Choosing a creative marketing agency is a bit like getting married. Everything can seem great for the first few months, but then the cracks begin to show. By the end of the second year, you’re breaking wind in front of each other and starting to actively find excuses to spend time apart. Or maybe that’s just me.

Either way, once you get into bed with a creative marketing agency, it’s much harder to get out than you think. By the time you’ve realised you just can’t reconcile your differences, you’ve already invested heavily in your relationship together. You’ve taken the time to get to know them, shared your hopes and dreams for the business and have maybe even raised a couple of adorable little marketing campaigns already. This is going to be one tough divorce.

So, before you get too dazzled by their big, shiny proposal and are wowed into an emotional ‘yes’, make sure you’re going through the right selection criteria so that you don’t get stuck with a duffer.

What do you want from them?

You already know that you want a marketing agency on board, but are you completely clear in what you want them to do? Knowing what you might ask of them both now and in the future will help you avoid needing to outsource to other providers down the line if your creative agency cannot deliver.

The term ‘marketing agency’ is a pretty wide umbrella, with all sorts of shapes and sizes nestling underneath. In order to narrow down the field, so to speak, start by defining what your own criteria for your perfect partner is.

Services required: Creative marketing agencies offer all sorts of services, from PR and design through to media, digital and advertising. Take some time to identify which areas your team needs the most help in, so you can find partners that specialise in the areas in which you are lacking.

Expertise needed: Maybe your team are just fine with traditional marketing such as press and TV, but really struggle with all the digital avenues available. If you know you need expertise in a certain area, again you can find a partner who is an expert where you are not.

Logistics and organisation: There’s nothing worse than investing financially in what looks to be an amazing marketing agency, only to be faced with unreturned calls, undelivered reports and very little in the way of results. To get the best from your relationship, you need processes that work for both of you. Consider how your team and your partner agency will come together on a day to day basis, and how you would like to manage the relationship in order to get the most from your partnership.

Objective: Alongside these other criteria, you should have a relatively clear idea of what you want to achieve together with your chosen creative marketing partner. The objective could relate to branding and awareness, to leads, sales, traffic or even sign ups and downloads. You need to have a clear idea in your mind of what success looks like, so that they can understand where you’re trying to get to.

Hopefully you already have some ideas and input for a campaign in your mind. If not, do get your thinking cap on. Creative agencies are very good at developing a half decent idea into a killer campaign, but you know your audience and business better than they ever could, so the birth of the idea should ideally come from you.

What do they have that you want?

There are over 25,000 marketing companies in the UK today. Now, as much as you want to get a great deal from the right provider, you’re probably not going to want to try and get a quote from all of these agencies. For this reason, you’ll need to undertake a little pre-pitch selection to try and narrow down your choices.

Speciality: If there is a creative agency who is a specialist in your niche, of course they should be in the running for your project. However, don’t exclude those who aren’t, or put too much weight on those who are. They need to be specialists in marketing first and foremost, with solid principles they can apply to any type of business.

Size: Of the aforementioned 25,000 or so agencies in the UK, they range from one man bands and freelancers up to multi-site businesses with a few football teams worth of employees. Considering an organisations size in comparison with your own is a crucial part of the selection process. A one-man band will certainly give you undivided attention, but might not be able to deliver the volume you need. Conversely, a huge marketing agency will have the capacity to do just about anything, but if you’re a small fish compared to their usual clients, your campaign could get lost in the noise.

Location: Sure, most business these days is conducted via the internet, telephone, email and other non-geographically specific forms of communication. However, for some businesses, face to face contact is actually still really important.  If it’s crucial to you to meet with your agency in person, you can already discount many of the potential providers if they are not located within a couple of hours of your office.

Knowledge, expertise and results: Check out past examples of their work and the results they’ve achieved for other clients like you. Get to know what sort of creativity they have, and how they channel this into workable campaigns. They need to be able to speak directly and effectively to your audience, so try to think of it from their point of view too.

Recommendations: No doubt the creative agencies you’re considering are overflowing with case studies and testimonials to show you. At least, I hope they are. But what’s even more powerful than that is if you can source direct recommendations from other clients of theirs or people in your industry. Ask your competitors; ask your suppliers; ask on LinkedIn. If people are willing to put forward their name, that’s worth its weight in gold.

Of course, a creative agency should be able to ‘push the boundaries’ and ‘think outside of the box’ and all sorts of other clichéd things. But more important than making your business look uber cool would be the ability to actually function well as an extension of your in-house team. When all the boxes are well and truly ticked, sometimes the final decision comes down to nothing more technical than pure gut feeling; and there’s no shame in that.

A flattering proposal can get agencies a long way, but if you want to be sure you’re diving into a relationship that’s going to last, take the time to make a great selection from the very start.