What is the decision making process for companies looking for an agency?


My guest Lucas Ballasy is partner and chief experience officer at Barrel, an agency working with brands to grow their businesses through website design, development, and optimization.


In this episode, he’ll share:

  • The changes and trends in the process of looking for an agency
  • Key factors companies consider when selecting an agency
  • Red flags when talking to a prospect
  • Navigating various stakeholders
  • How companies can get clarity on which agencies to choose
  • And more


Mentioned in this episode:



Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.


Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host Steffen Horst. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the decision making process for companies looking for an agency. Here to speak with me as Lucas Ballasy, who is the partner and chief experience officer at Barrel, an agency working with brands to grow their businesses through website design, development and optimization. 


Lucas has helped shape the agency’s culture and processes while continually seeking innovative ways to collaborate with clients and help them succeed. He has published over 300 posts about his journey leading an agency team, e-commerce and other life experiences on his blog, lucasballasy.com. Lucas also writes a weekly newsletter called Borrowed, Learned and Thought, where he explores insights and lessons learned. Lucas, welcome to the show.


Lucas: Hey, thanks. Great to be here.


Steffen: Now, Lucas, before we explore today’s topics, I’d love to learn more about you. Tell our listeners a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in your career? And what led you to Barrel?


Lucas: Yeah, so I won’t go too too far back. But I got into design through music at an early age. I was playing music and trying to figure out how to promote it. So I started making websites and posters and everything that goes along with that. And that’s really how I found design, which is what took me into focusing on design in college. I went to Tyler School of Art, Temple University. And you know, quickly found after college that I really wanted to get into digital. 


I had taken a job in New York, actually an interior design firm, and was really looking for that path into digital to start making websites professionally, and joined Barrel. l actually came in as a freelance designer, and have been working with Barrel for the last 10 years. And have really enjoyed working alongside the partners to see where we want to take the agency, how we want to bid out new services, and ultimately how we can better serve our clients with the work that we do.


Steffen: That’s a great story. Now, today, I want to talk about the decision making process of companies looking for an agency. Have you seen any changes or trends in that process lately?


Lucas: Yeah, I mean, it could be, you know, something we’re feeling. And I’ve talked to some folks at other agencies, and I think what it comes down to is everyone is just really scrutinizing budgets, you know, thinking about where money is going. And that’s just led to what we’ve seen, the process slowing down a ton. And so even when clients come to us, like, you know, they want to move really fast, we move fast with them. 


We might even get an approved scope, but then it might take, you know, a month or two to get that scope signed. Just talking it through with the team. And so we’ve just had to learn to be very patient, and see how much we can help clients make that decision throughout the process.


Steffen: Why do you think that is? Why do you think companies have slowed down after they made a decision? Who to work with?


Lucas: Yeah, I mean, as we’ve all seen in the news, how much our purchase patterns have changed. And I think consumers are more deliberate about what choices they’re making, how they’re spending their money, which is obviously impacting brands. And so in turn, I think brands are saying, hey, how do we turn things around? For a lot of them, they might be seeing conversion rates falling, they might just be seeing changes in their business, and they’re trying to figure out how to move forward. 


But just taking very deliberate steps on how to do that. And, you know, making sure that whoever they work with is going to help them get there. And you know, there are a lot of agencies out there. So I think that coupled with the number of options can just make it hard to figure out the right decision, the right move, and just draw out the process much longer than we’ve seen in the past.


Steffen: Yeah, you just mentioned there obviously are a lot of agencies out there. And sometimes, it’s very hard to differentiate what the difference is between the agencies in regards to service offerings. Is that something that from your experience, and when you talk to other people at agencies, that confuses clients, or makes that process more difficult?


Lucas: Yeah, it actually, you know, it sometimes comes up in a very transparent way. The client will just ask us, and then other times, you can kind of sense it. And it’s a conversation we have quite a bit internally, you know, constantly thinking about what is our positioning, what is our edge? Who are we being, we try to find out as much as possible who is involved in the configuration process. What other agencies they’re looking for? So, you know, the short answer is yes. as it comes up, and it’s something we’re talking about a lot.


Steffen: Now with this longer process now, how have you adapted to that situation? It’s kind of like in dating, right? You’re you meet someone, you’re really head over heels, and you want to see them the next day, again, but you want to play it a little bit cool, a little bit slower. And that can sometimes be difficult, right to do that. 


So business is not the same. You had a great first meeting, you almost want to say, let’s sign on the dotted line. Let’s get started. But you know they have to go through the due diligence too and then have to potentially interview other agencies. What do you guys do to kind of slow down a little bit and not overwhelm the prospects?


Lucas: Yeah, I think, you know, at the top of, at the highest level, it’s really about, you know, going slow, and adding value from the beginning. And so, we’ve really learned that it’s not worth it to chase the sale. And so we take that time upfront to talk to the client, learn about what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes that means follow up conversations with different stakeholders. Getting more folks from our team to advise them. 


And if we, ultimately, we feel like if they leave the interaction with us with more than they came in with, and they don’t end up working with us, we’re happy to have just added value. We’ll probably talk about relationships in this conversation. But relationships are huge and valuable. And so if we can just create a relationship in that first interaction or second interaction, we’re happy with that. 


But then beyond that, I think it’s also getting creative with how we can bring more unique things to our proposal. So a lot of that has come down to doing like initial auditing, even talking with tech partners, and ideating, on how we could help the brand and bringing those ideas to the proposal. And just helping the brand, show the brand that working on the initial ask, and thinking about other things that could help them achieve their goals. 


But it’s funny, you brought up dating, because one lesson I think, is when you have that first or second date, you don’t want to be texting them every single day. And bombarding them with communication. However, we’ve learned with clients, they actually tend to like those follow ups. And so we’ve gotten much better about following up weekly, with clients who are still kind of making a decision. 


Or, we don’t even know what’s going on. They just kind of have gone dark. And those follow ups often help them kind of keep the conversation moving on their side, keep us updated, and in some ways make it that they don’t have to worry about communicating with us because we’re communicating with them. So it’s been a fun lesson more recently.


Steffen: Interesting. Now, what are the key factors that companies consider when selecting an agency?


Lucas: Yeah, I mean, I mentioned the relationship a second ago. And I think at the top of all of this, I’ll say, when you come in with that warm introduction, that is probably the best thing in your favor. And so for us, that’s always a huge factor. And that we see, and when clients have somebody they trust, bring us into the conversation, a lot of boxes have been checked right out of the gate. 


Beyond that, I would say, agency background and proven track record. How is the agency done similar work for other brands? Pricing. How they approach the problem and the process in which they do it? Generally, the rapport with the client. So how did those first interactions go? Does it feel good in the gut? 


And that goes the same for how we think about the client. Relevant work. How much they can scale with the agency, but also, will they have to have the agency engaged? That’s an interesting one, because clients want a partner they can scale with, but they also don’t want to need them the whole way through. And so that’s often what we see is can we still manage day to day and how can you help scale with us? 


And then I would say, timeline. If there’s an urgent timeline, and something on the horizon, can they meet it? And then just overall promptness and being responsive and communicative during this early interactions are really helpful in leaving a positive impression about how it will be to work together.


Steffen: Now, the process of a company engaging an agency is as much for them to find out about the agency as it is for the agency to find out about a company. Because from an agency perspective, you want to make sure that there is a good fit between the agency and the company that you can really help them. That it’s going to be fun to work with them. No one wants to work with someone where there’s tension or there’s a you can look ahead and it’s like this is really going to be a great engagement. 


From an agency perspective, when you talk to prospects, do you work off the list of questions that you go through in order to identify what they’re really looking for? Because quite often, clients might not be as open with the information as you would like them to give them exactly what they need.


Lucas: Yeah, I mean, I come to every new business call with kind of a list of bullets of things I want to make sure we cover. I tend to do that because the questions can, you end up reciting the question out of your notes and sounds like an interview. So I try to have that bulleted list and just have a casual conversation with them, and really dig into what they’re trying to achieve. I think one flag is always when clients aren’t willing to get into those details. 


And they just want to understand who we are, like, right out of the gate, and won’t indulge us in talking through some of those points. And so, that’s what we try to do on our first call, and using that list as a guide. And then from there, sometimes you come to a different conclusion, then, you know, maybe the client came in saying they need a website redesign, but your website is actually fine. 


Maybe it just needs some optimization. But they’re doing nothing in the email marketing side of things, so we can add value there. So it’s really kind of taking that exploratory approach from the start and trying to understand really, what’s going to move the needle for them.


Steffen: Now how do you deal with prospects that are not open? So you get on a discovery call and, obviously, ideally from an agency perspective, you want to find out what they’re looking for, right? What are their problems? What are you working with currently? All these questions for you to get a better understanding of where they are, and then being able to tailor what you tell them about yourself, about your agency. What do you do if they’re not open? If they’re just like, you know what, just tell me about yourself.


Lucas: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. It hasn’t happened in some time. And I, there has been a tactic that has been, seemed to be working, so far, seems to be working well, which is, during those first intros, I’ll ask them to introduce themselves and get a quick background on who they are, what they’re trying to do. And then in my intro, I’ll just do a quick overview of Barrel. And this takes like, you know, five minutes. 


But I’ve seen that, it seems to me that that tends to just kind of get it out of the way and open the door to going into more about their issues. And you know, what they’re trying to achieve. However, another piece to this is learning the hard lesson in the past is setting agenda prior to that first call. And then also making sure if we’re going to get into anything that is, you know, the client might be uncomfortable sharing, getting an NDA in place prior to that call. 


And if that comes up on the call, because we didn’t do that, we might just even end the call early, and then have a follow up once the NDA is in place to go deeper into what they’re trying to achieve. So that’s kind of how we’ve dealt with it. We’ve definitely seen it and had some awkward situations on calls that we’ve had to work through. But we’ve tried different things to try to move past that.


Steffen: Interesting. Now, what are red flags for you when you’re talking to a prospect?


Lucas: Yeah, I think it’s funny, I made a blog post not too long ago about flags that you see when you are interviewing clients. When you’re talking to, I’m sorry, clients and employees. The parallels between employees and prospective clients, and some of the things that you see in those situations. And on the client side, I think it’s their overall understanding of past agency relationships. 


And if they are talking about all the issues that you’ve had with agencies, it’s generally a flag in just, they have some perspective already that it’s hard to work with agencies, and you’re gonna have to work really hard to turn that around. Especially if they don’t acknowledge how they may have been involved in those challenges. You know, I think talking about other co-workers, or the company and just speaking negatively about what it’s like to work there. 


I could share some kind of crazy stories about how that’s happened after signing the client. It just makes everyone uncomfortable. And even if we’re having a good experience, it kind of hurts the general morale on the project. You know, one thing that we’ve talked quite a bit about is how many agencies are actually going to be competing for this work. And I would say most of the time, if it’s more than three or four, we might just back out completely. 


Just because it shows that the client is talking to so many partners, there’s no plan to shortlist the agency group very quickly. Sometimes we might just share some initial thoughts and see if they are interested, but it just kind of shows indecisiveness or lack of commitment to the project. Two other things, like multiple stakeholders involved that we don’t have access to. Won’t share challenges that they’ve seen with the current agency. 


Fear of working with agencies. I kind of talked about that earlier. And then expecting that the project at hand will single handedly achieve all of their goals. I know, we kind of work on two different sides of the customer journey. And if there’s no paid marketing efforts, and they’re expecting the site to 10x their sales in a few months, you know, what’s realistic here? And what levers can we actually pull as an agency on our side? 


And then I think one thing that comes up is just around design. And so if clients are really overseeing the significance of a design, that has to be a certain way, but they can’t speak to what that design is, they don’t have references. That’s sometimes a flag for how that project might go. Because design is so subjective. And so we want to make sure we kind of get that out of the way early on, and really understand their vision before we get started.


Steffen: Okay, now, we looked at the agency side. So what are the red flags for agencies? If we flip it around, do you have any ideas on the client side, on a company side. When they’re interviewing an agency, what they should look out for, in order to not get another bad agency?


Lucas: I think one thing is definitely whatever metrics or success stories they’re claiming, just kind of digging in there with them, and understanding how the work led to those results. Because I feel like these days, you see a lot of numbers, a lot of these success stories. Within every business, there’s going to be different metrics that matter. There’s going to be all sorts of things that impact those numbers. 


And so just really understanding the agency’s part in that. And I think on top of that, a logo wall with a lot of big brand names. Just understanding how did they work with those brands? What did they do? And understanding that scope of work. I think there’s probably some obvious things around communication. Are they quick to get back? Are they asking good questions? Do they seem interested in working with you? 


Or is it really about trying to sell their services without really understanding who you are? And that goes back to every business’s KPIs and what’s important to their customers. If the agency is spending time understanding that, they might be taking kind of a boilerplate approach, which might not get them where they need to be ultimately. 


I talked about this digging into the client logo wall, but also just experience. Who have they worked with in the past? Do they have partnerships within the ecosystem that you’re working with? Can they speak to that? I think that probably the big ones that come through for me, maybe an unwillingness to share references, or no access to past clients is probably also a flag.


Steffen: Interesting. You mentioned stakeholders a second ago. How does the decision making process change when there are different stakeholders involved?


Lucas: Yeah, I mean, we try to figure out right out of the gate, who’s going to be involved in the decision making process. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t interactions in the past, where we have really good back and forth with who we think is the key stakeholder, and then we get to proposal presentation and the CEO joins, and suddenly has all these ideas, and you realize, you didn’t have the right person in the room to talk through the goals. And so that’s a problem. 


And so, what we see is that when it comes to the decision making process, it’s important to take the time with the folks who are going to make that decision and try as hard as possible to get access to them. It’s not that we don’t want to trust who we’re talking to. But sometimes they interpret things a little bit differently, or they haven’t had the right conversation with the founder or CEO. And so that just puts whatever work we do at risk upfront, because we may be kind of marching toward the wrong, you know, the wrong goal.


Steffen: Interesting. When a business struggles to choose between multiple agencies. You talked earlier about when a company is reviewing or looking at more than three or four agencies, they might not be really clear on what they’re looking for, or there might be some red flags. How can the company get clarity on who to go with, who to best work with, if they have multiple agencies that on paper, and then after going through questions, pretty much look alike?


Lucas: Yeah, I think trying to understand what the factors they’re weighing are, and of those what matters most. Really taking the time to just be transparent, open up with them and get them to kind of talk to you about what’s getting in the way of making this decision. If you’re able to do that, I think it’s just being honest about whether or not you can deliver on that better than those other agencies and show them. 


That might be doing some ideation or depending how much you’re looking for the deal, maybe surprising them with a quick mock up of something. But then if you can, I think it’s okay to be honest and say, hey, like, this is where we can add value. And be okay with losing that deal. And that’s probably not the best answer. But I do think it goes a long way in just showing, hey, this is how we think we can help. 


And if this is what matters most to you, you might be better off going with this other agency who focuses there. So I would say that if you can be the one helping make the decision, that can be a pretty cool position to be in, because again, going back to building those relationships, building trust, that’s someone that will always remember that


Steffen: Interesting. Now, you mentioned a second ago, creating, you know, helping them make a decision by creating a small design or a small piece. How much do you invest, when you engage with a prospect in winning that prospect as a new client? What I mean by investing is, what documentation do you prepare for them in advance before they start paying you?


Lucas: Yeah, no, that’s a great question. And I think where we’ve gone is more about investing the time on the calls upfront, to really understand what they’re trying to achieve. And make sure whatever we put in front of them for a proposal is going to hit the mark. And the key thing is qualification here. So whoever’s coming to the door that you decide to even approach, you want to make sure it’s the right fit. 


You want to make sure that you feel like you can add value. And if all those things are checked off, then we’re comfortable with taking the time to come up with some ideas about how we can, you know, help them build the business beyond just the website. Maybe there’s a retention marketing opportunity, maybe there’s certain tech platforms that can help them. And so we’ll bring those ideas to the table and put them in our proposal. 


And that does take some time. I think realistically, there are patterns that we’ve been able to match across different clients. And so some of that stuff can be captured. We also have an arsenal of research. We have a program, D2C patterns, where we’re purchasing products every month from brands who are very similar to the clients that we work with. And we document that whole experience on our website, and give that research away for free. 


But we learn a ton of that, and we do a lot of research in the process of that, that can then come back to things like proposals. And so we try to build these systems within the agency that make it easy to show value to our clients during that new business process. And so even if we are investing a few hours working on the proposal, it’s helping us as an agency, and it’s helping us with our current clients as well.


Steffen: Now Lucas, before we come to the end of today’s podcast episode, in your opinion, what holds the most significance for companies in the end, when making a decision on which agency to work with?


Lucas: We always laugh. In hiring employees, there’s like a gut feel of whether it feels like this is the right fit. And I think ultimately, that is huge. It’s how you set expectations with the client in that early call. It’s all the things that we’ve talked about that give them the confidence that they can enjoy working with the agency, they can help them and show value in what they’re trying to achieve. At the end of the day, it is just a bunch of people working together. 


So I really think that that’s important. And they have to feel confident that they can have a good relationship. I think beyond that, what I mentioned earlier is, those relationships are critical. So if it’s a warm introduction, that’s going to be a huge value add from the start. And that can mean everything. Regardless of the stuff that we talked about today.


Steffen: That clearly makes a huge difference, right. Compared to when you’re reaching out to someone cold. It’s a much longer process in getting them to a point where they are open to discussing how you, your agency, could be a resource for them compared to when someone says I worked with these guys. They’re amazing. They’ve done X, Y, Z, for my company. 


That’s almost like in soccer terms, it’s a penalty. And you know, you should have a good chance of scoring, so to speak. Lucas, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your knowledge on the decision making process for companies looking for an agency. How can people get in touch if they want to learn more about you and Barrel?


Lucas: Thank you. So Barrel’s website is barrelny.com. Definitely check that out. You can see a lot of the stuff that we talked about today. And then as mentioned earlier, I have a blog and newsletter. You can find that at lucasballasy.com And in that I share a lot of the kind of experiments and ideas that we’re working with as an agency. So you can dig into a lot of blog posts there to get a behind the stage look.


Steffen: Perfect. As always, we’ll leave that information in the show notes. Thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.


Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.