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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Vetting An Agency: Protecting The Family Jewels

One of the biggest realizations that hit many in-house search marketers is the simple fact that they cannot do it all themselves. Despite the best of intentions and the strongest work ethics, the fact remains—you are but one person and there are only so many hours in a day.

If you are fortunate enough to have a dedicated team of search experts working with you, your team can still easily hit a wall. Eventually something will come up, or time and circumstances will conspire to leave you staring at the calendar or out the window with one seemingly frightening through rattling around inside your brain…

You need to hire an agency. GASP!

There is a growing trend today to move search efforts in-house. It may seem like blasphemy to suggest that an in-house SEM or SEM team make room for a dedicated agency relationship, but that agency could provide you with the heavy lifting muscle you need to accomplish menial tasks in a timely manner. They may have access to an expertise you or your team currently lacks, but that your company’s web site needs. It doesn’t matter why you may need to foster an agency relationship, the bottom line is that at some point many of us will face this reality—and with the proliferation of an uncounted number of apparently “professional” shops popping up every day, it takes a very careful vetting process to avoid disappointment.

What do you do?

There’s lot to consider:

  • You’ll need to keep things on track while you interview potential agencies
  • You’ll need a list of the things that you need the agency to do
  • You’ll want to send out requests for proposals (RFPs)
  • You’ll want to set up interviews

The list is long and daunting to someone who’s already stretching a 50—60 hour work week to cover the bases as they currently sit.

One item that’s critical to the process, and a step that’s far too often overlooked by many, is that of vetting the potential agency. Looking at their samples and reading their RFPs is important, but to get a real feel for what an agency is like to work with, you need to speak with people. People just like you.

In fact, when the time comes to dig deep on the few who make the cut into the final review process, you’ll want to ask them to provide contact information for the references they supply to you.

Your job is to then track those folks down and set up a meeting to discuss their past work with the agency who listed them as a reference. Be ready with a list of questions and be prepared to follow any leads that might develop.

I went through this process years ago with a company we still outsource to from time to time today. When I need some heavy lifting done or certain tasks managed, we still turn to the company we selected over 3 years ago.

As part of the process I went through in interviewing the companies we were considering, I requested references. Each company happily supplied what they expected were solid references. To this list, I added a couple of my own based on each agency’s published “client list” on their site—just a couple of randomly selected companies.

I took the time to track down the person who ran the agency relationship at each of those companies I had selected and ran them through my “interview” just like the references that had been supplied by the agencies. I was not surprised that one agency ended up with three glowing reviews, plus two total duds (from the companies I’d randomly selected)—after all, if you’re going to send a reference, you’re going to send good ones, right?

Agency two came in with an odd mix of two positives from the supplied reference list and one luke warm one. The two I’d selected on my own were split 50/50.

The third agency in my competition ended up with five basically good reviews, though two warned me to be very clear with them on specific points of what they were to do, what our expectations would be and to keep them on track and on time. I was pleased with this because I felt it reasonable for me to need to be clear on my expectations and to basically be in charge of keeping things on track and on time.

In the end, I was happy enough with the data from the reference checks to make the leap.

One of the critical questions I asked each person I spoke with was, “Would you hire this company to do work for you again?” When I asked this question, I was careful to listen for pauses, or to try to read between the lines in a given response. After all, this person had no idea who I was, and I wanted honest answers, not politically correct, glossed-over niceties.

During your own vetting process, you should settle for nothing less than glowing reviews all around. There are enough solid agencies these days that you can usually find someone in your budget bracket that will do quality work. You may need to wait in line for their services, but better that than moving forward with the wrong agency and blowing the budget on ineffective advice.

Here are a few questions to have handy should you find yourself checking references in the future:

  • Did you manage the relationship with the agency for your company? (Critical to ensure you’re speaking with the correct person in a company.)
  • Did they deliver on all points you agreed on in the contract?
  • Were they easy to get on the phone and timely when responding to e-mails?
  • Were their reports easy to understand?
  • Is there anything else you can recall about the experience that can help me with my decision on whether to hire them?

Hopefully this will give you a baseline idea on how to check out a company you are thinking of doing business with. Time invested in due diligence is never wasted.

Duane Forrester is an in-house SEM, sits on the Board of Directors with SEMPO and can be found at his blog where he speaks about online marketing and monetizing websites. The In House column appears periodically at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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