As professional services firms continue to place greater emphasis on their own marketing, they are looking outward for expertise in the multitude of disciplines that make up a modern marketing campaign. 

In fact, the Hinge Research Institute’s latest report, the High Growth Study 2022, Executive Summary, tells us that High Growth firms are more likely to find outside support in the form of agencies or freelancers for a variety of skills than their No Growth peers.

Professional Services Outsourcing 2022

Now the questions begin. Is hiring multiple vendors better, or is a full-service firm the way to go? Should you hire a marketing consultant or a marketing agency? What if your firm doesn’t have a full-time marketing staff? What if you do have full time staff—does that make a difference in who you hire?

Our own prospects have shared these questions with us again and again. With so many choices to consider, it’s becoming harder for companies to distinguish between those selling hot air and marketing partners who can truly help a firm grow. Over time, we’ve noted five characteristics that clients and prospects look for in a marketing partner.

1. They have what I want.

Coveting what others have usually isn’t an attractive behavior. But when it comes to hiring a marketing provider, that’s exactly what you ought to do. Do they do for themselves what you’d want them to do for your business? Do they have a message that resonates with target audiences? Do they produce valuable content? Does their website truly present their value proposition? Are there clear paths that lead you to a next step?  Your marketing provider should demonstrate all of these qualities as proof that they can truly deliver.

We’ve all seen marketing consultants with a weak website or a bad brand. Remember—they’re in the professional services business, too. If they don’t do a good job with their own materials, what makes you think they’ll do any better with yours? If they make excuses about being too busy with clients’ work to attend to their own marketing, don’t buy it.

Make it a priority to work with a marketing agency that will push itself and its clients. Mediocrity is not allowed and accountability is a must.

2. Transparency across every dimension of the partnership.

When it comes to hiring a marketing agency, what does transparency mean to you? Consider the following dimensions of a marketing partnership:

Level of effort and schedule: As conversations progress with the agencies you are considering, are they talking to you about your own projected level of effort and timeline for the scope of services? Just because you have decided to hire an outside provider doesn’t mean that all marketing tasks are off your plate.

A good marketing agency will consider your engagement as a long-term partnership. In partnerships, there are tasks for each side. Understanding the stakeholders that need to be involved at every level, the amount of effort they will need to dedicate, and a projected timeline with meeting dates and level of participation required will go a long way to creating a successful outcome for both parties.

Flexibility in purchasing services: Do the other agencies you’re considering offer alternative models? There are times when fixed fees make sense and times when a retainer model is a no-brainer. The benefits of a contract arrangement must be beneficial to both parties. The same goes for when payments are made for services rendered. When having contract conversations with potential marketing agencies, are you exploring equal monthly payments or milestone payments? What about paying with credit cards?

Another aspect to consider is whether your firm can benefit from a cost savings by signing up for a bundled, packaged or subscription engagement. We all know that, in professional services, having “benched” staff isn’t profitable. A packaged approach is a win-win for both parties—the hiring firm can save some dollars and the provider firm can ensure billable staff. A la carte services can make sense for some needs, but in certain situations, packaged services are more appropriate.

Team makeup: We’ve all heard (or experienced) horror stories about the “bait and switch” that can happen in professional services. Hopefully, it’s a tactic your own firm doesn’t employ—so why would you hire a firm that does? Are you asking the right questions when it comes to the team’s make-up? Is the person “selling” to you going to be engaged in the collaboration between their firm and yours? Or will they bring in folks that you’ve never met?

Is your business so focused on cost that it’s only considering solo marketing consultants (or even worse, the boss’ nephew)? To gain productive and valuable marketing insight, you need to employ a group of blended skill sets— digital, research, analytics, creative, writing, strategy, social, project management and more. A solo marketing consultant is going to have a very rough time effectively rebranding your firm and will be stretched thin working on your deliverables. Cost is important, but not at the expense of relevant experience, adequate resources and results.

Fluency in remote access: There’s a reason your business is thinking about hiring a marketing agency. Your clients are placing greater demands on you. You’re trying to grow the firm. Your bandwidth is limited and fitting more face-to-face meetings in a day is just not possible. Today’s technology can save us time and bring us as close as we can get to a face-to-face meeting.

As you consider marketing agencies, evaluate their comfort level with technology. Are they efficient in the use of virtual meetings? Can your business get the benefit of an entire specialist team? Or, do you just get one person that comes out to meet you? In today’s transparent client–provider relationships, access to that entire team, even virtually, can pay greater dividends than a single face-to-face meeting. And don’t forget that great value can come to your firm by being able to pick up the phone and talk to one of the many specialists that are staffed by the marketing agency you hire.

3. Demonstrated success is all the proof you need.

When interviewing potential service providers, how easy is it for you to get references from businesses with challenges similar to yours? The best way to learn what an agency can do for you is to talk to their current and past clients. Even if the reference isn’t in the same industry as your firm, they’ll be able to provide insights on project delivery, team dynamics, overall client management and success rates.

There are other ways to gauge the efficacy of the marketing agency you’re contemplating. Consider the case studies or design portfolio posted on their website or the variety in the references they present. Inquire about their involvement or knowledge of your industry. Have they written or presented to trade organizations aligned with your core business? Are they a quantifiable thought leader? Remember, professional services are much more complicated to market then most consumer products. Is the firm you’re considering committed to educating themselves and those they target?

While referrals are on the decline, we know that nearly 60% of buyers of professional services look to their friends or colleagues for referrals on a business provider. If the marketing agency in question is a leader, then someone in your network is likely to have heard of them.

4. The firm knows that even great strategies fail without implementation.

When considering a marketing agency, it’s important to evaluate their approach to strategy implementation. Beyond the reports, plans and data they’ll present to you, how will they help you understand and execute on the required implementation? You may remember an old commercial where the CEO compliments the strategists and then asks them, “What now?” To the CEO’s amazement, the response was, “We don’t know—we just come up with the strategy.” How will that strategy be implemented and measured?

Another way of evaluating these criteria is to think of it as a diagnosis. Do they understand the issues and recommend a workable solution? If you’re not convinced the marketing consultant has the right diagnosis, you’re not likely to be happy with the cure. Our research shows that one of the most important reasons that professional services buyers are unhappy with providers is that they don’t solve the key problem and provide poor quality deliverables.

5. Culture is a pixel-deep.

Most of us are in the habit of searching online for information about a firm or individual we’re about to meet. It’s no different when evaluating a potential marketing agency. Check out the company’s website and social media presence. This goes back to the first criteria: Do they have what I want?

Through their website you should be able to get a feel for their culture. What are the age demographics? A blend of younger and more seasoned staff will provide a greater likelihood that your firm will benefit from experience, continuous improvement, and the latest trends and techniques. Is their culture one that fosters a profitable client-vendor relationship? Our own research verifies that expertise and experience will trump cost any day.

A Final Thought

Partnering with a marketing agency is not a decision to be made lightly. It requires hard work, trust in the expertise shared by both the vendor and the buyer, and true collaboration—even when implementation may not be progressing as smoothly. It’s no surprise that firms which grow the fastest and are the most profitable are more likely to use outside marketing resources.

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The Marketing Planning Guide for Professional Services Firms

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How Hinge Can Help

Hinge has developed a comprehensive plan, The Visible Firm℠  to address these issues and more. It is the leading marketing program for delivering greater visibility, growth, and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to gain new clients and reach new heights.  

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