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Hiring an Agency of Some Kind Is Inevitable as You Grow — These Are My Insider Recommendations For a Successful Agency Relationship. For many entrepreneurs, hiring an agency — whether it's a PR agency, a branding agency or a sales training agency — is new ground. I've been in your shoes and I've worked on both sides; these are my suggestions to find the right agency partnership.

By Tara Coomans Edited by Kara McIntyre

Key Takeaways

  • Before you reach out to an agency, be prepared to identify a few things internally, including your budget, end goals and capacity to work with an agency. Identify your internal KPIs as well and create a list of questions you plan to ask.
  • Have everyone on the selection team create a 3x3x3 selection matrix. Read on to learn what this matrix is.
  • Ask the right questions to maintain your relationship.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As your business grows, you may hire an agency — a PR agency, a branding agency or a sales training agency. For many entrepreneurs, this is new ground. You may find it difficult to differentiate between your choices, and even after you have confidently hired the right group of experts for you, you may wonder how you can get the most out of your investment.

I've been in your shoes. I've hired agencies, collaborated with almost every type of agency and been an agency founder twice. At each phase, pre-selection, selection and implementation, these are my insider recommendations to elicit a successful agency relationship.

Before you even start your search

It may surprise you to hear that some of the most important work starts before you ever conduct outreach to the first round of agencies.

Be prepared to identify a few things internally, including your budget, end goals and capacity to work with an agency. Identify your internal KPIs as well. You might not know how a particular agency will report, but if you can share your own measurements, it's an important step toward success.

I commonly hear people say they don't want to share their budget. We always have it on our first call because you could waste your time with agencies outside of your budget; I think this is an important discussion. If you don't know what an agency costs, a quick Google search can help you. If you really think your budget is so huge that you're afraid sharing it will cost you more than you need to spend by disclosing it, then one way to get around this is to share your mid-tier budget.

Your end goals could include business goals and agency goals. It's important to share why you're hiring an agency, because it really helps an agency plan whether they would be an effective partner; agencies don't want to fail either.

Also, create a list of questions you will ask. I personally think many people focus on the wrong questions and everyone asks the same ones, so the answers are easy.

Instead, dig deeper with questions like "What challenges do you think we will have reached our goals with an agency?" "What are the characteristics of your favorite clients?" and "What do your average clients pay?" This last question about the agency's average client is important for an easily overlooked reason: you do not want to be the smallest budget at an agency. Ideally, your budget is at least in the top twenty percentile or higher of the average client; the top clients get the top team talent and the top service.

You will have others, like the makeup of the team, past success and the like, but think about probing deeper right away on the first call. It will really help you narrow down your choices. You should also identify how you will evaluate your top three agencies. What are the top three characteristics upon which you will make your choice? This will inform your selection matrix.

Choosing your agency: Combining intelligence and instinct

As you narrow your search down to the top three agencies, you will find yourself trying to determine the differences. I first recommend having everyone on the selection team create a 3x3x3 selection matrix.

In the A column, list three major considerations of your choice. Across the top row in columns B-D, are your agency names. Here's where it gets interesting. Each person on your selection committee will weigh each of these considerations, with 3 being the most important to them, and 1 being the least important to them. For example, the CEO might weigh the budget the highest at three, but the person who will work most with the agency may weigh cultural fit the highest at three.

When you score each agency one through three in each category, you will use the multiple of each category times the score, then add up each score and you will have a clear winner.

You may rely on your gut a bit. Don't ignore that. The signals you're picking up could well show how you will work with the agency, and that's perhaps the signal you should give the most weight to.

Three questions that keep the agency relationship elevated

Now that you have selected experts to help you on your journey, remember: Everyone wants a successful engagement. Your agency is on your side. Each group is learning to work together, especially in the beginning. The initial phases of collaboration will set the tone. Presuming there isn't any reason to think otherwise, view your agency as the experts.

You may not be familiar with the latest data or trends driving an agency's recommendations. So, if something doesn't strike you as right or you don't understand a recommendation, you should absolutely ask for context rather than ask to change it. Instead of saying, "Please change it to … " switch the question to, "Please explain this choice to me." This question provides you both with an opportunity to learn from one another.

When a deliverable is nearing completion, especially when there has been a lot of back and forth, the last question before signing off should be, "In your professional opinion, what else should we change?" Sure, all along, your agency has provided its best professional advice, but sometimes when there are a series of exchanges and change requests from you — the client — to please you during a collaboration, they may have picked and chosen their battles. This question opens the door to the final bit of polish that could distinguish between excellent and remarkable.

If there is an issue, whether that be with the work or a shift in conditions that requires a pivot, my best advice is to view your agency as your solution partner. People who work in agencies are drawn there because they like making a difference. They want to make you happy. They thrive on this. You can trigger this instinct to work for you by taking a collaborative approach. Even if you're frustrated with the agency, asking your agency how they have dealt with this in the past and what steps each team needs to take to accomplish that fix will enable a productive outcome.

Hiring an agency is an enormous commitment, no matter your budget and what you're hoping to accomplish with it. Agency partnerships are frequently best when they are collaborative. Small steps can make a relationship even more productive and your outcomes more impactful than planned.

Tara Coomans

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of Avaans Media

Tara Coomans is an award-winning communication and public relations expert in emerging industries, fast-growing companies and purpose-driven brands. An entrepreneur for most of her career, she is a creative leader who elevates brands and people to their highest potential.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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