Small-business owners and entrepreneurs don’t always have the wherewithal to hire an in-house marketing team when they’re first starting out. Even after establishing their company and gaining a share of the market, funds to devote to marketing and advertising may be in short supply. Often, hiring an agency to help plan and execute a solid marketing strategy is the best option for SMBs; however, ensuring that the one they settle on is the right fit for their needs is critically important for those on a tight budget.

Here, 15 members of Forbes Agency Council explore some of the warning signs that owners of small businesses should be on the lookout for when vetting potential agency partners. See their insights below to learn about red flags that should knock a potential agency out of the running and off of a small-business owner’s short list of prospective partners.

1. Bad Gut Reactions During The Sales Process

You can tell a lot about an agency and its capabilities from your initial interactions. How do they make you feel? Are they prompt in replying? Do they come to you with ideas and suggestions, or are they relying on you to do all of the heavy lifting? See if you can speak to your actual project team, not just the sales team or founder, and listen to your gut. – Nathan Lomax, Quickfire Digital

2. A Sense Of Unfamiliarity And Signs Of Misalignment

Alignment is one of the most important things. Practically, this means the agency should be talking as if they already are your agency. You need to find a team that sees themselves that way upon your first meeting. When you get on a call, it should feel as if you’ve been working together for some time. Yes, straightaway—this is a signal of alignment, and alignment breeds both speed and quality. – Rai-mon Barnes, Consciously

3. Late Or Poorly Crafted Proposals

Failure to deliver a proposal on time, or delivering a proposal filled with spelling errors, is an immediate fail. (I’ve seen agencies even spell my company name and the word “brand” incorrectly!) Ask tough questions about exactly who will be handling your account, and if you get vague answers or are being assigned to an inexperienced account executive or creative team, walk (or run) away! – Nancy A Shenker, theONswitch

4. Agencies Using Their Ad Accounts Instead Of Yours

Always ask if they will use your advertising accounts, which you created and own, or their accounts. If they use their accounts, find a new agency. That data is yours, and you should own it. If an agency wants you to use their account, they are either hiding something or not giving you the maximum value for what you pay. Data is extremely valuable. Don’t sign on with an agency unless you own the data! – Ethan Kramer, EK Creative


Forbes Agency Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies. Do I qualify?


5. No Chemistry Between Your Teams

The longer I do this, the more I am convinced that just like in dating, there needs to be chemistry between the teams that will be working together. It does not matter how many boxes an agency may check if your teams will continually struggle working together because of different work cultures or conflicting personalities. A lot of future heartache can be avoided if this is a consideration. – Julian Scott, Shaw/Scott, Inc.

6. Claims Of Being A Full-Service Agency

If an agency claims to be full-service, this is a red flag. They may understand the full process, but they most certainly will have an area that is their key competency. If they don’t reveal their sweet spot and also explain areas that are on their fringe, then they are not being fully transparent, and this should be a red flag. – A. Lee Judge, Content Monsta

7. Offering Plans Before Qualifying You As A Prospect

Be wary of any agency that isn’t trying to also qualify you as a prospect during the initial conversations and instead jumps right into making claims or guarantees, offering plans or creating strategies. You want an agency that works to understand your business, believes there is a mutual fit and insists on aligning expectations for success before any contract is signed. – Lindsey Groepper, BLASTmedia

8. A Guaranteed Number Of Placements Per Month

A major red flag is a guaranteed number of placements per month. Truly earned coverage cannot be guaranteed. It’s about telling the right story to the right person at the right time. If you’re getting promised a ton of placements out of the gates, it is often likely at the expense of the quality of the media outlet, audience or message—or pay-for-play coverage disguised as earned media. Buyer beware! – Ilana Zalika, Resound Marketing LLC

9. Having A Junior Team Member As Your Point Of Contact

Always ask who your primary point of contact will be. Many agencies sell prospects on the experience of their senior team or founders, but often, clients end up working with a very junior member of the agency team. This junior role has high turnover, and this causes friction with clients. As a client, you should be working with an agency point of contact who has both industry and marketing expertise. – Elyse Flynn Meyer, Prism Global Marketing Solutions

10. Not Enough Experience In Your Field

The agency must have experience in your field. It’s not enough to find social, media or strategy professionals who “could’ make the leap to your category. You must have people who wake up every day as paranoid and aggressive as you are about making big moves in the marketplace. Don’t worry about conflicts—look for a true practice area. It never bothers people who hire law firms, and it shouldn’t bother you either. – Matt Wilson, Eastport Holdings

11. Not Having Robust ‘About Us’ And ‘Team’ Website Sections

Be wary of any agency that does not have robust “About Us’’ and “Team” sections on its website. If a small business is going to invest its hard-earned revenue in an agency partner, it should be very clear who that partner is and who the team that will be handling the work is. – Danielle Wiley, Sway Group

12. Guarantees Of Media Hits In Specific Outlets

Run in the other direction if an agency tells you it can “guarantee” a media hit in a specific media outlet. We have incredibly strong media relationships (trade and national) and will tell a client it’s highly likely we can get them placed in those outlets with the right news, metrics and a great customer success story—but we will never “guarantee” a placement. That’s up to the journalist. – Jodi Amendola, Amendola Communications

13. Failure To Define Success In Business Metrics In Advance

As much as has been written about this, it still remains among the biggest issues for business owners and entrepreneurs of all sizes. Ask for benchmarks and forecasts in terms of meaningful business metrics. Focus on target cost per acquisition, return on ad spend or return on investment. – Gyi Tsakalakis, AttorneySync & EPL Digital

14. A Lack Of Transparency

Transparency is a must. Be wary of agencies with no physical address, no team bios, no case studies and no testimonials. Many agencies say they are located in one city when they are actually located in another. They are trying to game Google for more search engine optimized traffic. – T. Maxwell, eMaximize

15. Success Metrics Based On Quantity Rather Than Results

Ask the agency how they measure success. Agencies that measure success by the amount of stuff they produce should be cut from the list. Instead, go with an agency that provides real value and measures success through metrics such as conversion rates, leads and revenue growth. – Jonathan Franchell, Ironpaper

By AKDSEO