Most media buyers use a digital marketing agency to build and optimize campaigns. A good agency can multiply your marketing power and increase the return on your marketing investment. A bad agency can waste your time and money. So how do you make sure that you are getting the right results? I spoke with some of the best media buyers and agency heads that I know, and created an agency checklist with their 5 main tips.
- Ensure that you have digital marketing know-how. The best media buyers understand what they are outsourcing to a digital marketing agency.
- Get the basics right. If you don’t have tracking in place, how will you evaluate your agency?
- Compare agencies and individuals. Make sure that you work with the right people.
- Own your data. No one should own your advertising accounts but you.
- Push for testing, evaluation and change.
1. Digital marketing know-how
I’ve spoken to hundreds of media buyers about their interaction with their agency. My main takeaway is this: The best media buyers have a thorough understanding of digital marketing. Perhaps not every nitty gritty technical detail, but they closely follow developments in the digital marketing space. They know the strengths and weaknesses of different ad networks. They understand tracking and web analytics. They can have a peer-to-peer conversation with their agency. They know enough to understand when to listen, when to challenge and when to change the game.
Christos Stavropoulos, Head of Paid Acquisition at iZettle, has his own take on this: “If you are not giving your agency the right input, you will not get the output you want. So when I started this job, I began by insourcing all our advertising activities. This was a lot of work, but it enabled me to understand the nuts and bolts of our advertising operations. Once I knew the objective, scope and timeframe of our projects, I could start outsourcing again. But this time I could be very specific in my ask to the agency. I had the tools to define the what, the how and the when.”
Christos sees paid acquisition as a core competency in his team. With this in the back of his mind, he changed the game. He doesn’t want the agency to be an outsourcing partner, but rather a learning partner and a part of his extended team.
“I always ask my agency contacts to come work from our office, for two reasons.
- Working in our environment, they understand our needs quicker. Closer collaboration minimizes misunderstandings.
- The knowledge stays within the company. Learning from agency specialists increases the competence level in my whole team.”
Regardless how good your agency is, they don’t know your business and your customers as well as you do.
“Constantly test and explore different solutions to keep your experiences up to date. Remember that your agency probably works with a lot of other partners and even brands in the same business as yours. They might be able to provide valuable insights and perspectives. However, also keep in mind that there are no guarantees that what works magic for other brands will work for you.” -Simon Liljenäs, Daniel Wellington
Agencies like savvy buyers
I’ve heard people say that agencies don’t like to be challenged. That they prefer to set the agenda without too much involvement from pesky clients. This is not my experience, at least not from good agencies. The best agencies like to work with savvy media buyers.
A client that understands the operation is more likely to set a reasonable (if more challenging) agenda. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and create better KPIs that are relevant to the agency and the business, leading to better results and a better relationship. As Michael Taylor, co-founder and COO of agency Ladder.io, put it: “All the best clients have the digital marketing skills to do the job themselves. They use an agency because they don't have the time. They know enough about what's going on to listen to us, and to challenge us. A savvy client is better to work with because even though their requests may stretch us to work hard, they usually make sense.”
He is seconded by Christoffer Lötebo (co-founder and CEO of agency Precis Digital): “As with all consultancy services, it’s important for the buyer to have competency internally. This allows for a much tighter collaboration.”
If you get the feeling that your agency dislikes questions and transparency, you might want to start looking for a new one.
2. Get the basics right
Before going to an agency, there are some things that should be in place. Before you go hiring a builder to start on your new house, you’d make sure that you have a blueprint for him to work from, right? How else would you be able to say “But you built a house with no door. Clearly the blueprint says there should be a way to get in the house.” In the same way, you should at least have an idea for tracking and measurement when you hire an agency. How else will you define what needs to be done, and how will you know if your agency is performing? Here’s how the experts recommend going about your digital marketing agency evaluation:
“If you want to spot a good media buyer, ask them to show you their UTM parameter tracking doc. Sounds obscure, but it's really a case of garbage in, garbage out. Whatever you put in the UTM parameters shows up in your analytics reports and in Funnel.io, so you need a strategy to get it right every time. If you aren't consistent with your naming conventions, you’re leaving yourself (and your agency) in the dark about what's really working and what to optimize to improve performance.” -Michael, Ladder.io
“Evaluate channels on same terms. Make sure you set and apply the same attribution and KPI’s on all channels - at least the ones who share the same purpose. It will be more difficult to compare your channels if they all have their own tools and attribution. And last click is not always the answer.” -Simon, Daniel Wellington
“KPIs should be set based on what the purpose of each activity is. It’s also very important that these potentially different KPIs are tied together to the top level, in order to secure that all activities are aligned with the overall goal of the business.“ -Christoffer, Precis Digital
And make sure that you follow up on the metrics you have decided upon.
“Setting clear goals regarding commercial investment, cost of sales and other KPIs is vital. However, setting goals will not automatically generate success. Making sure everybody is informed and work towards the goals is even more important. If you want to be on target, it’s really about following up, working hard, trusting (and using) data and exploring new and innovative solutions. Weekly agency meetings with a short and specific agenda is a great way of finding possibilities for potential improvement. Ultimately, details will be the difference between success and failure. Endurance and an adamant will to optimize is key.” -Viktor Sundberg, Stayhard
3. Compare agencies and individuals.
If you get the chance, take a meeting with that cool new digital marketing agency. This does not mean that you need to change partners all the time. But in their sales pitch, agencies usually present good ideas. They will probably ask questions that you cannot answer, and they might turn out to have a specialty that you have a use for. Even if this doesn’t make you change partners, it will force you to learn.
There are alternatives to the one-stop shop concept
Most media buyers use a single agency because it costs less and takes less effort. Before you decide on this course of action, ask around. Digital marketing is a wide concept. RTB, Branding, Paid Acquisition, Social Selling... the list goes on. No agency is the best at every aspect of this. More often, they are specialized in certain areas.
“I have long since given up on finding one agency that can do it all. I find agencies with different strengths and retain their services for part of my activities. I have one agency for automation, one for developing ad accounts, one for finding new channels. This costs me more up front than having one agency do it all, but the output is dramatically better. In the end, it has improved the ROI on my agency investment.” -Christos, iZettle
This is not a workable solution for everybody. There are many examples where one agency makes perfect sense. It depends on the scope of your digital marketing operation and the variety of your projects. Some very savvy media buyers have a different strategy, with one agency contact who is deeply involved in the business, and can pull in specialist resources when necessary.
“We prefer a single point of contact at the agency, but we do have a whole team at our disposal. At meetings our agency often includes specialists and partners.” -Viktor, Stayhard
Look to the individual
Who is the agency individual in charge of your account? Agencies, like all companies, are made up of people. Yes, an agency may have the best recruiting strategy, a kickass training program and the best automated buying tools. But in the end, performance depends on the individual that handles your account.
“I spend less time evaluating agencies and more time evaluating individuals. I find that I get very different results from Account Managers within the same agency. So I am always on the lookout for agency specialists with the right skillset and cultural fit with my team. I care less about which agency they work for.” -Christos, iZettle
If your Account Manager is not up to snuff, don’t be shy about asking your agency for a personnel change.
“You can’t be soulmates with everyone you meet. Sometimes you just don’t sync with someone and if that would be the case, it is important to talk to the agency and make the changes needed to the team.” -Simon, Daniel Wellington
The bottom line
Always evaluate and compare. Many media buyers put all their digital marketing eggs in one agency basket without the benefit of measurable results. Make sure that you are in control or you might end up in a bad situation with no way out.
This takes us to point #4.
4. Own your data
This is something we shouldn’t have to discuss, but time and time again I come across media buyers that that are running digital campaigns in an ad account that the agency owns. Some of these buyers don’t even have access to the ad accounts. This is bad for several reasons:
- If you don’t have access to the accounts where your campaigns are run, how can you evaluate the performance of your agency? You are now entirely reliant on information that they send you.
- If your agency owns your advertising account, your campaigns may be run in the same account as other agency clients. This shouldn’t happen, but it I see it too often for comfort. First, this means that you might be negatively impacted by other advertisers’ bad decisions. In some ad networks, a badly run campaign can impact the performance of the entire ad account. Second, it also means that you can never get access to this account because the agency is not permitted to share the other clients’ information with you.
- Finally, and this is perhaps the biggest point - what happens when you want to leave your agency? They own all your ad data. If they don’t agree to hand over ownership of the account, all your structure and historical performance is lost.
“Setting up an ad account under the ownership of an agency is basically setting yourself up to be blackmailed. If you want to leave the agency, you have to rebuild from scratch. You may have a great relationship now, but anything could happen. Relationships sour sometimes. The agency could go bankrupt. In the end, you are not in control.” -Christos, iZettle
So make sure that all your campaigns are run in advertising accounts that you own. The best media buyers also add a clause in the contract with their agency, saying that the client has full ownership of their ad data, and ensuring agency compliance in transferring data upon client request.
This ties into a bigger conversation around agency transparency being widely discussed in the industry. Display ad fraud and agency kickbacks have been prevalent in the industry and are hurting the trust between media buyers and agencies in general. Big advertisers are now pushing for greater transparency, something that would benefit the industry as a whole. If you want to read more on this, here’s a link to a great post from HubSpot, and another one from Media Audit.
Good agencies are completely transparent with their customers. They don’t need to hide any numbers in order to keep the business - transparency makes them shine.
“I’m a big fan of the client always owning their own data. Digital marketing is all about data and it must be a part of the client’s long term strategy to keep control and gain internal understanding. At the same time I don’t think it’s healthy from an agency’s perspective to build a long term business model that aims at capitalising on clients’ data.“ -Christoffer, Precis Digital
Control your data - but share it with your agency
Some media buyers are hesitant to share too much information with their agency. The typical example is holding back conversion data. When this is the case, your agency cannot optimize on actual results, but are instead forced to base their work on leading indicators. Digital marketing becomes a guessing game, when it should be science. Make no mistake - your agency will not perform if they do not have all the available data at their fingertips. Transparency works both ways.
“Not giving your agency access to all of your data is like shooting yourself in the foot while simultaneously blindfolding your doctor.” -Michael, Ladder.io
5. Push for testing, evaluation and change
Gone are the days when it was acceptable to keep last year’s marketing budget mix simply because you reached your target. Nothing will be the same as it was 12 months ago. Technology is evolving fast enough that the best marketers are in a mode of constant testing, trying new advertising channels, new ad formats and new creatives.
This brings us back to the importance of points 1 and 2. You need to know your digital marketing, and you need to have your basics in place. This takes effort, but believe me - it’s worth it. Because when you do, you are in control.
“Testing and evaluating is everything. Set a vision of how you wish your online ecosystem to work, and then test your way towards that vision. The online landscape is constantly changing and what was your golden egg yesterday may not be as effective today.” - Simon, Daniel Wellington
The great media buyers out there are constantly on the lookout for an edge against the competition. Finding the right agency might help you on the way there. Your agency probably works with some of the biggest brands and best media buyers. They are specialists in their respective areas in a way that you cannot be, working closely with representatives from all the big ad platforms. They can give you the best practices and they come up with great ideas. But that doesn’t mean that you can relax and let them take the helm. The best media buyers can often bring a perspective that the agency cannot. In effective agency/customer relationships, ideas come from both sides.
“I try to stand with one foot in future techniques and services. I regularly speak with our agency, as well as the big ad networks (Google, Facebook etc.), to present ideas that are not yet possible but seem to be natural developments in current services”. - Viktor, Stayhard
There should be science to every test
Testing is useless for it’s own sake. Before you ask your agency to try new things, make sure that you agree on a theory. Establish beforehand what success or failure looks like, so that you can act upon the result.
“Each test should lead to at least one action, so make sure you have clear targets.” -Simon, Daniel Wellington
Control vs trust
Finding the balance between control and trust can be tricky. You want to have a good relationship with your agency, and micromanaging will not help them perform. But you need to know what is going on. Without transparency, all you have is blind trust. In my mind, trust is earned. And good, measurable results will earn my trust like nothing else.
Media buying starts with control. If you can provide your agency with the right direction and a good way to measure results, they can do wonders for you. If you don’t know where to start - use our checklist to tick off in your quest to be one of the great media buyers.
Do you have any additional advice to offer? We’d love to hear your experience working with agencies.
Christos Stavropoulos, Head of Paid Acquisition, iZettle
Viktor Sundberg, Online Marketing Manager, STAYHARD
Simon Liljenäs, Online Marketing Manager, Daniel Wellington
Michael Taylor, COO & Co-Founder, Ladder.io
Christoffer Lötebo, Co-Founder & CEO, Precis Digital