Everything You Should Know Before Hiring a Content Marketing Agency

Hiring a content marketing agency can be scary as hell.

I know because I’ve been on the other side of the table.

I’ve been the one talking to agencies, holding a bag of money, trying to decide where to place my bet. It was nerve racking.

Every agency promised me the world. But I knew most of them were full of shit.

So, when I started Optimist, I decided one thing right out of the gate: We wouldn’t bullshit anyone.

We wouldn’t sell magic solutions to nonexistent problems or push our services on people unless we could really help them.

The one thing I know for sure about Optimist is that we’re not the right partner for everyone. And we try to be as upfront and transparent about that as possible.

Of course, there are many facets of a client-agency relationship that determine if it’s a good fit. Some of it’s tactical or strategic. Other aspects are gut–instincts.

In this article, I’m going to try my best to explain all of the nuances you should take into account before you hire an agency. Hell, I’ll even tell you why you shouldn’t hire us.

This is a tell-all. Let’s have some fun.


Self-Evident Truths of Content Marketing

Let’s kick this off by setting the record straight on a number of things.

Before you hire an agency, you should have a firm understanding of these concepts related to content marketing, SEO, and the effectiveness of either.

I’m calling these “self-evident truths” because they’re sort of like the bill of rights for content marketing or the laws of physics or something–they’re true even when it’s inconvenient.

These are just realities of the world that we live in and we must all accept a universal reality about the context of content marketing in order to make sure that we’re speaking the same language with regard to what we want and what we’re doing.

1. Content marketing won’t generate results overnight

Any agency that promises you otherwise is bullshitting you.

2. Effective SEO can’t be bought or sold as a one-off service

If “SEO stuff” is just a line item in your invoice, chances are you’re getting ripped off.

3. Long-term SEO is driven by content

The only solid strategy for winning in a competitive SEO space is to invest in creating long-term brand value through content marketing, PR, etc. One-off linkbuilding campaigns may have their place, but they’re not a long-term solution. No amount of on-page optimization will work on its own.

4. Blackhat tactics are useless and/or dangerous

Google will win. Play the game or get ejected. It’s only a matter of time.

5. “Blog and pray” isn’t a strategy

If your plan for content marketing ends with you clicking publish and sending out a tweet to your 200 followers, don’t expect much to happen.

Are we speaking the same language? Good deal.

Let’s move forward onto the actual decision-making process.

In-house vs Freelance vs Agency

Have you already decided for sure that you’ll be going with an outside agency? Feel free to skip ahead.

If not, let’s take a step back and talk about the options you have for creating and executing a content marketing strategy.

You have basically three options:

  1. Build/hire/assemble an in-house content marketing team
  2. Find/hire/contract a group of freelancers
  3. Hire a content marketing agency

It’s possible for you to choose some combination of these approaches, but, for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that your choice is between just these three options.

Of course, each one has its benefits and drawbacks.

Let’s See if We’re a Fit

Here’s where I’m supposed to try to get you to download some kind of checklist or ebook or white paper about “choosing the right agency” that is actually just a thinly-veiled sales pitch.

How about we skip that part?

If you’re considering hiring an agency, drop me an email. I’ll give you an honest assessment of what you need and who might be a good fit. No bullshit, no hard sell (trust me, I’m not really a salesman anyway).

Tyler Hakes
Strategy Director & Principal

Here are some considerations you should make before choosing which way to go:

Key questions:

Do you have time to manage a team?

Any content marketing worth doing is going to have a lot of moving pieces. If you don’t have the capacity to manage a team of people to do the work and keep things moving forward, that will make either hiring in-house or building a team of freelancers incredibly difficult.

Do you have the experience/expertise needed to vet and hire the right talent?

In the case of either hiring or contracting with freelancers, you and your team will be responsible for finding and vetting the talent that will lead and execute your content marketing.

This means you must have some level of knowledge or expertise about the skills and experience you need on your team.

How quickly do you want to be executing?

Compiling a team takes time. If you’re in a hurry, hiring an agency can be a quick way to build out an operation and get things going.

Do you have the budget to hire all of the specialists you need?

On the outset, hiring an agency to handle your content marketing can seem pricey (we look for engagements of $10,000 per month). But, if you consider the cost of hiring a team of 3-5 full-time specialists to build your own team, the cost to hire will quickly outpace the cost of an agency.


The Agency’s Role

One of the most important considerations to take into account when you want to hire a content marketing agency is the role you want them to play within your organization.

Not all content marketing agencies are structured in the same way or set up to serve the same role.

If you look at Optimist, we work as a full-service team, owning your content from ideation and planning all the way through to distribution and outreach.

We like to run fairly autonomously, with one or two main points of contact within an organization. We prefer to steer strategy and work as a partner, possibly within a roster of agencies that provide various services.

But this isn’t the case for some firms.

Others may be focused on just providing production help or prefer to operate at the executive level. You’ll need to make sure that the role you want the agency to play fits with how they’re structured and how they operate best.

Key questions:

Who will lead strategy?

Without a strategy, you’re just creating a bunch of content that isn’t going to get you anything.

Whether it’s the agency or someone your team, you need to designate a person to lead strategy. This should be established early in the process and communicated clearly to everyone involved.

Is the agency good at strategy or focused on production?

Depending on the structure of your agency, they may be primarily focused on strategy, production, or both.

We’re not good at playing the role of a production house. Our team is not built to be efficient or cost effective at simply content creation–we’re built to run the entire operation in collaboration with a marketing director, CMO, or CEO.

Other firms may be better suited to just provide production help, where multiple people within your organization feed their needs to an account manager and the agency fulfills based on your needs.

Determine which kind of agency you’re working with and if that’s the right fit.

Who will they work with from your team?

Define the points of contact for your agency partners in advance and communicate that clearly.

Sometimes an engagement looks much different if it involves reporting to the full board versus working with just a marketing director or CMO.

Will they work with other external partners?

You might also want to consider how they will work with other partners or agencies.

Unless the content marketing firm you choose is “full service” in the broadest possible sense, you may need to find extra help for things like day-to-day social media management or other ancillary marketing tasks.

Optimist works this way. We understand social and help clients with it to some extent. But we aren’t a social agency. If you need help managing accounts, you’ll want to bring in another partner and then we can work directly with them to keep things moving.


Goals vs Capabilities

If you’re looking to invest in content marketing, you should be considering how those efforts are part of your larger marketing and business strategy.

Depending on your business, industry, and goals, a content marketing engagement can take one of many different forms.

If you’re primarily concerned with building sustainable growth through search channels (SEO), then you’ll need a strong framework for how to increase domain authority and monitor SERP progress for key search terms and phrases.

Some content marketing agencies are good at this role–others are not. This kind of execution is not as simple as creating and publishing content. It requires broader strategic planning and plenty of manual execution to generate the results that you need.

But that’s really just one example of how an agency’s capabilities will directly correlate with their ability to meet your goals.

There are many roles to be filled with a content marketing team. Which ones does your agency have?

Key questions:

How will you make sure your content marketing strategy is aligned with business goals?

Ultimately, your content marketing activities have to roll up into your actual business goals.

Website traffic, engagement, etc are not real business goals. These are metrics that can point toward success, but you have to have a clear vision for how your business goals are aligned with the metrics. Then you have to make sure that the activities you’re doing are working toward those goals.

What metrics will you use to measure success?

Someone’s got to keep score. You’ll need to have some clearly defined metrics that will give you an idea of the progress you’re making and the value you’re getting from content marketing.

What are the roles within the team and what will they be doing?

If one of your goals is to build domain authority, but no one on the content marketing team is actually working toward meeting that goal, then it probably won’t happen.

You need to make sure that the agency you work with has the proper team in place to do the work that needs to be done in order to meet your actual goals.

What will happen if your goals change?

Does your agency have a way to change the team structure or adjust their approach if your goals change? Ask them how they’ll handle pivots in your goals and see if that actually means anything to what they do to help you.


Culture, Expertise, & More

So, we’ve talked through a lot of the strategic, tactical, and technical details about hiring a content marketing agency.

But what about the soft stuff?

The squishy, gut, instinct part of it?

It’s important. Because even in business, relationships aren’t all about numbers and spreadsheets. They’re about people.

So you should spend some time considering the cultural and expertise fit of the agency that you want to work with.

There are plenty of aspects to take into account here. And some of them will depend on your business, industry, and your own values. But there are a few standard questions you should consider when choosing a partner.

Key questions:

Does the agency specialize in your industry or business?

We can’t be experts at everything. So most agencies specialize in specific industries or business types.

Your agency doesn’t necessarily have to specialize only in your particular niche. But they should have spent some time thinking abut how content marketing works within your particular industry.

For instance, if you run an insurance company or a law firm, you’re probably not a good fit for Optimist.

It’s no offense to you–I’m sure you and your business are great. But, we have our areas of focus. It allows us to better target our planning and structure our team to meet the needs of our clients (startups, SaaS companies, nonprofits, and creative/technical agencies).

But that means that some opportunities aren’t right for us and we have to turn then down.

Luckily, there are plenty of other content marketing firms out there. And no doubt some of them are a great fit for insurance or legal industries. Find the right fit for your needs.

Are they capable of becoming subject matter experts?

Depending on your specific business and your industry, market, or niche, it may be tough to find an agency that’s capable of truly owning your content in its entirety.

If you work in an especially complex field or speak to a very specialized audience, you’ll want to carefully consider the experience and the abilities of the content marketing team.

They don’t necessarily need to be experts in your field right from the outset. But see if they have a history of being able to learn and master new industries. This will show their capabilities to meet your needs.

Are they excited about your business or your industry?

When you hire a company to do something for you, passion matters.

You don’t want a bunch of people who do the work like it’s a chore–just something they have to do to get paid. You want people who are excited and energized and celebrate like hell when they score a big win for your company.

Your agency should have a team that wakes up with a passion for the work they do and is excited about helping your company succeed.

What is the agency culture like?

A big part of your team’s excitement and effort is based on the culture of the agency that you choose to work with.

In order to be excited and engaged, the people at the agency should be part of a team where they feel valued and respected.

The culture of the agency matters a lot. If you hire an agency that treats all of their employees like shit, you can expect shitty work.

I’m not going to tell other agencies how to run their operation. But, I can tell you–as someone who has worked for agencies–that many of them do not live up to their reputation for fostering and rewarding creativity.

Do their values align with yours?

A big part of any business relationship is shared values. This can mean a lot of different things to different people. But, at its most basic, you want to work with people whose priorities match up with yours–whether that’s profits, efficiency, speed, quality, equality, or some other intangible.

This may seem a bit superficial, but people who work together and hold radically different values are almost predestined to butt heads. Those differences in worldview that seem irrelevant to the work at hand can become showstoppers later in the relationship.

Plus, life’s too short to work with assholes.

Do their incentives align with yours?

Anytime you hire an agency, you want to be sure that your incentives are aligned with their incentives for keeping you as a client.

In some cases, this means a pay-for-performance model. But it doesn’t have to.

What’s more important is that the relationship is structured in such a way that your agency has a vested interest is helping you achieve your goals. Those specific goals may change, but your agency should always be an ally first and foremost.

At Optimist, we try to accomplish this with our open retainer model. We collect a flat fee for work completed each month, but clients aren’t signed to multi-month deals. With 30 or 15 days notice, they can cut us at any point.

That means that every month we have to earn your next month’s business. Or we could be out.

This is important because we want to foster long-term relationships with each client. We want them to see immediate value in what we do and also have the patience to see the value that we can create over months and years of working together.

But this is really important because it forces us to be honest and transparent with our clients. If we tell them things will work like magic in the first month and then fail to deliver on that, we’ll basically be screwing ourselves.

So, instead, we create relationships built on trust and understanding–setting clear expectations and delivering on what we promise. In that way, our incentives align with theirs and we become an ally rather than an expense.

That seems pretty important.

All illustrations in this post courtesy of Freepik:

“Hand drawn workplace of a blogger background”

“An oil lamp hand drawn”

“Colorful hand drawn modern city background”

“Analytical and creative brain”

“Background of styling hand drawn watercolor vintage bicycle”

“Facial tattoos”

Tyler Hakes

Tyler is the strategy director and principal at Optimist. He's been helping helping startups, agencies, and corporate clients achieve growth through strategic content marketing and SEO for over ten years. These days it's hard to find him anywhere as he nomads around the globe, but when you do, he's probably iterating on research strategies to better serve Optimist clients.