Choosing a marketing agency to help grow your business is a big decision. You want to be able to trust that these agencies are going to be able to perform and help you grow and not just take your money and not deliver. There are too many examples of agencies that sell you the dream, and months later, you’ve spent thousands with no return on investment in sight. 

Don’t get stung by bad agencies, here are some red flags to look out for to help you avoid making a decision you’ll seriously regret.

1 – The agency can’t show you proof of their results 

If an agency is as good as they say they are, they should be able to show you proof. It’s as simple as that. 

A lot of agencies claim they can’t show you stats or figures as it’s “commercially sensitive” information. However, there are simple ways to show you results of their performance using percentage increases across the account, without showing anything commercially sensitive. By not showing you any statistical information on increases in revenue, conversions, traffic or sales, there is no real track record of their success for you to trust in.

It also shows a lack of commercial thinking. For example, if you were to buy a luxury car but the attitude of the person selling you the car is that it just takes you from A to B, they’re not the right person to be selling you a luxury car. Their mindset is all wrong. The same applies here.

It tells you a lot about an agency if they’re not bright or clever enough to show you their results. After all, revenue generated and results are the most important thing. This is what will convince a client to trust an agency and have the confidence they will deliver.

2 – Complex systems for communication 

Complex ways of communication, or a lack of systems for communication altogether, should be a huge red flag for you. If in your meetings, they don’t highlight a good system for communication that works for you as the client, it shows how inflexible they are and how difficult they’ll be to work with or get a hold of when you need them. 

A lot of agencies will exclusively use platforms like Slack or a ticketing system to manage all communications. They will expect you to work around this and put all your requests and feedback through their systems, making it easy for themselves, but not for you.

This shows you that they’re inflexible. It also shows that they don’t understand the service economy and the point of a premium retainer. They want you to work around them and bend to their processes, whether it benefits you or not. Think about how many people get annoyed that they have to get their own cutlery in Nandos? But you can let that slide because it’s a relatively cheap meal, you’re not paying thousands of pounds for this.

Agencies should make it as quick and simple as possible for their clients to contact them and make requests. WhatsApp, for example, is the most popular mobile messenger app worldwide, with around two billion monthly active usersThere are also around 4.48 billion email users globally, and there are 6.84 billion smartphones in the world. Agencies, therefore, should be using WhatsApp, email or phone calls to contact their clients, as this is the predominant form of media that people use to communicate every single day.

If your agency is charging you thousands a month, and isn’t prepared to make communication easy for you, then they don’t understand the nature of a premium retainer and it’s going to lead to a service where expectations don’t meet reality. 

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3 – They can’t provide you with specific tactics and strategies

If an agency can’t provide you with specific tactics and strategies they’ll implement for your business on a sales call or meeting, this is a red flag. If you leave a sales call without a firm idea of what the agency would do for you specifically to reach your audience and promote your products or service, then you should reconsider progressing any further. 

For example, if you’re a furniture company, what specific things would they do to promote furniture companies and generate sales for your business? If the conversation is very generalised, for example, they just say ‘they’ll run ads’, but without any specifics around the creatives, targeting, CTA or specific campaigns or type of ads they’ll run, that means they don’t understand your needs, your company and your audience. 

For example, they need to build out top-of-the-funnel ads and retargeting campaigns as there is often a long consideration period when someone is purchasing a couch for say £2000. They’re probably not purchasing that on the first interaction with an ad.

You need to be aware of agencies that don’t have the dynamism, experience or creativity to explain what they can do for you, specifically.

They should be able to tell you relevant things about your business and their strategy for it on the call. If they’re not able to do that, they’re either ill-prepared for the call, which means they’ll probably be ill-prepared for your ad strategies, communications, reporting and campaign production down the line, or they just don’t have the experience to achieve results for your business. 

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4 – They do advertising but don’t provide ad creatives 

There are many agencies who say they run ads but tell the clients they have to produce their own creatives or create their own content. This is a cause for concern. The devil is in the details in terms of account set-up, targeting, creative, strategy and budgets, and all of this needs to work well to create a good campaign. So, if an agency offers to run your ads but won’t make the creatives, you’re just going to get a lazy out-of-the-box service that won’t work effectively.

Since the introduction of iOS 14 in 2021, ad creative has become the most important part of social advertising. Apple’s iOS 14 update wreaked havoc on digital advertising as it introduced a requirement for apps to ask for permission before tracking their activity across the web. This meant previous ways of targeting people were almost eradicated overnight. Any agency who is still running based on pre-iOS 14 principles, are using outdated methodologies and will run campaigns that fail.

Advantage+ and Performance Max are advanced AI-systems that do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. But one thing they can’t do is creative. The videos you create, the static imagery, the psychology of the layout and the design, colours and wording are all important in capturing your audience’s attention. The creative is the thing that draws the audience in and stops them from scrolling, so it needs to be attention-grabbing, it needs to provide them with all the details they need to convince them to take action by clicking through to the website or filling in a form. 

In an overcrowded online market where people are bombarded daily with ads for all different things, your ad creative is so important. It can make or break your campaign. So agencies that run ads should want control over this, as it’s so important to the success of the ads they run. No matter how good their targeting, optimisations or ad copy, if your creative is bad, people won’t stick around long enough to see anything else.

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5 – They’re a single-service agency 

There are a lot of agencies out there that pride themselves on being a single service agency, like social ads companies for example. This often means they have no experience in other areas of marketing, which means that your service is not going to be very commercially viable. 

The key to great marketing, is looking at all aspects of the bigger picture. These social ads agencies tend to only stick on Meta or TikTok, and don’t go off platform to review other statistics. The best marketers look at all platforms, including Google Analytics, Shopify, WooCommerce or Magento backend and review statistics that aren’t available simply through Meta Ads Manager. This is a crucial tactic when getting the best commercial value in scaling ads. 

For example, if you were to go into Shopify and see that over the last 30 days that you’ve been running ads, the traffic has gone up, and even though sales have gone up, the conversion rate has plummeted, there are answers there you can get for what to do next that Ads Manager simply can’t supply. 

By looking at Shopify or other platform data, you can see if ads are really performing well and  reasons for why they may not be getting the results you want. For example, the conversion rate could be low on the site. In this case, you would want to optimise the site to make it more user friendly and conversion rate optimised, so more of the traffic coming through the ads converts. This way a client won’t keep wasting money on ads, when in reality, the site it unfit for purpose and needs to be optimised to ensure maximum return on investment (ROI).

Agencies should be focused on getting you the best ROAS and ROI, no matter the strategy, and they can’t do this without the full picture. Those that won’t go near any other aspect of your marketing are more inclined to focus on traffic generated and click-through rates on ads. However, you could, for example, have a great click-through rate, but then when customers land on the site, the conversion rate of the ads is really low. Those two stats combined (high CTR + low conversion rate) would suggest the ads are misleading or that the website is just not performing. But you have to review the data to determine the reason for this.

Agencies that don’t do this could change a high-performing ad because they think it’s not converting when actually it’s because of the website and the ad wasn’t the problem, which could damage sales even further. 

Reportedly, around 60 per cent of all digital marketing spend is wasted. Businesses cannot afford this level of waste, so it’s important that you work with an agency that understands what leads to this, and to do this effectively, they need to be operating across several areas of marketing. 

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6 – Long-term contracts 

Any agency that tries to tie you into a long-term contract, demanding you sign up for six months or longer, is a huge red flag. These days, especially with the rising cost of living and rates of inflation, agencies should be able to offer you shorter, rolling contracts. If they prove their worth, you’ll want to keep the contract rolling. 

Any agency that’s confident in their abilities won’t feel the need to tie you into a long-term contract as they’ll let their results speak for themselves. So, if you’re presented with a 12-month binding contract when signing up for a new agency, run for the hills! 

7 – They use vague language or confuse you with terminology 

If, on the sales call, the language seems very vague or they seem to be trying to confuse you with a lot of marketing jargon, you should be wary of them. Lots of agencies use the tactic of bamboozlement – yes, that is a real word – where they try to confuse you with science or ‘clever’ terms. This is because they want to sound as if they know what they’re talking about, but also to confuse you so much it feels as if you need them as there’s so much you don’t know yourself. 

The point of marketing is that you should be able to take really complex products, services or information and make it simple for people to understand what it is and the benefits of this. If an agency can’t do that for their own service, then they don’t have a hope in hell’s chance of translating yours and marketing it to a wider audience, especially if it’s a particularly niche or complex product or service. 

If you’re coming off a sales call with an agency and feel like you didn’t understand what they were saying, or it’s unclear what they’re actually going to do for you, avoid this agency. 

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8 – The conversation is very much geared towards clicks, impressions and visitors

While clicks, impressions and visitors to your site are an important part of the marketing mix, they are just one small part. Ultimately, if the conversation isn’t being geared toward sales and how much revenue needs to be generated, it often means the agency isn’t focused on the right thing. 

With these agencies, after a month or two with no results, they’ll probably say things like ‘the campaign is still in learning’ or ‘we’ve got some really great traffic coming to the site’. Fundamentally, these aren’t what you’re paying for. 95% of the time, a company goes to a marketing agency to help them grow their business and their revenue. So, if on the sales call, there is a big onus on the top end of the funnel and the things that are at the beginning of the customer journey, but they’re not talking about conversion, that’s a big problem. 

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9 – They’re not asking you any questions about your business or your customers 

No one knows more about your business, your industry and your customers than you. As the client, you’re a hive of information. You know your customers, their gender, their general age, and why they need your product or service. You also know your market better than anyone, who your competitors are, what makes them good, and what makes them bad. You’re a well of information for the agency to dip into, and by asking you all these questions, they’ll get the answers they need and save themselves a lot of time. 

Many people on sales calls are just too focused on selling to you, so they don’t ask these simple questions. If an agency isn’t asking you any specifics about your business or clientele, it’s should set off alarm bells. Think about it like this, if you were interviewing someone for a potential role in your business and they didn’t ask any questions about your company or hadn’t done any prior research, it’d be a red flag, wouldn’t it? Why would that be any different for an agency that wants to take your money but doesn’t have any pertinent questions about your business, how you operate, or how you’ve generated money thus far to be able to pay for an agency now? You’ve done something right to get to where you are, so why would they not want to know what this is so they can industrialise on what you’ve done? 

There’s not always a need to reinvent the wheel. If what you’ve done is working, you can take existing methodologies and scale them and then add to them to maximise performance in new areas.

By not asking the client questions it’s a good indicator of the level of arrogance in the agency. These people probably think they know better than you, so any complaint you make or advice you try to provide, it will be greeted with an incredulous attitude.

10 – They’re quick to criticise everything that’s been done before them 

Some agencies are very quick to instantly criticise everything that’s been done before them, whether this be work from another agency or marketing you’ve done yourself as a business. Quite often, previous campaigns can have some good elements but they’re just not being run to the best of their ability and need some tweaks. 

There will be some cases where what has been done before is poor, in which case, it’s fair enough to point this out and explain why this is. However, if the performance of your business so far has given you the ability to afford an agency, it can’t be that bad.

Agencies sometimes use this tactic of saying how awful previous campaigns and work are to scare you into thinking you need them or to try to beat down the competition. However, if you’ve had a decent ROAS before, for example, and you’ve made good money but you just want to scale, then the likelihood is previous campaigns aren’t a complete disaster. 

Don’t let an agency gaslight you into thinking your business is in trouble. Be wary of agencies who use scare tactics to get businesses to believe there are massive problems, as this isn’t always the truth.

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11 – They’re unable to produce an integrated ad strategy

PPC and social ads also often go hand in hand. Nearly always, you should be running Google ads and social ads simultaneously. Agencies that can’t offer an integrated ad strategy are a red flag because these two platforms often work together to complete conversions. 

For example, a lot of your traffic could be coming from Google, but your conversions could mainly be coming through Facebook because you’ve set up effective retargeting campaigns using website visits. You can run display ads on Google to retarget people, but this only shows to them when they search the web, whereas Meta ads keep showing up even when they’re just casually scrolling social media, keeping your brand front of mind. 

Running Google ads alone means you’re leaving so much money on the table, as there are around 5.17 billion social media users worldwide, and the average person uses 6.7 different social networks per month. This is a huge audience you could be ignoring, and the average conversion rate on Facebook ads across all industries is reportedly around 9.21%. Similarly, Meta ads without PPC means you’re effectively only generating leads from one source and missing out on very highly convertible customers who are already searching for what you provide.

If you offer one of these services, you should be offering the other, and if an agency doesn’t, you should think twice about them. 

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The right agency can revolutionise your business

There you have it, my top 11 red flags to look out for when hiring a marketing agency. By sharing this information, you can prevent businesses from getting involved with bad or shady agencies that may do more damage than good!

Marketing is such an important tool in growing your business and your brand. A marketing agency is like an extension of your own business – they’re your partner.

A good marketing agency takes the time to get to know you and your business, they ask you questions, provide regular and easy communication, are open and honest about their strategies and performance and can show you proven results. They won’t tie you in with long-term contracts or try to confuse you with marketing jargon, and ultimately their goals should align with your own. By choosing the right agency you can revolutionise your business, maximise your revenue and achieve long-term success.