Hiring a marketing agency is one of those things you need to get right.

Whether you’re a small business in need of an expanded creative team or an established brand that needs a lead generation lift, hiring a marketing agency is a great way to get the help you need. But with so many out there, how do you choose the best marketing agency?

There’s no magic answer, unfortunately. But asking these 10 questions during the sales cycle will help you find the best fit.

Picking a marketing agency? Don't forget these 10 questions.

Ask The Agency: What Is Your Specialty?

The best marketing agencies specialize. Even the seemingly “general” ones have a niche.

The first thing you need to look for when hiring a marketing agency is whether it is primarily focused on B2B companies or consumer businesses. It takes a different approach, mentality and skillset to succeed in either case – a good B2B marketing strategy is nothing like a B2C ad plan.

Business-to-consumer marketing tends to be more transactional (“Buy now!”) and purchases based on emotional decisions. Business-to-business marketers often battle long sales cycles, multiple influencers and purchases based squarely on ROI. Obviously, the approaches to branding, analytics and design are wildly different.

In your initial inquiry or RFI, go beyond just asking if a potential agency is B2B or B2C. Ask what percentage of their business is B2B vs consumer. To verify the answer, see how long they’ve had their focus by hitting the Wayback Machine to see how the agency positioned itself three, five and 10 years ago.

Ask Yourself: What Do I Need from an Agency?

Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you need your agency partner to do. An ill-defined scope leads to misaligned expectations and disappointment.

Do you need a full-service team that can cover several aspects of marketing, or just one very specific skillset? This is a huge consideration as you don’t want to over-buy or hire an agency that can’t do what you need.

Are your needs focused more on finding needles in haystacks within niche markets, or pure lead volume? Do you need help with marketing automation and analytics? Are you in a complex, highly regulated industry?

The best engagements start with a clear understanding of client needs and a smart division of labor.

Ask Them: What’s Your Culture Like?

“Fit” is critical to the success of any agency-client relationship – and that starts with culture.

A great way to size up the culture of an agency is to hit its Facebook and Instagram pages. Is it pure self-promotion, or a reflection of a happy team enjoying their work? Engaged employees are more motivated to do great things for clients.

Ask for a description of the culture at the agency and specifics of how that culture is manifested. Most won’t see this line of questioning coming; that kind of unscripted insight will help shine a light on whether your teams will work well together.

Ask Them: How Transparent Are You?

Early in the vetting process, ask about analytics and reporting – what you get and how often you’ll get it. The more transparent your agency is, the more informed you’ll be and the more successful you’ll be together. Having a transparent agency partner – one who is not afraid to share all the data in a meaningful way – will help ensure the success of the engagement.

Here’s a rule of thumb for agency reporting: PowerPoints filled with copy-and-pasted charts and bullet points are worthless. They’re open to manipulation and cherry picking. Demand a 24/7 dashboard approach with data flowing in via API and other non-human connectors. If a marketing agency wants to show you anything less than the unvarnished truth, they’re not a fit.

Ask Them: How Do You Communicate with Clients?

Insufficient or ineffective communication is a top reason agency-client engagements go south. So when hiring a marketing agency, ask about the communication process.

Ask Everyone: How often and what type of communication you can expect?

Will you exclusively have access to an account manager? Or is there a primary point of contact and secondary contacts with whom you interact directly?

Depending on your needs, you may want daily interactions. For others, a monthly status update may be fine.

Ask Them: How Much Experience Do You Have?

If the agency knows your space, or can draw a close parallel, they will be able to ramp up marketing efforts quickly.

Do they have direct or tangential experience in your industry or selling into the type of buyers you are going after?

During the initial calls, see if they speak your industry’s language or if they can share a few stories that gives you confidence they get your space.

Ask Yourself: What Is the Buying Experience Like?

When shopping for an agency, take in the entire experience – and compare this to your needs.

For example, if you are looking for help with SEO, paid digital advertising, marketing automation, copywriting and creative, assess how the agency did with its own marketing to you.

How did you find them? What happened when you hit the website? Was the messaging clear and on point? Were you retargeted and put in an email follow-up? Did someone reach out within a day or two to follow up?

If this happened, and these are some of what you need from an agency, that’s a pretty good sign.

Ask Everyone: What About Money?

Budget should be one of the first qualifiers when hiring a marketing agency.

Money is one thing people have a very hard time discussing. Don’t invest in two or three calls, internal debriefs and back-and-forth emails before getting a sense of what the engagement will actually cost.

Some agencies won’t let you in the door unless you are dropping $100,000. Others wouldn’t know what to do with that budget. Get a clear sense of the economic arrangement (retainer, project, combination), fee ranges and how change orders and overages are treated. You never want to get a surprise bill at the end of the month.

Ask Them: Do You Have References?

Testimonials and case studies are great, but there’s no substitute for talking to a few references.

Don’t be too general in your questions. Ask specific questions that get at the marketing agency’s transparency, communication, experience, and focus. Ask about a time when the engagement hit a bump – and how the agency responded. Repeat the same questions with a second reference so you can see if you get consistent responses.

Hiring a Marketing Agency: Conclusion

At the end of the day, your marketing agency should be a strong, flexible partner that brings you real value. They should be solving problems for you – not creating any. If you keep these points in mind, you’re almost certain to land a great marketing partnership.