Stop Asking Your Marketing Agency for Client References

First, a confession:  I hate providing references.  As one of the principals at a B2B marketing agency, I get asked for them frequently (though not always) by prospective new clients and, quite aside from the hassle of selecting (who have we not asked recently?), contacting, and requesting permission from the right client, I just fail to see the point of asking for references in the first place.

marketing agency referencesLet’s face it: whether you’re a potential new hire or a prospective vendor, the only references you’ll ever provide to your employer/client are people who love everything you do.  As that prospective employer, what is there to really learn or gain?  It just seems that people ask for references because they feel that not doing so would mean a lack of due diligence.

In this digital/social media age, however, I’d argue that formal references are old-fashioned, of debatable value, and have outlived their usefulness.

So what are the alternatives?  Here are two suggestions:

1.  Use LinkedIn to identify clients/past employers directly.

Most agencies (ours included) provide their client list online for all to see.  If I were hiring an agency, I’d review that list and either a) find a company where I already know people on the marketing team, or b) choose a company in a similar category and search on LinkedIn to find possible connections.  Then ask those connections to be introduced to the people working with the vendor you’re considering.

2.  Ask tougher questions.

Here’s what I’d want to know if I was hiring an agency:

-How do you market your company?

As a client said to me recently: would you take weight loss advice from a fat doctor?  No, you wouldn’t.  So ask your agency: how do they market their own services?  What’s their social media strategy?  Does the agency’s Website reflect the quality of creative, design, content that you’re looking for?  How does the agency generate new leads, and how do they nurture those leads when they arrive?


– How do you measure success?

Don’t settle for “it depends.”  Today, virtually everything in marketing is measurable in some way or form.  The extent to which an agency can describe how they plan to measure, and report on, your marketing activity is a leading indicator of their ability to actually generate those results in the first place.  What does the agency recommend as key performance metrics for the work under consideration?  What technologies does the agency leverage to enable or facilitate measurement, ROI analysis, or campaign attribution?

– What are the 3 things your agency does best?

No agency does all things well.  (And quite a few do many things poorly.)  Ask an agency to name the three areas they consider their core expertise.  The response will go a long way towards identifying the agency that’s truly aligned with your needs vs. the one that’s simply responding “sure, we can do that” to every request.

What other techniques or resources do you use to evaluate new marketing vendors?  Comments welcome.

For a related discussion, see our infographic on “Top 10 Reasons to Hire a Full-Service Demand Generation Agency.”

Photo by Kelly Brito on Unsplash

One thought on “Stop Asking Your Marketing Agency for Client References

  1. Zak Pines


    I like your “What are the 3 things your agency does best?” question.

    I apply something similar to anyone I might be working with, including prospective team members. “What are you great at?”

    It’s a good way to make sure you are selecting the right resource to help in the right way. I had an example not too long ago where I was looking for a team to fill an outbound calling role… one of the resources, when pressed, admitted their specialty was really as an inbound call center, and not geared around outreach.

    – Zak


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