5 Questions to Ask a Digital Ad Agency (Free Printable Checklist)

"Ren, I don't know what any of it means."

One of my clients called me last December, utterly confused. She was excited about the potential of a Very Fancy New SEO Lead Generating Campaign, but didn't know where or how the campaign would be conducted. A big-city digital ad agency representative pitched the Campaign over lunch, and my client was presented a package and contract to double her business in 90 days. In a 45 minute lunch, she had heard terms she didn't know, coupled with promises and guarantees. The rep seemed nice, so she had said yes and signed a contract.

It wasn't a catastrophe, but it was a decision made without all the facts. She was a business owner, not a marketing expert, and she didn't understand what questions to ask before saying yes. And worse, she was locked into a 6 month, nearly $1,000 per month contract.

The Fancy New SEO Lead Generating Campaign didn’t lead to any increase in revenue, and after her six month contract, my client was eager to discontinue the campaign.

Sound familiar? I've encountered dozens of small business owners who were wooed and burned by digital agencies, making flashy presentations and big promises. But before you're seduced and sign a contract, here are Five Questions To Ask a Digital Ad Agency.

1. How does this campaign support my business' goals?

Advertising agencies are marketers, so it's no surprise that often their pitches include headlines and blanket promises: "We'll increase your website traffic by 10 percent!" "We'll get you more likes on Facebook in 30 days for just $250!" "We'll serve your advertisement to 10,000 people on Google!" "We'll get you 500 leads a month!"

Look past the headline and get to the heart of the objective of the campaign. How does increasing my website traffic increase sales for my HVAC business? How does managing my Facebook page sell more products? If the ad rep in front of you can't connect the dots, specifically, on how a proposed digital marketing campaign impacts business' bottom line, then they don't care about you or your business, they're interested in a check. And if they don't care about you, in person, trying to close a sale? They won't care about you or your business six months into a contract.

2. Are the proposed marketing campaign's goals SMART?

Wait, what is SEO again? Digital marketing campaigns can be incredibly complicated, with a lot of moving parts that you might not understand. And you know what? That's OK! But the goals of any marketing effort created by a third party should be easy for you to understand and SMART. SMART Goals are Strategic, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-based. A campaign should:

Strategically align with your business' mission
Measured easily for success with pre-determined key performance indicators
Attainable in scope and scale based on resources invested
Realistic in expectations for outcomes from a campaign
Time-based and evaluated at the conclusion of a pre-determined period

Go through each element of a SMART goal with a sales rep. How does this campaign align with a particular sales goal with my business? How will results of the campaign be measured? Have results been attained in similar campaigns conducted by your agency? Per industry standards, are our goals for this campaign realistic? When will we regroup to discuss the effectiveness of this campaign and its return on investment?

3. How will we track leads or product sales from your agency's efforts?

Once you start working with an ad agency, there can be a bit of a phantom success effect. Every new client, every extra phone call, every new sale can feel like it's from The Fancy New Campaign by Fancy Agency. But research shows us that customers have to hear a message eight times before they'll make a purchase. So adding a spoke to the wheel with a new digital marketing can make an impact and generate new sales, absolutely, but you may have been seeding the ground. Don't attribute the harvest to a fancy new campaign.

Instead, ask specifically what steps will be taken to track all sales connected to an agency's campaign. You should be able to view landing page traffic information from a trackable URL or have a tracking phone number set up for specific calls. You should be able to see a tally of results from a specific effort. Combined with your own sales numbers, this creates the formula that you'll use to determine your return on investment. But without tracking those leads, you're lost, and the agency just keeps showing you how pretty the ads are. Pretty ads don't keep the lights on, sales do.

4. How will campaign data be made available to me?

Let's be frank: there are smoke and mirror businesses in every industry, but the illusion is thick with digital advertising companies. Agencies and sales rep depend on your ignorance and disinterest in examining the results of a digital ad campaign, so they can continue billing for campaigns that aren't working. Make it known before you sign a contract that you have a set and clear expectation that results be shared with you at least once every 30 days. Lead names and email addresses should be made available within an Excel spreadsheet; Facebook Ads Manager dashboard screenshots should be made available to you. If they're not willing to be transparent with how they're spending your money with ads, they are not a good ad agency. Get up and leave, or they will take your money.

Let’s be frank: there are smoke and mirror businesses in every industry, but the illusion is thick with digital advertising companies.


5. How will we refresh the campaign after 90 days?

This is the biggest question. For most ad agencies, they'll set a campaign and let it run for six months, maybe a year, billing you monthly, without doing any additional work. But the power of the Internet allows agencies to easily monitor the effectiveness of a campaign in real time. Ask -- no, demand that there be a formal review of the campaign's results after 90 days. At that time, you as a business owner should be able to see all of the campaign's impact to determine your return on investment, as well as discussing ways to refresh the creative to better impact next quarter's sales goals. Don't allow your agency to be lazy -- put a bit of pressure on them to be constantly lowering the cost per click or increasing the reach of a particular campaign. That's what they're paid to do.

Bottom line: I don't hate Big City Fancy Advertising Agencies. I think some of them are leading the industry in best practices, and their work can be transformative for a struggling business. Checkmate Consulting is working in partnership with two agencies for two Checkmate clients today to better serve their customers. But be an advocate for your business' marketing budget, ensuring that any campaign is making a difference to your bottom line. Don't be taken out to lunch and then taken for a ride for six months because you didn't ask some basic questions before saying yes.

If you're looking for a transparent digital marketing agency that will fight for your business' goals, we're here to help transform your business or partner with your current agencies as a consultant. Contact us to schedule a free consultation. 

Making Mary with Top Tomato

John and Marina Backes at Circle B Ranch have been Checkmate clients for nearly two years. Here at Checkmate, we're obsessed with their Berkshire pork products, including pork chops, bacon, hickory smoked hams and small batch sauces that go with everything. So it's easy for us to help meet their marketing needs.

For nearly two years, we've helped develop Circle B Ranch's social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Sales from their website, circlebranchpork.com, have gone up every year since we've joined their team. But John and Marina were looking for a standout product. Then, Marina came up with something special: Top Tomato Cocktail Mix.

We were hooked on the first sip.

So when Marina asked us to develop a product launch website just for Top Tomato Cocktail Mix, we jumped at the chance to help promote this incredible cocktail mix.

Marina wanted her website to be easy to navigate, mobile-friendly and feature copy that was sassy to match her brand.  We had a lot of fun developing out this scroll through design, featuring bold call to action buttons, high-quality product shots provided by Checkmate Consulting and conversion opportunities back to the Circle B Ranch main page.

And instead of reinventing the wheel, we used the currently in place ecommerce engine through Circle B Ranch's main site to drive online sales. This made online executing and tracking online purchases easy for Marina on the back end and familiar to Circle B Ranch customers on the front end.

We're proud of not only our finished project, but also the speed in which it was executed. This web development project, from initial conversation to launch date, took less than 45 days. 

Here's to another successful Checkmate Consulting website.

A (nearly) finished project

It's been a busy summer.

After returning from Italy, Greece and Turkey in May, I dove right into the biggest web development project Checkmate has conquered to date. In June, I shared with you the three big goals for this project: websites would feature a conversational tone, skimmable, engaging content and multiple conversion opportunities, including big, splashy contact us forms, automatically generated email responses and bios for staff members. 

On June 17, I presented a mock-up to the dean of technical education. With his enthusiastic approval, I embarked on a 200-hour project to execute his vision to better market these incredible programs and support the school's mission of providing quality technical education for local students.

And on Aug. 23, the last of these 21 department websites went live.

In the three weeks since its sitewide launch on OTC's first day of the fall semester, Checkmate has received numerous pieces of positive feedback on the functionality of the new department landing pages. Plus, in the first week alone, the technical education division received numerous emails from the contact forms on department pages from stakeholders and students seeking information during off-hours and online. 

But with any project that large, there are a last few tweaks and edits to make. Small line edits that were missed during proofing, reviewing the institution's style guide to ensure that web copy is consistent with brand standards and two minor, simple appearance changes to two department landing pages -- all work yet to be done. But it's work that we're excited to continue until this project will be exactly where and how the client wants it to look.

From pitch to implementation, we're more than six months into this major project at Checkmate Consulting. But we are so excited to be able to continue on this journey to excellence for OTC, a commitment we make for every brand to take them further.

2015: A Year of Change

diet center website screenshot.jpg


In October 2013, I sat down on the floor of my apartment next to my best friend, Anh, and decided I would start a business while watching "Grey's Anatomy."

I had no idea what I was doing; I had no clue the scope or span of what a LLC or a W-9 or an invoice really meant for my new venture. All I knew was that Meredith and McDreamy were on the outs again, and I was formalizing a working business relationship with my uncle, William Bishop, who owned Bishop Enterprises to do his social media for his company.

At the time, I did social media for a city lifestyle publication, and I was pretty good at my job. So I knew I definitely could do social media for my uncle, but I had no idea what was in store for me as a business owner.

Fast forward two years and a few more episodes later, I'm sitting at the desk of my home office in my new home, listening to my favorite Christmas piano album as I type on a laptop purchased for this thriving little business. This year alone, I met the needs of eight (8!) businesses, consulting on event planning, designing websites, writing brand standards and developing social media strategies for clients in the Ozarks, central Missouri, Ohio and beyond. 

In February, I developed and designed a website for Mike Luebbering Construction, adding website development to my stable of services available to current and prospective clients. In July and August, I worked alongside my first retailer, Etsy shop Linda Kay's Creations, to develop a fully functional digital portfolio of her handmade creations.

In September, I met and fell in love with the hogs of Circle B Ranch, a Berkshire humane hog farm an hour from my door. John and Marina joined two other clients to become the third Checkmate ongoing social management client. The ranch also served as my first food-based brand, letting me explore my passion for food writing outside of the publications I write reviews for and into the world of food marketing.

And in October, an old friend from college reached out to connect me with Claudia and Carol Ball, owners of Diet Center of Cincinnati. I was given the task to build their social marketing strategy from the ground up, developing brand standards, writing a formal website review and an all-encompassing social media strategy on both a monthly and yearly basis for the brand. The weight loss center became the fourth Checkmate ongoing social management client to close out the year.

It's been a busy year, full of punny tweets, engaging Facebook posts, click-worthy social advertisements and increasingly well done graphic design images, all created for Checkmate Consulting clients in mind. I'm developing my skills at a rapid pace, and I'm calling my dad, another small business owner, every time I don't know what to do. I'm getting better as we go along.

And in 2016, "Grey's Anatomy" will still be on ABC, Bishop Enterprises will still be a client and Anh will still be my best friend, serving as a trusted adviser when I ask how much is too much. We'll see what the year and Shonda Rhimes brings.