How to Know if Your Digital Marketing Firm is Helping or Hurting You

Consider this a warning. Your Digital Marketing firm could be hurting you and wasting your money even as they report increased traffic.

I know a lot of marketing managers and businesses have placed their trust (and hard earned money) in a digital agency, only to have their brands and conversion rates remain in mediocrity. I’ve seen small companies spend thousands of dollars trying to “increase conversions” and then realize that the numbers their agency reported were not matching with their GA-reported revenues.

I know because I’ve seen it on both the client side and as an Agency owner and Board member. I don’t want that to happen to you. I don’t want you to waste your money on poorly performing ad spend. Thus, I wrote this article so that you can figure out if your digital agency is doing good or doing harm.

The article is organized into three parts: First, I’ll explain how to know if they are hurting you. Second, I’ll explain how to know if they are helping you. Finally, I’ll explain a few things that will help you work with your digital agency in a profitable and efficient way.

Your Digital Agency is Hurting You: Signs They’re Doing it Wrong

So you hire a Digital Agency. Now what? They’re telling you they’re going to spend money on Facebook, Instagram, Adwords, etc and will hit your branding targets with no problem. They are so good that they’ll even send you a report once a week so that you can track their progress. They are transparent. They are focused on data. They are the best creatives.

Should you trust them with all things digital, expecting your engagement and conversions to rise as they work their magic?


Instead, you need to find out exactly what they are doing, especially during the first few months of the contract. The earlier you can find out what they are doing, the better chance you have of determining whether they are helping or harming your digital brand.

Here are the warning signs that your digital agency could be a problem.

1. Their reporting or dashboard tool only displays aggregate information, not daily trends.

Your Agency should have something to show you on a day to day basis and not an aggregate basis. I’m not talking about results or a rise in KPIs. Instead, the agency should be able to show you the actual optimization practices they are doing. For example:

Instead of being content with a monthly report that says: total Impressions, total Clicks, total conversions, total engagement, etc…A good agency should show you the top engagement KPIs on a day-to-day basis and explain the processes they’re using to optimize the campaigns on a day-to-day basis.

Two, three, or even four months into a contract will undoubtedly give you an increase in impressions, clicks, entrances, and engagement. However, you will never know if this is good enough or not.

You have a right to know what’s going on with your money so don’t be afraid to ask for the deliverables at a granular level instead of a high-level.

Here are some of the things that your digital agency might be able to provide in the first few weeks or months of a contract:

  • An audit of your current digital marketing data and practices.
  • A company-specific UTM builder, UTM library, and UTM naming convention.
  • A weekly data report with individual sections for recommendations and business impact of recommendations to discuss during your weekly meetings.
  • A digital dashboard focused on day-to-day trends that combine your channel performance with your web engagement performance.
  • Target KPIs for the first few months that you agree with to measure against their performance.

This is just a sampling. Whatever the case, you should make sure that they are actually doing something, and have proof of it.

2. They don’t ask you for anything.

A digital agency that’s doing good stuff is going to need your help. You’re the account owner so they might ask you for the following:

  • access to your CMS or CRM
  • View or admin access to Google Analytics
  • Access to Google Webmaster Tools
  • Access to social accounts
  • A list of customer personas
  • Raw data reports from your previous paid campaigns (not those created by your previous agency)
  • Access to your existing UTM library (CRITICAL!)

A good agency tries to link all of their paid activities with your website and access to these tools is critical for them. If they don’t even need access to them, there’s a chance they could be performing potentially harmful and ineffective actions.

3. They have no suggestions for improvements beyond their paid marketing channels

If your digital agency is not asking you or telling you to do certain things, it’s a sign that they are up to something suspicious — either that or doing nothing at all.

Disreputable Agencies just launch paid campaigns (with some creative work) and will focus on optimizing only those campaigns. They are not interested in interfacing with you, their client. Instead, they just want to give you a report that will make you think that you’re getting a benefit from their campaigns.

The best agencies view their relationship with you beyond their current responsibilities. In order for you to be successful, you’ll have to work with them beyond their current scope to ensure your entire customer journey is working well. That means they will make recommendations (not just based on their campaigns) but on the business impact as well. I’ll show you what kind of recommendations they could make later.

4. They can’t share their techniques

If you’re curious as to what your agency is doing — and should be — ask them.

“So, what is it exactly that you guys are doing?”

Any of these responses are glaring signals:

  • As a digital agency, we can’t give you admin access to your accounts.
  • Due to the nature of our industry, we’re not permitted to disclose our practices.
  • Well, we do a variety of things, but it involves basically optimizing your campaigns.
  • Oh, tons of things. It would take me too long to explain.
  • (My Favorite) — we’re focused on branding campaigns and decreasing your CPM

If you get an answer like that, I recommend firing the agency as fast as you can.

5. They can’t explain why your campaigns how low relevance scores

When you consider channels like Facebook, a good relevance score can say a lot about how you’re targetting your audiences. While it’s not a number that will guarantee the success of your campaign, any campaign below a relevance score of 3 should be explained by your agency. Failure to do so…is a bad thing.

day to day breakdown of bad relevance scores by # of active campaigns

It may or may not be your target demographics, experimentation, or creative but you need to know about it! The cautious response is to be suspicious and start asking questions as soon as any of your campaigns get a bad relevance score.

First, find out if they are running experiments with new demographics. Second, consider what creative changes were made to your ads in the days you’re getting a bad relevance score. Finally, get an accurate picture of the CTR interactions per demographic (starting with age and gender).

8. Your agency meetings focus on how great the results have been as opposed to what can we do together to keep improving.

You should have a good idea that if you pay someone, results need to improve. Wasting time on a meeting to discuss how great they are is a complete waste of time. Instead, you should continue to ask, what should we be doing to improve further. Only a great analytics report customized to your job will help you answer these questions.

Don’t let them get away with simply, we’re planning different creative from which we will target this segment. Take it a step further. Ask why they think that and see if they can back it up with clear data points.

Keep in mind that even a mediocre agency could increase your CTR and decrease your CPC in places like Facebook. You need to keep them honest and only those agencies that can point to concise data points will help you. Otherwise, they’ll either hurt you or waste your money.

Your Digital Agency is Helping You: Signs They’re Doing it Right

There are some good digital marketers out there. I hope you’re working with one of them. Here are a few of the reassuring signs that you’ve got a good digital partner.

1. They establish clear deliverables beyond their paid channels

A quality Digital Agency is going to show you what they’re doing and how it impacts your digital ecosystem (not just how they did with Facebook). These deliverables are set before they begin any new campaign and are tracked on a daily basis.

For example, they may do the following:

  • Customize a dashboard and report for each key person who has a stake on a marketing campaign’s success (from the VP to the Manager to the Analyst).
  • Deliver these custom reports on a weekly basis, displaying the work they’ve done and how it is impacting your business bottom line.
  • Work with you to set target KPIs for your paid channels.
  • Work with you to set target KPIs for your web engagement from your paid efforts.
  • Audit your previous paid marketing efforts by reading through your raw data.
  • Build you a custom UTM builder that controls your UTM naming parameters for data uniformity.
  • Suggest new content for your pages or changes to existing content.
  • Bring together admin access for you for all of your digital accounts (you’d be surprised how many Fortune 100 clients don’t even have admin access to their Facebook Manager accounts from their agencies).

Digital agencies can’t just wish for your ROI to increase right away, but they can do things. If they show you exactly what they’re doing, that’s a good sign.

2. They have recommendations for improvement and tie those recommendations to business impact.

No Digital Agency can help you unless you’re helping them help you (props to whoever knows the movie reference).

If they recommend that you do certain things for your site, this tells you that the agency wants to work with you in a partner relationship. If you comply with their requests, you will likely see the kind of results they’re hoping for.

Here are a few of the things that quality digital agencies may recommend:

  • Integrate social channels with your website
  • Launch an integrated content marketing plan and track engagement per content launched.
  • Use a tool to launch landing pages quickly
  • Add content to your homepage
  • Establish an experimentation calendar for new ideas
  • Set up Google Tag Manager for event tracking for all web events.
  • Review your GA code is installed correctly (I actually worked with a client that had 5 different GA codes from all of the agencies that they had worked with in the past)

When the agency makes such recommendations, they’re not necessarily trying to upsell or scam you. Sure, the “extra services” -audits, content, etc…might cost. But this isn’t throw away money on your part. These services are meant to help you in the long run (and them as well).

I used to actually fire clients if they didn’t comply. That sounds harsh, but I looked at it more like a promise that I was going to do right by our clients and not just waste their money for an increase in conversions.

3. Your traffic goes down but your revenue goes up.

In some cases, you may work with a digital agency, and subsequently, see your traffic drop.

Is this cause for concern? Yes, but only if your revenue goes down. It’s possible that your traffic drops but your revenue increases.

Understand this: Your goal is targetted conversions/traffic, not just volume. If you receive less traffic but it’s good traffic, then you’ll improve your revenue. This is what I call “good traffic”.

This kind of traffic is more likely to stay on your site longer, convert on your site, and engage beyond your current landing page. The result? You get more conversions and revenue from fewer visitors.

(Thank you awesome digital agency.)

Things You Need to Do

As you try to figure out whether you’re working with a mediocre agency or a legit agency, there are a few things you should do. Here is my list of six rules for working with a digital agency.

1. Find an independent third party to give you a quick audit of your marketing data (or do it yourself)

Focus on the data will ensure you’re not emotionally defending your campaign/actions in the past (or now). A good third party “judge” can do a quick overview of your accounts and point to some areas that require attention or that have worked well. If all is good, you’ll have peace of mind.

If things are not good (as in the case of the poor relevance score campaigns, then you will at last know).

2. Do your own research.

Do not assume that your agency possesses all of the best knowledge and best practices. Sometimes they’re just running on the wheel with outdated techniques, thinking it will get them somewhere. It won’t.

3. Don’t accept generic dashboards or reports. Work with them to get to a customized Dashboard and Weekly Report per Management level.

Marketing is a team effort and the review of your activity will mean something different to different people. Have your agency create a custom view per organizational level (or stakeholder) so that you’re always on the same page. If they’re a good agency, they will take time to understand your needs and ask you questions about them.

4. Don’t expect 100% success (or a refund).

Great digital marketers learn to fail and fail fast in order to spend your money in the best places. They don’t do “100% satisfaction” or “offer full money back guarantees” if campaigns fail.

Why not? Because digital marketing is always in flux. People’s feeling change. Environments change. Marketers that embrace this evolution tend to do best as opposed to those that stick to their “old” rules.

5. Know what to expect

Have a clear understanding of what you expect your digital agency to do. Don’t fire them because they’re not executing on something that they weren’t supposed to do. Are they:

  • Creating content?
  • Optimizing for local SEO?
  • Creating Social audiences?
  • Optimizing conversion elements?

They may do only one thing. They may do nothing from the list above. Have a clear understanding from the beginning of what your agency is doing for you.

6. Monitor them.

You HAVE to do this with any outsourced process: keep tabs.

Find out how they’re doing. Find out what they’re doing. Look at independent reports and compare them to what your agency is sharing with you.

A solution like Factivate can help you customize your dashboards and KPI reports to give you an impartial view of your digital activities. Click below to get a free Marketing Data Health Check :

Get Your Marketing Health Check g

Ask questions.

Many agencies skew their reports to make them look fantastic. Don’t just take their word for it. Use a tool to help you run your own automated (independent) reports and compare them. In one case, we caught an agency misreporting CTRs for 6 months by more than 10% every month!

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Digital Campaigns

Your digital business will succeed or fail based on your digital efforts. Don’t just hand it off to anyone. If you’re concerned about your success, you’ll give your strategies the attention and investment it deserves (and it deserves more than a 1-hour meeting every week).

Now it’s your turn. Have you been helped or hurt by your digital agency? What other things would you recommend we should consider when understanding if our agencies are doing a good or bad job?