If you’re a business owner or marketing manager, thinking about shopping for a new digital marketingagency, you’re not alone.  A 2011 survey of marketers by the business development firm, RSW/US, found that just 44% of company marketers were truly happy with their primary agency. That figure was down slightly from the previous year, when 47% of businesses expressed happiness with their agency.

But there are a lot of digital agencies out there—some large, some small; some full-service, some geared to niche markets. So where do you start and how do you decide?

Below are some of the factors you should consider while researching agencies and requesting proposals. While not an exhaustive list, we see these as the most important to your decision-making process.

Talent is tops

The RSW/US report notes that one of the main frustrations businessess have with their agency is an inability of the talent to think and act strategically. And indeed, a 2013 report, also by RSW/US, reveals that businesses’ top expectations from agencies are strategic insights and creative ideas.

A standout digital marketing agency will talk less about getting your message out and more about pulling your target audience in. Find out whether the agency you’re interviewing has expertise in inbound marketing.

You’re not hiring just an agency

In fact, you’re hiring a culture. The third most critical factor in the success of the partnership, according to the businesses in the RSW/US report, is chemistry.

What kind of people does the agency hire? And do they like where they are? If the people who work at the agency aren’t satisfied, you won’t be either.

Look for an agency that hires collaborators. They should be able to intuit your digital campaign’s requirements and respond appropriately. A digital marketing agency should apply their approach to your campaign, rather than adopt the same approach—e.g., increasing impressions or other metrics—for all of their clients. If your goal is improved customer retention, an agency that promises to increase gross rating points isn’t very useful.

Brand names aren’t everything

The hottest agency brand may not prove to be the best for your campaign. In fact, just 10% of  businesses told RSW/US that “awards won” factored into their hiring decision. Remember, you’re not working with “the agency,” you’re working with a team within the agency. It is this team that you should be most concerned with.

Do the individuals on the team have diverse strengths — be they creative, analytical, or technical? Are they dedicated to and passionate about your business?

Casting your net

Don’t make the mistake of considering 10, 20, 30 agencies. Do some research and put together a relatively short list.

When asked how many agencies they considered, 39% businesses told RSW/US that they considered just three agencies, while only 3% stated that they considered 10 or more.

In addition, limiting your search only to digital agencies with experience in your industry can also be misguided. While 77% of  businesses in the study chose an agency based on an understanding of their market, 72% also said that the creative presented was critical in their decision. In other words, you may benefit from an agency’s deep knowledge of your business, but they may not have the kind of fresh ideas that an outsider may bring.

Fail fast

Don’t become too attached to a digital agency you have hired. Clearly establish milestones from the start and measure results religiously. If an agency does not meet or exceed your key metrics, find another agency.

Sticking with an agency that consistently fails you is akin to staying in a bad relationship. The break-up will happen eventually, so end it before it becomes toxic.

In literature, a quest generally requires the hero to overcome numerous obstacles and travel distances far and wide in pursuit of his goal. Fortunately, the business owner or indeed marketing managers quest is far less fraught. Instead of obstacles, he or she has options; instead of travels, he or she has technology to bridge distances. With solid research and a discerning evaluation process, you can find your Holy Grail.

What tips can you offer businesses in search of a digital marketing agency? Leave your response in the comments section.

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