Picture this: You’re a marketing manager or director of a mid-sized consumer goods company, and you need help. Your e-commerce website is out of date, your brand is decent but not quite as distinctive as you feel it could be, your email database is thorny, and you’re paying out thousands per month in ad spend without fully knowing its effect.

On top of that, your current marketing team of 2 is stretched to their limit, managing individual contractors is a hassle (plus you don’t have the budget for as many as you could use), and due to the nature of bootstrapping and seed funding, you haven’t yet hired an agency.

All of these are solvable problems, and together they describe the ideal scenario where hiring an agency that can solve several challenges at once can prove a reasonable, profitable investment.

The trick is to figure out what comes first, who to hire, and how.

Asking the Right Questions to Get to the Right Answers

Marketing is the furthest thing from a paint-by-numbers game. While there are aspects that can be automated and best practices that can be followed, human insight and touch is needed to actually determine where to place the best bets when it comes to positioning, branding, advertising, and stitching together your digital ecosystem.

As you weigh up your options, there are numerous factors you need to consider:

  • What type of agency would most help you?
  • What’s a need, and what’s a nice to have?
  • What challenges need addressing now?
  • What opportunities might there be that you haven’t thought of?
  • What’s the right process?
  • What’s a fair compensation that ensures you’ll get what you need without blowing the budget?
  • Who should you hire?
  • How should you go about finding them?

The answers to these questions could make an entire book – but today, we’re going to highlight the four main ways of how an agency can help a client. The specifics are customizable to every client, but if you hire an agency, chances are it’s in one of these four ways.

Types of Client/Agency Engagements

There are 4 broad categories of how an agency can best provide value to a client:

Workshops and Gigs

A standalone activity that does not necessarily require any other arrangement in order to proceed. They’re best suited when you have a specific need that can be addressed in an optimized, standardized format.

EXAMPLES

  • Brand Audits
  • Marketing Audits
  • Messaging Workshops
  • Naming Workshops
  • UX Reviews
  • Website Audits

NOTES

  • Workshops and gigs do not necessarily require an existing project or agency/client relationship.
  • While the content will be tailored to suit a client’s context, the formats are largely standard in nature.
  • Audits are more report-driven, mixing together tactical and strategic findings and recommendations of what you currently have.
  • Workshops are more interactive in nature, mixing together research and in-person or virtual activities to define or move closer to a future-facing goal.
  • Common for agencies that provide strategic guidance or insight, not just executional or tactical-level support.

Projects

Unique, standalone engagements that have a defined scope and timeframe. They’re best suited for both large and small initiatives that don’t have too many dependencies.

EXAMPLES

Brand Identity Design

  • Brand Strategy
  • Email Marketing Template Design
  • Marketing Strategy
  • Paid Advertising Campaigns
  • Sales Collateral or Template Design & Content
  • Website Design and Development

NOTES

  • Highly effective for larger projects (e.g. rebranding a company; building a new website; a one-off ad campaigns).
  • Efficient and focused use of time, budget, and resources.
  • Clearly defined scopes, objectives, timelines, and budgets.
  • Requires more up-front decisions from the client on objectives and needs.
  • Common for design, creative, or digital agencies where the focus is on creating certain pieces of work.

Retainers

An ongoing relationship geared towards improving your marketing in one or several specific areas over time. They’re best suited for initiatives with ongoing content or production needs across one or multiple channels.

EXAMPLES

  • Email Marketing Creative & Management
  • General, Ongoing Executional Support
  • Website Content Updates
  • Website Feature Enhancements
  • Website Hosting and Updates

NOTES

  • Highly effective for marketing that needs to work across multiple channels.
  • Creates the optimal conditions for ongoing, cross-channel improvements.
  • Allows the scope to more proactively flex to opportunities.
  • Requires a minimum time and monthly budget commitment.
  • Common for digital or marketing agencies where the focus is on improving or optimizing marketing effectiveness through testing and iterating.

Agency of Record

An exclusive, ongoing relationship that’s geared towards improving your holistic marketing success. They’re best suited for taking a combined strategic and creative approach to all aspects of your marketing, and can include some or all of the available agency services or project types over time.

EXAMPLES

Agency of Record (AOR) relationships are highly tailored engagements that bundle together a mix of projects and retainer tasks over a longer period of time. AORs often start with an initial planning phase to align all parties on goals, objectives, context, metrics, and areas of responsibility over time.

NOTES

  • AORs create the best conditions for long-term marketing success.
  • AORs often begin with a standalone planning phase, followed by the execution of the planned projects and retainer tasks with you over time.
  • AOR relationships require exclusivity between both agency and client, and usually span multiple years in order to achieve both short- and long-term objectives.
  • AORs can and do include a mixture of retainers, projects, workshops, and gigs.
  • Common for agencies that can meaningfully provide a holistic mix of strategic and tactical services, whether through their in-house staff or by overseeing specialized partners where required.

How to Know? How to Choose?

The right type of engagement depends on a few factors: your needs, your timeline, your in-house capabilities, other partners you may already work with, and your budget.

In a future post, we’ll map out some common marketing situations and which projects may be most helpful – and from there, how to start putting together a project brief to send to prospective agency partners.