What is a marketing agency and how do you choose the best one?

by | Branding, Commentary, Marketing


Identify & Differentiate

Let’s assume you’ve got some broad-based marketing challenges (increase sales, re-position your brand, redesign your website or all of the above) and you’re on the hunt for some outside help.

Not only do you need to make a decision on the kind of help you need (identify), but also it’s in your best interest to choose the best possible partner (differentiate).

So let’s start with identification. ‘Marketing Agency’ is a broad, blanket term that could cover the whole industry. For the sake of relevance, it helps to narrow the field with a simple definition:

A marketing agency or marketing company is a business responsible for research, analysis, strategy, branding and promotion of products or services.

Some key marketing company activities consist of persona development, campaign delivery, advertising, discovering pain points and revealing motivations for a target audience with respect to a client’s product or service. And growth (in some capacity) is the primary motivation for hiring a marketing agency.

The thing with most agencies is they have a customer centric perspective and work independently from their clients. And this is an important function. Independence facilitates focus on target audiences rather than the internal perspectives of the company. Think of it as a firewall that allows an outside, objective view of the challenges at hand.


Marketing agency vs Marketing company

Marketing companies are referred to as agencies because they have evolved from ad agencies. Ad agencies were referred to as agencies and not companies because beginning in 1893, the American Newspaper Association recognized agency commissions of 15% and these commissions would only be available to agencies and not the advertisers. The advertiser was unable to buy advertising space directly at this 15% discounted rate and thus became the advertising agent’s client. Much like a real estate agent who works on commission, the ad agency is acting for or in place of their client when purchasing the advertising space. This 15% commission covered the costs and supplied the profits for the agency.

The 15% commission system survived in the U.S. until 1956, when the U.S. Department of Justice abolished the system. U.S. Advertisers are now able to buy media at net rates.

Many people searching on Google (maybe that’s you) are looking for a marketing company, and yet most of the companies they are searching for still refer to themselves in the industry as agencies. Today, the terms ‘marketing company’ and ‘marketing agency’ are both correct and mean the exact same thing.


Marketing agency vs Marketing firm

Another popular search term to describe a marketing company is a marketing firm. The term marketing firm is not as widely used as marketing company or marketing agency because a firm generally denotes a smaller company such as sole proprietorships or partnerships. Accounting companies or consultancies are commonly referred to as firms.


So what does a marketing agency do for its clients?

With over 10 thousand marketing agencies in the United States alone, it helps to bucket agencies into general categories to identify what agencies do for clients.


Typical Marketing Agency Services



Market research is key to making better business decisions, avoiding costly mistakes. Market research is comprised of 2 main categories: Primary and Secondary research.

Primary market research is research that is gathered first hand from individuals in order to answer a specific question. Popular methods for gathering primary research are:

  • Surveys
  • Focus Groups
  • Interviews
  • Observations
  • Experiments

Secondary market research is research that is collected from sources that already exist. The researcher compiles this research from various sources and applies the information and knowledge to support informed problem solving and decision-making.



Marketing strategy is the why behind the plan. Strategy is based on research, experience, knowledge and wisdom. All successful marketing efforts are backed by a solid marketing strategy. The right marketing strategy will align and support specific business goals and objectives. A marketing strategy must precede marketing plans and marketing tactics.



A brand is an identifying mark or collective impression on those who come in contact with a company and/or its products or services. Branding is the act of positioning, creating an identity, messaging and setting standards.



Graphic design is the use of images, typography and design elements to communicate visual concepts.



Website design combines a variety of skills and disciplines. These areas include graphic design, interface design, cascading style sheets, HTML coding, User Experience (UX) and SEO (search engine optimization).



Content writing is typically content written for digital inbound campaigns. The content is written with SEO, engagement and conversion goals in mind. Content writers format their writing for channels and platforms such as blogs, social networks, native article content and gated assets like whitepapers.



Search Engine Optimization or SEO is the formatting and production of content with the purpose of driving traffic to a digital property from a search engine results page or SERP. Content that is optimized for search will rank higher than non-optimized content. Content that ranks higher in a SERP receives more clicks and therefore drives more traffic. SEO is described as organic because the results are not directly paid for.



Search marketing is when you pay to have your results (ads) displayed among the organic (unpaid) results of a search engine results page. Search marketing is almost exclusively ppc or pay per click advertising. PPC means you only pay when someone clicks on your ad. Cost per click prices are set through and auction and the costs per key per keyword varies greatly depending on who you are bidding against.



Social media marketing is the paid and unpaid marketing specific to social media channels. Social media campaigns generally perform at their highest when they are shared by your target audience so native articles with engaging, share worthy content can help deliver optimal results. Content can be boosted with paid reach and ads can be purchased on a pay-per-click (PPC) or display basis.



Email marketing involves the capture (opt in) and delivery of email messages to your target audience. Capturing emails generally involves an incentive or value exchange on behalf or the business and the prospect. Whitepapers and other gated assets or offers are examples of incentives in exchange for your email address. Once the prospect has opted in and provided permission to receive emails, the company then delivers messaging in the hopes that this prospect will eventually convert into a paying customer. Email is also an effective channel for reducing churn or increasing retention.



Inbound marketing happens when consumers are actively search for solutions and content is created to meet those inbound needs. Content marketing is a subset and is the lifeblood of inbound marketing.



Traditional advertising refers to mass media formats that include newspaper, television, print media, radio and billboards. These advertising formats dominated before digital media. Traditional media is often more expensive in larger markets than digital, easier to place and more regulated.



Public relations is a strategic communication process that promotes a business via unpaid or earned methods. This process builds mutually beneficial relationships.


How do you choose the best marketing agency?

Now that you have deeper understanding of what a marketing agency is, what goes into the decision to select the best fit? There are a host of factors here, both objective and subjective, so the decision could seem complicated. But it doesn’t have to be.


To evaluate, differentiate

The best way to choose the best marketing agency for your unique business challenges is to evaluate through a comparative lens. There are many great agencies out there, but not all of them will be the right fit.

When doing your research, consider a few differentiating factors:

  • Can they show me examples of great work?
  • Can they provide case examples that demonstrate successful growth?
  • Do they demonstrate categorical experience that is relevant to my business?
  • Do they have a chemistry fit with our company?

The answer to this final question may not be immediately obvious. Like any relationship it will only be realized through a period of discussion and discovery. But it is perhaps one of the most important success factors.

At the core, your relationship with your agency needs to be one that fosters mutual trust so that you’ll both in the right headspace to tackle the marketing challenges ahead.

The bottom line?

Of course you want any agency that can deliver on your specific needs. But you also want an agency you want to spend time with.


Steve Lee

Director, Digital Strategy

Steve is a high-impact digital strategist with a creative yet systematic nature. He optimizes the performance of all things digital to successfully connect people with relevant communications at scale.