we all have friends, colleagues, etc., people who might be able to help us to make that decision about reputation. But be very careful about just taking people’s word for this. E.g. “This guy’s great. These people are great.” It could be just they’re very good friends. And, you know, they they’re not really thinking deeply about what you might want. So, if you’re going to ask people, really interrogate them, ask them the kind of searching questions that you need the answers to. So knowing my personality or knowing the company I work for, do you think they would work well and fit in with that environment, that sort of demanding environment, especially if you say, look, working for a large corporate company, then you’re going to have a lot of procedures which any agency would have to work with and be able to take on board. So, if you are asking friends of yours, colleagues, you know, business associates, then make sure that you interrogate them quite deeply, and sort of tell them what you really want. Because just a recommendation is usually probably not going to be the best fit for you.
Andrew: Yes, I think I think there’s a hierarchy, isn’t there, of feedback you can get. As Julian said. It may be that somebody from another team or another company recommends this agency because, and they’re doing it because, “oh, they’ve got us out of trouble so many times by being flexible.” But if you’re a founder, for example, who’s trying to grow their business and really needs this is just an example, really needs content that is going to take you to the next level and break into new markets, then I think if you can find somebody who’s experienced that with an agency and they’re willing to sit down with you for quite some time and go into the exact details of how this agency helped you, and they overcame, they listened to you and they overcame certain problems. They came up with options and they took you to the next level. Then obviously that’s probably better than somebody from another team saying “Oh yes, David at Blue Hat is amazing” I hope there’s no agency called Blue Hats.
Tony: There almost certainly is.
Andrew: They’re fantastic. You can use this as part of your reputation building process.
Daine: So, Andrew, how do clients judge reputation and know what to trust?
Andrew: Well, I think it’s I think it’s just, you know, don’t underestimate the job. You know, you’re not paying for this service, you know, this collection of information about reputation. So, take it seriously, spend time, collect a lot of information, look at a lot of sources, interrogate it all. And that’s just going to it’s just going to increase your chances of ending up with the right one. If you don’t do that, the chances are you won’t end up with the right one. And that can be quite disruptive, quite painful. And also can take you back a year quite easily in your plans. So it’s a fairly low hanging fruit in the way, even though you might need to dedicate some time and effort to it.
Tony: So it’s a bit like hiring good full time staff members. One of the things we talk about a lot is always be hiring. So you might not need an agency now, but having an eye on several key agencies in each of the core areas where you might need that help and monitor them over time, you’re likely to be better informed when it does come to decision time.
Andrew: I think that’s a brilliant idea. And so systematizing having some sort of repository or some sort of way of collecting information, obviously it’s not going to be a number one priority to build a system to collect information about agencies as a habitual thing. But if you have some kind of way of sorting information about what you’re hearing.
Tony: Yeah, just following people. If you’ve got half a dozen agencies in a given area and content’s just one of many areas we know, like follow them on LinkedIn or other places and sign up for their newsletters and just get a sense of who they are over time.
Andrew: Use the internet. I always forget them.
Tony: Yes. Yes.
Julian: Well, what you would want, perhaps would be the best thing to do is think, well, what are your long-term objectives? What you want to achieve in the next six months, the next year, the next two years, next three years? Think about whom do you need to be associating with and who do you need to find out about? You know, what you what your needs. You wouldn’t buy a house, you wouldn’t just choose the first one you saw. But you might do if you’ve got lots of money and don’t care about the possible problems with it. But you do your due diligence about that. You get a surveyor, you make sure the estate agent wasn’t a charlatan, you know, do lots of checks yourself. So why would you do that? If you’re choosing an agency?
Tony: And it’s about it’s about layers of knowledge, isn’t it? And we talk about this hierarchy. So, at the bottom we talk about what’s the agency saying themselves. So I know I’m contradicting myself. I said “Check them out. What do they say? How do they portray themselves over a long period of time?” I think that’s definitely worth doing, that’s foundational, that’s basic. Above that, you’ve got other areas. So if you are turning to the Internet, a classic search, see what other people are saying about them. There are services out there like Klutch that have directories of many agencies across different countries, and you can divide by, you know, the kind of service they provide, the type of agency they are, all sorts of ways. And then near the top of the sort of the pyramid in this hierarchy, is what are people who you particularly trust or who like you saying? And of course, with the caveats that Andrew mentioned earlier, that, you know, they may have had different needs to you. And at the very top is you actually know these people. You’ve worked with them before. They have helped you maybe in another company or another department of the same company. But even then, you need to do your due diligence, as Julian says, and check out are the same people going to be they, are they going to work on your account? If you speak to the same people, don’t assume the same capability is there because it might have been two or three years ago you last dealt them. So keep in mind that hierarchy.
Julian: I’d also add when you’re looking at what people say about themselves on their websites, look, look what they don’t say about themselves because that is really revealing. A lot of times you look at different websites, agency websites, and it would seem that they all seem to be saying the same thing. But I would say go repeat that. Look for what they don’t say. Look what they’re admitting, look what they’re kind of ironing out.
Tony: When you say, look what they don’t say anything in particular, is it just detail?
Julian: I haven’t got I haven’t got any good specifics right now, but I would be very wary if you don’t see any kind of openness from them. And if they claim to offer a service but there’s no detail about it on the on the website. Then alarm bells would start to ring for me. People like to throw everything up because they didn’t want to lose business. And then when they get the business, they then go on to try and learn how to do that particular service. If there’s no actual proof, just be wary of that because you’ll find that they’ll be learning on the job and it won’t be a good job that they do for you. But it may be, but the likelihood is quite high that it won’t be.
Daine: Is there any way for agency to prove that they would be good enough for the job, for example awards or anything they can show?
Tony: You know how I feel about awards Daine. I’m not a big fan as it is a type of agency marketing. And sadly, I say this from having also been on the judges of awards as a guest, or organizations where I used to work. So that can be hard. But to Julian, let me defer to you.
Julian: Well, I’ll just say one thing quickly. It’s not really what they say about themselves. It’s really what other people say about them. It’s like the classic branding thing. Coca-Cola can say what it likes about how it describes itself, it’s drink, you know, there’s lots of different advertising blurbs, of course, have happened over the years. They’ve come out with. It’s really what the consumer, the buyer is experiences. That’s it. It refreshes me. It relieves my thirst.
Tony: Well, the old phrase ‘reputation is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.’ So the idea that you don’t control it is – well you can control it by being really good – I guess that’s the message. Do good work, have a great reputation. You can’t just put words in people’s mouths.
Andrew: Talking of which, I’ve used the Internet and ‘know thyself’, one site says ‘te cognosco tandem,’ the other one says, ‘scis te ipsum’, so I’m going to go with the first one but that is a live example of-
Tony: A bit of Latin controversy.
Andrew: And also, how reliable the internet is. Going back to the question, I am going to come back to know thyself, because I mean, I’ve just made a short list down here ‘knowing what you want.’ The question that you have about the agency might be that you need to drill down further. For example, what sort of international reach do they have? You know, or, you’re recommending me an agency from your experience three years ago, are those people still there? I mean, it might be a different kind of agency now. People have left, you know. Do they specialize in data? If you’ve got lots of data that you want, it’s a data story or your own reputation is based on data, are they able to do sort of splashy PR stuff? Do they specialize in professional services? If you’re looking for biotech stuff, you might not want an agency that is very, very strong in professional services. So, the question’s about reputation, again, need to go deeper and you need to either ‘te cognosco tandem’ or ‘scis te ipsum’, I don’t know.
Daine: What are generally the most important reputational factors companies should look out for then, Tony?
Tony: I’m a big fan of other people like you who are willing to talk to you 1 to 1, to explain what their experience was like. Any company can publish lots of case studies, but people have to recognize it only gives you so much information and is approved marketing. Having an honest chat with someone behind the scenes and then keeping in mind some of the things we’ve said in this podcast, around, understand are they like you? They might have had different needs, they might have it be a different company. So just be careful about that. But I think it’s that peer level openness over a coffee that that to me is always a great thing.
Julian: Yeah, I think certainly it’s the third party thing again, it’s what other people’s experience has been of working with the agency. Look online if they’ve spoken about things, looking at the quality of their work, knowing if they can deliver on time and deadline to you as well, and that you can have an honest conversation with them, I think also, what about the results they’ve obtained for the content they’ve produced as well? Can you find out some of these things, you know, to know that they can really, basically do what they say they can do?
Daine: Andrew, any key factors from you?
Andrew: Yeah. So three things for me. I picked up two from you guys. Honest conversations. That’s a good one, Julian. You want that. The peer to peer thing. Sit down with somebody that you like, or who is like you. If they’re prepared to spend a good hour recommending this agency, and talking you through it, it means that they care as well, about the agency. And as usual, I’ve forgotten the third one… no, I’m going back to know thyself again. I mean, it’s so important do you want an agency to put a cherry on the top of the cake or do you want them to bake the cake? What do you need them to do? Do you need them to do tonnes and tonnes of stuff, or do you want them to just make what you do better? Such a big, big question.
Tony: It’s both sides, isn’t it? You’re touching on ‘knowing what you need’ as much as ‘is the agency capable? And honest about it.’ And also just be wary of an agency that always says, there should be very clear lines. And I think we practice this where we say “look, you sound great, but you’re not the right client for us.’ And actually the good agencies then will recommend someone who is. So you don’t want yes people. You want people who are going to really answer you and find solutions to your problems. And that may or may not be reflected in what you can find out there. Sometimes this is about getting to a next step and getting in a room with them and then finding out who else you can talk to.
Multiple voices: This is the Collective Content podcast.
Daine: So thanks to both of our guests today, Julian and Andrew, and thank you, Tony as well. It’s been great chatting with you and getting into the thick of the role that reputation plays in the company’s choice of a content agency. Join us again when we’ll be discussing chemistry. In the meantime, don’t forget you can also get more quality insights in Collective Content’s ‘How to Choose a Content Agency’ Guide on our website links into the scripts. Check out and let us know your thoughts on Twitter and LinkedIn. So until next time, I’ve been Daine, and take care.