Why You Need to Vet Your Direct Marketing Agency

Most companies don’t fully appreciate the importance of thoroughly vetting direct marketing agencies they’re contemplating engaging with.  I don’t blame them either.  By the time a company approaches a direct marketing agency for the first time they’ve likely at a diminished state.  Maybe they’re clear on where they need help, or maybe they just know they need help.

Either way, it’s not likely this moment snuck up on them.  It’s probably been a slow grind of trial and error trying to make it work over an extended period.  So by the time you do your outreach you’ve already been struggling for quite a while.

Not vetting direct marketing agencies is like rolling the dice hoping you hit.  Bad news.  Hope isn’t a strategy, and if you don’t “hit” then you’re going to find yourself even further behind.  Even worse, now you’re going to be gunshy hiring an agency, even though your company desperately needs the help.

Just like how not every company is equal in your industry, the same can be said for direct marketing agencies.  Let’s dig in.

What Is a Direct Marketing Agency

There is debate over the founding father of direct marketing.  Was it Benjamin Franklin promoting his newspaper or was it Tiffany rolling out the first catalog.  I don’t care and you shouldn’t either.

What you should care about is understanding the nature of direct marketing and its benefit over traditional mass marketing.  With mass marketing you’re delivering a static message to an entire market, regardless of the unique individuals that make up that market.

“When you try to be everything to everyone, you accomplish being nothing to anyone.” ~Bonnie Gillespie

Just as the name implies, direct marketing focuses on segmenting a larger audience into smaller groups that have similar attributes. Once you have these smaller audiences segmented you can leverage direct marketing channels like direct mail, email, mobile and social with tailored messaging.  Finally, direct marketing is also highly trackable.  From the early cycles of lead development to the final conversion, or even renetion campaigns, you have data that helps you understand what is performing well and what may not be.

Core Direct Marketing Services

Every agency is going to have their own nuance, but at a foundational level here are the core services that you should expect to see from an agency.


Any potential engagement should start with a discovery call so the agency can learn first-hand about your business, your goals and your pain points.  From there an agency should be able to provide you with a plan that illustrates strategy and insights from target audience selection, to channel execution to campaign duration and length.

Data Management

I like to think of our services as a marketing sandwich.  If your traditional sandwich has two pieces of bread, that first piece of bread is targeted data.  40% of a campaign’s success can be tied back to accurately identifying the ideal targets, which is why every campaign starts with a deep dive.  From there you have data storage and management services between client, agency and strategice partners.  Data management also helps protect clients by ensuring that they’re staying compliant with regulatory requirements like CAN-SPAM, GDRP, or CCPA.

Creative Services

If you’ve worked with an agency before then chances are you’ve worked with a creative brief before.  If you haven’t, then you should have.  Creative briefs allow the team to understand who the target audience is, and what is important to them.  It should highlight how your company is positioned in the marketplace vs. where it would like to be positioned.  The creative brief serves as the roadmap for how creative and messaging should come together to speak effectively and succinctly to your target audience.

Campaign Execution

If data is the first piece of bread on that marketing sandwich, then the meat is the actual marketing execution.  When polling companies a while back we found that 64% of companies had a good idea of which direction they needed to go, they just didn’t even know where to start in order to bring it to life.  When you combine agency strategy with agency execution, you get a true turnkey marketing partner for your company.  

Marketing Analytics

“It doesn’t matter as much what I think, it matters more what the data is telling us,” said a former CTO of mine.  It’s not that he didn’t have an opinion.  In fact, I was asking his opinion because he was arguably the most informed colleague at that time to give such an opinion.  However, I was asking him about a feature in our online storefront that would impact virtually every single web visitor.  So while he had an opinion, he knew that he needed data to validate that the opinion was right.  After a couple weeks we’d collected thousands and thousands of data points and it was obvious that the new feature was not a user favorite.  So we went back to the drawing board.

This is what a good agency should look like to you.  A good agency should have an informed opinion, but even then you need to leverage data to what’s valid and what’s not. 

As I mentioned earlier, with our marketing sandwich approach, the pieces of bread of that sandwich are data centered.  If the first piece is targeting data ahead of a campaign, then the second is data analytics postcampaign.  These include validating A/B testing, data hygiene and matchback analysis so we can continually optimize and improve our clients marketing campaigns.

Consequence of Not Vetting Direct Marketing Agencies

We briefly touched on this earlier, but by the time a company is engaging a direct marketing agency, their need is likely fairly acute.  Not properly vetting direct marketing agencies could have several detrimental effects.

Financial Risks

Virtually everything you do in your business is an investment.  An investment in time, resources and most notably actual financial investments.  The latter is often the most obvious and clear way to measure an investment.  If you spend $50,000 on a campaign, and your attributed sales only total $40,000 then you’re upside down.  Even worse, some agencies will struggle to even give you attributable data leaving you in the dark with how much your campaign did or didn’t perform.

Another important consideration directly tied to financial impacs is your Opportunity Cost.  If you had properly vetted your agency and realized they weren’t right for you, then how could you have spent that $50,000 instead.  Whether that’s through a vetted agency, or some other investment, the point is the money could have likely been better spent.

Finally, there could be punitive expenses you’re not even considering if you don’t properly vet your agency.  I’ve heard horror stories about companies that took a flyer on an agency because the budget was the best, aka the lowest.  They subsequently ended up paying more than they would have if they worked with a more vetted agency.  

Reputational Risks

This risk is one that is typically under-appreciated, because it’s hard for most businesses to quantify these types of damages, but they exist.  Much like icebergs in the northern Atlantic.

Lets use a case study that agency guru, Vendry, just published from a larger brand like Pepsi where the impacts can be appreciated more readily.  In 2017 during the height of Black Lives Matter protests, Pepsi utilized their own inhouse agency because of their ability to strategize and execute content quickly.

The campaign they executed featured Kendall Jenner during a modeling shoot.  In the background she sees an unrealistically jubolant protest.  Moved in the moment, she ditches her high-fashion shoot to join the movement.  Pepsi’s actual cola is featured throughout as a metaphorical bridge between protestors, between strangers and even between police in uniform.

The spot was deemed so tone deaf, that only one day after being debuted Pepsi pulled the ad.  

For smaller businesses, it’s harder to appreciate these kinds of reputational risks.  But like those icebergs in the northern Atlantic, the damage you can’t see is often exponentially worse then what you do see so vet your agency thoroughly.

Key Questions for Vetting Direct Marketing Agencies

The best way to avoid the pain we’ve highlighted in this article is to prosperity vet your direct marketing agency, but how?

Core Values

Does the agency you’re vetting have core values that align with yours?  I know this may seem tertiary to some, but I’ve seen this time and time again where a client and an agency’s core values don’t align well.  In fact, we’ve turned down clients because we’ve realized while partnering is possible, it’s likely going to have an underlying friction which will impede both parties from giving it their best.

Age of Agency

The age of an agency doesn’t necessarily dictate if they’re good or not, but it doesn’t provide a meaningful insight about their stability.  I see a lot of agencies with a hunger that is sometimes hard to replicate.  However, sometimes that hunger and energy overshadows blind spots in their experience and offerings.  Age isn’t everything, but it should be considered.

Industry Expertise

Generally agencies can be split into two buckets.  Generalists and specialists.  Both can be a good fit for you, but it’s important to think through both options.  Agencies with a broader and more diverse portfolio reflect strong adapaptability and versatility.  If you’re talking to an agency like that, make sure you inquire about their discovery process.  Specifically, how they adapt to the nuances between different businesses across different agencies.  

If your company is more of a specialist then take the time to see if there is an agency that fits.  We do a lot of non-profit marketing, which is completely different than many of our for-profit clients.  The “customers” they want to target aren’t actually customers, rather they’re donors to a cause.  The messaging, the approach, the seasonality and the literal mail kit itself are all very different.  In fact, there have been recent tax laws that have heavily deincentivized the type of smaller donations that non-profits depend on.

So when a non-profit client engages with us we’re already stride and stride with them which allows us to dig in deeper to their individualized needs more succinctly.

Evaluate Case Studies

If the devil is in the details then the devil lives in case studies.  Case studies allow you to pull back the curtain and see how the sausage is being made.  A good case study should highlight the client and the problem they were facing.  It should then outline the approach and most importantly the results of said approach.

***WARNING: Not all case studies are created equal.

There are two primary things to be on the lookout when evaluating case studies:

  1. Is it really a case study or is it a fluff piece?  Too many case studies are light on details and speak in generalities.  A good case study should clearly articulate the challenge a business was facing, what the solution was and what the response was.  Further, look into the data to see if it makes sense.  If it doesn’t, then ask questions and probe deeper.  See how the agency responds to this because they should be focused on making sure their process is clear and transparent to you.  If you get the sense that they’re hiding something then they probably are.


  2. Is the case study even theirs?  It’s not uncommon to see case studies from agencies that are highlighting companies they actually had no involvement with.  This isn’t immediately a red flag.  In fact, so long as the agency is actually providing their own insights, it can be a great way to evaluate their perspective and approach.  However, pay close attention to how the language is used to make sure that they’re simply not trying to pass off the case study as their own.

3rd Party Reviews

The last recommendation is to look at 3rd party reviews so you can get unfiltered feedback as opposed to curated reviews from an agency directly.  The most obvious example of this would be looking at Google reviews.  However, Google is more geard towards consumer based businesses.  

I’d strongly recommend you look at a marketing/advertising review service like Clutch.co.  Agencies like us can point clients to provide reviews, and then Clutch independently vets and validates each review to make sure agencies are stuffing the ballot box with fake reviews.  Their reviews are structured in a way that illustrates several different aspects of working with an agency.  This ranges from communication, quality, budget, performance and more.  This gives you a holistic, and validated, view into actual customer experiences with an agency.

Agencies Are an Investment, Invest Wisely

Vetting direct marketing agencies is the difference between shooting in the dark or shooting with vision.  It’s more finite than that though.  A good agency can half-ass it and get you in the right neighborhood.  Properly vetting direct marketing agencies will get you past the right neighborhood and into the homes that matter to your business.

Remember, it’s your time, it’s your resources, it’s your money so invest wisely.  The extra 10% you spend upfront could save you thousands in a bad agency, and lead towards the expert help you know you needed in the first place.

If you are interested in having a candid discussion about your marketing goals and challenges, drop us a line.  We have an 83% customer retention rate, which is another way to say if we don’t think we’re a good fit for a company then we’ll tell you that up front.

I’ll close this out with sage advice from Gary Keller, co-founder of Keller Williams Realty, one of the largest real estate brands in the world.  In 2004 I got to travel the country with Gary as he was transitioning his regional real estate company into a global powerhouse.  I’ll never forget when he said, “You should be slow to hire and quick to fire.”  His sentiment was geared towards the employees you hire, but it directly applies to the companies you hire.

Here’s to your success, my friend. May your partnership with your chosen agency be a harmonious symphony of creativity, strategy, and measurable results.


Right People, Right Channels, Right Results

Often confused with “multi-channel marketing”, omni-channel marketing elevates your campaign’s effectiveness by communicating your message to the right prospects in the channels they use, at the right time.