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One business cliché just never stops ringing true: customers are the lifeblood any business. Acquiring and retaining new customers should be a top priority for all business owners. But if you’re running your own business, sometimes you don’t have the time to prioritize marketing the way you’d like to.

Are you feeling overwhelmed by all that marketing entails in 2023? It comes as no surprise, since the range of skills and knowledge required for successful marketing is enormous: SEO, web design, content writing, graphic design, marketing strategy, analytics, and more. The list goes on and on.

Since successful marketing demands so many different skills, many business owners turn to professional business marketing services. Outsourcing your marketing efforts can provide many benefits, including precious time to invest in other areas of your business.

However, hiring a marketing service isn’t a simple process and it requires due diligence. Many marketing firms and agencies offer inferior services. This could be because the person assigned to your account is inexperienced, or maybe their best people are overworked.

Unfortunately, we’ve had personal experience with poor business marketing services.

When we were just starting out with our businesses Evercore and ActiveAtoms, we hired Marketing360 based on overwhelming positive reviews from TrustPilot and a knowledgeable-sounding salesman.

They promised many things over the phone that they simply didn’t deliver.

The agency promised to start our project within two weeks. Two months later, nothing had been done.

After fighting them with the credit card company, we eventually lost $2500 to them without a single thing being done for us.

There were two important lessons to be learned from this frustrating experience.

Lesson one: Always be extremely careful when hiring external help. Just like people, companies can have all kinds of different motives, ethics, and abilities. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to carefully evaluate all potential business agreements.

Lesson two: Always have a written contract that clearly outlines everything that will be performed, in what amount of time, and for what rate. Having an iron-clad contract will protect you if things come to a dispute.

Our story is not unique. Many small businesses have lost time, money, and energy to business marketing services that did not hold up their end of the deal.

Here at Atomic Digital, we want you to benefit from our experiences. We’re here to help you find the right company that will help you take your business to the next level, not add to your frustrations. Continue reading for a step-by-step guide to hiring a legitimate marketing service.

Step 1: Determine the Type of Marketing Service You Need

First, you should know that there’s a difference between a marketing firm and a marketing agency. This might surprise you, since the two terms are often used synonymously in conversation. However, when you’re starting the process of hiring a marketing service, it’s important to be clear on how the two differ.

A marketing firm is usually a smaller group of marketing professionals. Typically, a firm will specialize in one or two areas of marketing. A common example is a public relations (PR) firm, which typically only offers PR services.

A marketing agency typically provides a more comprehensive range of services. A marketing agency can help you with a wide range of tasks, including strategy assessment, SEO, advertising, PR, and more. Agencies often help businesses create an integrated marketing strategy, combining several marketing services to meet overall business goals.

Marketing Firms vs Marketing Agencies

Thanks to the rapid advance of digital marketing, some agencies are specifically branding themselves as digital marketing agencies. A digital agency tends to focus on the digital marketing elements of SEO, social media marketing, graphic design, website design/development, online lead generation, and more.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, it’s time to start thinking more deeply about what you’re looking to achieve with a business marketing service.

Step 2: Set Clear, Definable Goals for Your Business

Hiring a digital marketing service is major decision for any business owner. Not only are you investing money into their services, but you are creating an important business relationship. In order find the right company and create a positive working relationship, you need to contemplate what you’d like to accomplish with a business marketing service.

Are you just looking for someone to take over your pay per click (PPC) advertisements or improve your SEO rankings? Or are you looking for a service to help you restructure your marketing strategy and implement tactics for you?

Marketing plans

If you’re able, write out a marketing plan. Be detailed. What marketing tools would you like to use? Which marketing tasks would you like the marketing service to take over? What, if any, marketing tasks will you or your employees continue to take care of?

Download our free marketing planning worksheet here to get you started.

Even if you’re not ready to write a marketing plan on your own, at least define what you want the marketing service to help you accomplish. Do you have a goal to generate a certain number of online leads per month? Do you want to drive newsletter sign-ups?

Regardless of where you are in your business’ marketing strategy, try to be as specific as possible. This information will not only guide your research process, but marketing services require this information in order to create pitches.

Step 3: Determine Your Role

Hiring a marketing service for your business will (hopefully) create a positive change in your role in the marketing process. After you hand off the marketing task(s) to the winning company, what would you like your role to be?

Are you hoping to pass along a clear plan, and then stay as un-involved as possible? Or would you like to be consulted at each stage of implementation? There’s no right answer, only the answer that’s right for you.

Think over what role you’d like to play in the marketing tasks you’re outsourcing. Just like the marketing goals in step two, it’s important to be confident in this before you begin talks with companies. The clearer you are, the better you can assess whether a firm or agency is the right fit.    

Step 4: Set a Budget

Believe it or not, there’s still more information you need to clarify for yourself before you can start the research process in full. That’s right, a budget.

Determine how much you’re willing and able to spend on marketing services.

Beyond that, make sure that your budget is appropriate for the amount of work you’d like to outsource. This might require a bit of industry research so you understand the price points for different marketing services.

business marketing

If the amount of work you’d like to outsource and your budget aren’t lining up, make adjustments one or both sides of the equation until both your goals and budget are realistic.

Of course, you don’t need to spend hours trying to guess the exact quotes these companies might present you with.  But if what you want and what you can afford are two very different things, it’s better to find out now and avoid wasting time on unfocused research. Speaking of research, it’s finally time to start seriously researching potential companies.

Step 5: Research and Create a Shortlist

Now that you’re clear on what you’re looking to accomplish with a marketing service and how, you are ready to start the research process. Below are some factors to help you refine your search.

Marketing Firm versus Marketing Agency

This is where the difference between a marketing firm and a marketing agency is crucial. Look at the goals you’ve created, and decide which type of marketing service will best fulfill those needs. 

Is your list quite short—one or two specific tasks you’d like taken off your plate? Then you’re probably looking for a firm, rather than an agency.

Are you looking for a company that can take over a wide range of marketing functions? Then you’re probably in the market for a marketing agency.

Do Your Due Diligence

As we discussed earlier, some marketing agencies or firms can waste tons of your time and money by making promises they simply can’t deliver on. Avoid these frustrations by doing your due diligence.

Remember, sales people are there to sell the company, not look out for your best interests. You can only rely on your own best judgement when it comes to making this important decision.

If you haven’t already, ask your colleagues, friends, and business contacts if they have any recommendations. An old-fashioned referral usually gives you a better understanding of a company than any amount of online research. A quick LinkedIn post is also an efficient way to get conversations started.

When collecting recommendations from people, try to find out if any of those firms or agencies offer referral fees or commissions. It’s important to know where a recommendation is coming from. Obviously, a good word offered without financial incentive means much more than a referral motivated, to any degree, by money.

Ideally, you can pose these questions to both the person giving you a referral and the company itself later on in the process.

If you can’t get a first-hand recommendation, read up on a company’s testimonials and reviews. Many companies will provide this on their website. If they don’t, you can see what customers have written on websites like Yelp, Google, and LinkedIn.

But remember, reviews can be manipulated, other people’s experience cannot always predict yours, and sales teams work hard to persuade you. As you collect your research, think critically about all of the information you come across.

Search by Specializations

Further refine your search by looking for companies that specialize in the exact services you want to outsource. After all, if you’re looking for email marketing services, you shouldn’t waste your time reading about companies that specialize in SEO with email marketing listed under a section labeled “other services.”

Additionally, look for companies that have experience with similar businesses. If a marketing agency mostly works with local brick-and-mortar businesses, they might not be as helpful marketing your online e-commerce business. Likewise, a firm whose client roster consists of Fortune 500 companies might not be the best fit for your small business. Look through an agency or firm’s portfolio to see if they are experienced with similar-sized businesses in your industry.

Finally, consider other relevant specializations or characteristics that can narrow your search. There are marketing firms/agencies that specialize in small businesses, e-commerce, and more. Maybe a company with a local office is more appealing to you. Think about what other traits your ideal marketing service would have, and search appropriately.

Examine their Digital Presence

While you’re visiting their websites, examine their own digital presence. Is their website well designed and user-friendly? What does their social media presence look like?

The question you’re really answering is whether or not they do a good job of marketing themselves. Think of their digital presence as an extension of their portfolio. After all, if they don’t market themselves well, how can you be confident they’ll market your business successfully?

Hopefully, all of this research has left you with a short list of potential business marketing services. It’s important to be thoughtful while you research, because as you’ll read in the next step, starting a conversation with these companies is often a formal process that takes time.

Step 6: Send Requests for Information

You’ve examined what you want to accomplish with the marketing service, done your research, and set expectations for yourself moving forward. Now, you’re finally ready to reach out to the companies on your short list.

 This can involve a fancy-sounding but straightforward process called a “Request for Information” (RFI).  Essentially, you need to send a document explaining a bit about your business, and ask the marketing company some introductory questions.

The kind of information that businesses request from agencies can vary widely. In order to streamline the process, the Data and Marketing Association (DMA) has created a standardized RFI template.

Their suggested template requests background information from you, the potential client. Fortunately, if you’ve followed the suggested steps so far, you’ll have most of this information at hand. They will ask you to provide the following information:

  • Background on the scope: what type of agency/firm are you looking to hire
  • Objectives: what are you looking to achieve
  • Scope of work: e.g. creative services, digital services, PR, etc.
  • Regions: e.g. Europe, United States, state/region-wide, etc.
  • Conflicts: competitor brands that the agency should be aware of
  • Budgets:
  • Timings: when you’d like a response, and when you’d like to schedule a chemistry meeting or pitch meeting

In return, the agency or firm will respond with their own information. The standard DMA request for information form requires that agencies/firms provide detailed information, including:

  • Background details: contact information, address, year of company registration, affiliations, areas of specialty
  • Financial information: operating profit and turnover rates from the last three years
  • Insurance, trade bodies, and policies: policies about quality management, equality and diversity, social and corporate responsibility, and more
  • Agency/firm experience and expertise
  • Top five clients
  • Percentage of annual income the company earns from different marketing disciplines (e.g. TV advertising, social media, PR, etc.)
  • Sector experience: recent experience in the industry sector and target audience experience relevant to you

After you’ve collected this information from the companies on your shortlist, you can decide how to set meetings with your top choice(s).

Step 7: Meet Face-to-Face

If you’d like to start talking to people at your top choices, you can request a “chemistry meeting.” A chemistry meeting is a chance for you to meet with your potential new collaborators in order to answer some fundamental questions. Some of the questions you should try to answer in a chemistry meeting are:

  • Do I think these individuals and I will work well together?
  • Does this company seem credible?
  • Do the staff members have good team dynamics?
  • Do our values and/or priorities align?
  • Will they help my business be successful?

For examples of specific questions to ask the marketing staff, you can download our question checksheet here.

Remember, it’s extremely important to make sure you’re going into business with a trustworthy company that can accomplish your goals. As you ask questions and chat with the team, think critically.

business meeting in an office

After a chemistry meeting, both parties have the option to move forward to a pitch meeting. This requires the firm or agency to create and present a proposal in response to the information you’ve provided them.

This stage of the process is optional for both potential clients and the marketing firm or agency. As a business owner, you can decide for yourself if a time-intensive pitch process is worth it. This usually depends on the scale and scope of marketing work you’re outsourcing.

Step 8: Finalize the Details

                Finally, it’s time to sit down with the winning business marketing service and draw up a contract. Use the information gathered in steps #2 – #4 to get you started. Other important details to discuss with your new colleagues are:

  • Fee structure and pricing
  • Process: amount of your involvement, implementation steps, etc.
  • Team set-up: what staff members will work on what parts of your contract
  • Non-disclosure agreements: if applicable
  • Contract terms: length of contract, cancellation policies, etc.

Remember, a well-written, detailed contract is often the only thing protecting you if something goes wrong in the relationship. Make sure that your contract is comprehensive; don’t make assumptions about what is “already understood.” Always, always, always put it in writing.

Any reputable company will be happy put any verbal agreements into writing. If you meet any resistance, it’s probably a red flag.


In many ways, hiring a business marketing service is similar to hiring an employee. In order to find the best fit, you’ll need to invest a decent amount of time, effort, and thought. Practicing due diligence in the hiring process might require more of your time upfront, but can save you even more time, heartache, and money in the long run.

That thoughtfulness and attention to detail shouldn’t end once you’ve signed the contract, either. Communicate your needs and expectations clearly throughout the process, and you are far more likely to have the happy, productive relationship you are hoping for.

Are you ready to begin the search? Download our marketing strategy worksheet and question checksheet to help you get started.

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