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From the Trenches

Hiring a Strategic Marketing Firm – 6 Common Missteps

Mike Sweeney | December 15, 2011

Around this time every year, I am engaged in at least a half a dozen conversations with companies that are looking for a marketing firm to help them reach their goals for the upcoming year. Some know exactly what they’re looking for, and are fully prepared for the selection process. Some don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, but think they’ll know it when they see it. And sadly, some just enter this process with trepidation, because they’ve been burned in the past.

Fear – and in particular the fear of making a mistake –  is a very strong force. For a select few, it can be a trigger for adrenaline and aggressive decision-making. For many others, it can cause inaction, paralysis and conservative decision-making.

For companies that have been burned in their selection of strategic marketing firms in the past, let me offer a few pieces of advice on making a better decision this time around.

1. Know the Difference Between Marketing Strategy and Marketing Services

Marketing strategy should inform and guide marketing planning, which in turn informs and guides marketing services and tactics. Building a new website or distributing one press release each month is not a marketing strategy.

If you have your marketing plan all buttoned up for 2012, you may be ready to hire a marketing services firm to handle one or more of the tactics you identified in that plan. If not, you need to find a firm that can think strategically as well.

Good marketing strategists can not only help you with things like customer, competitor and target market analysis, but they can help you evaluate past marketing performance and use that information to guide 2012 marketing objectives.

2. Get Educated, Set Parameters and THEN Compare Apples to Apples

I see a lot of marketing proposals, and it makes me feel terrible for the people that have to translate, evaluate and compare proposals from different companies.  Even when you cut through the buzzwords and verbosity of the average proposal, you’re often left with dramatically different approaches and price ranges.

Here’s how I solve that riddle when on the buying side:

  • Explain the situation and objectives – as you see them – to the firms you’d like to speak with.
  • Ask them to come back with a general approach for how they would handle the situation. (This is where you’ll see good firms separate from weak firms.  A good firm ought to be able to explain their approach and how and why it might be different from others.)
  • Get educated on the different approaches, and decide which general direction you like best.
  • Make that your new approach, and ask for proposals addressing that new approach.

Now you ought to be able to compare apples to apples. You just used this process to educate yourself, get information from some (hopefully) smart marketing firms, and make your decision-making process more efficient.

3. Don’t Buy Tools and Software Before You Buy Your Marketing Firm


Marketing Person: We just bought Marketo for marketing automation and Omniture for web analytics last month, so we’re really looking for someone that has expertise using those tools.

Mike: Who or what guided those decisions?

Marketing Person: We told IT that we needed those tools in place, and they evaluated different options and chose those. Everything is being installed right now.

Mike: Do you know how you want to use those tools?

Marketing Person: Not yet, but both Marketo and Omniture have a great education and training program to help us learn how to use them effectively.


How can you not see the problem with this approach? Software cannot build your marketing plan, and should not guide your marketing decisions. Strategy and planning should come first. Tactics should come second. Software and tools should fall in line somewhere after that.

4. Design Firms Are (Typically) Not Marketing Firms

We work with a lot of fantastic designers and design firms. They are very good at what they do, and add tremendous value to our solutions.

That being said, design is not marketing, and designers and design firms are generally not equipped to handle marketing strategy and planning. And the smart ones don’t want to handle marketing strategy and planning.

Beware the overreaching design firm, or as Will Davis once said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

5. Industry Specialists and Category Expertise Do Not Always Equal Success

If you’re in a hyper-competitive industry where all the players look and feel the same, and it’s difficult to create separation from the pack, is the solution to bring in a marketing firm that is an industry specialist?

It might be, and that might work for if your objective is to make incremental gains on the competition. On the other hand, if your objective is to become an industry leader, be careful about hiring a firm that is ready to make you into a “me too” company.

6. Ask References the Hard Questions

In most cases, reference calls are a check in a box that happens once you’ve already decided which firm you want to work with, and at that point your natural inclination is to just confirm all the good things you’ve heard about your new firm. Consider changing your approach.

  • Ask for references when you’re still evaluating options, not when you’re close to a decision.
  • Let the reference know about your fear and how you’ve been burned in the past. This will lead to a more open conversation, as it’s human nature to be more forthcoming when someone does the same with you.
  • Ask harder, more direct questions. Every firm has a weakness, or something that you would not hire them for, what wouldn’t you hire this firm for? When you’ve had conflicts or differences in opinion with this firm, how did it get resolved? I want my ideas challenged, not just accepted, will this or that person in the firm do that?

Now It’s Your Turn

Corporate marketing decision-makers, or even marketing firms, I want to hear from you. What mistakes have you made in hiring marketing firms in the past? What other recommendations would you include on this list? Jump in with comments.


Related Resources

About Mike Sweeney:

As Right Source’s co-founder and CEO, Mike Sweeney creates, plans, and implements our vision, mission, culture, and strategic direction as well as serving as an advisor to our clients. Mike received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in marketing from the University of Notre Dame and has more than 20 years of experience in B2B marketing strategy, including digital, content, and marketing technology. You can find Mike on LinkedIn.