Choosing the right partner

While we see ourselves as a partner to our clients we know for many businesses getting this relationship right is challenging. So while it may seem strange for us to be writing a guide on how to choose the right partner, we feel our experiences both as a client and a supplier could benefit everyone in their own search.

Unfortunately, getting this decision wrong is all too easy, but also nothing to be ashamed of. In my previous roles in various director level positions, the first question I was always asked to do was to find new partners – be it Digital Marketing or Development, because the existing relationship has broken down.

Sometimes this can’t be avoided and is simply because the two businesses have grown apart in scale or resources and a change is needed. Most of the time however, it is because the relationship wasn’t right to begin with and has been a strain for both parties throughout. In this guide I aim to cover off all the steps you should take when looking for a new external partner (agency) this can be any discipline, but for the purpose of this article we are considering Website Development & Digital Marketing agencies.

1) Think Longer Term

The time and effort it takes to write a tender document, research suitable agencies, meet each of them, narrow down, make a decision, on-board – Then finally get to work, IS MASSIVE. It is a drain on your internal team and is holding you back doing anything to grow your business while the process takes place. This is why you should first spend some time thinking about where you want your business to go in the long term.

In an ideal world your new partner should be someone to grow with you for a minimum of 2-3 years and is invested in your success. So before tackling an in-depth tender document you need to first tick these boxes:

  • Define your 3 year plan
  • Map out how much support you need now Vs in the future (when you might hire skills in-house?)
  • Note any external factors that may arise i.e. Internal Systems upgrades, Warehouse changes, International selling, Marketplace opportunities.
  • Ultimately you should know how much you can afford to spend both in terms of CAPEX and OPEX

2) Writing your tender document

Before contacting any possible partners you should have a complete document ready to send out. The most obvious benefit of this is that whoever you send it to should be able to understand the scope of work and provide a realistic quote. The second benefit is that by writing the document it will force you to once again think longer term about what you want to achieve.

What should be included in the document?

  • Brief overview of your business (history, organisational set-up, key people, 3 year plan snapshot)
  • Any direct competitors, including your thoughts on their business, their website and how they operate – what you like / dislike
  • Any other business that you like or do things that you like and want to apply to your own business.
  • Current state of play, exactly where you are that a new partner will be coming in at. You should cover off everything from current problems to things that are working well.
  • Summary Brief of what you are looking for (not detailed but 1-2 short paragraphs of what you want in a partner and work.
  • Then Specifics

For the specific requirements this really comes down to you, however below are two possible examples of the types of things that may be included for

a) A new Website Build and

  • Multi Currency (GBP, EURO, USD)
  • Multi Inventory (2 warehouse locations)
  • Multi Payment Solutions (Credit/Debit, Paypal, ApplePay, VisaPay)
  • Easy to Merchandise Content
  • Product Catalogue >2,000 SKUs
  • Mobile First Design Principles
  • Integration to Internal ERP
  • Customer Account / Loyalty rewards
  • Automated Returns Processes
  • Youtube Integration
  • User Generated Content Solution
  • Email Marketing Integration
  • Shopping Feed automation
  • 1 Page Checkout
  • Google Analytics Installed
  • Social Sharing Installed

b) A new Digital Marketing Agency

  • PPC Management (Adwords/Bing)
  • Google Shopping Implementation
  • Paid Social Management
    • Facebook
    • Instagram
    • Pinterest
  • Re-targetting Implementation
  • Display Marketing Management
  • Basket Abandonment re-marketing
  • Affiliate Network Set-up
  • Affiliate Marketing Management
  • Attribution Reporting
  • ROI and ROAS reporting
  • Quarterly Strategic Reviews

Then you end the tender document with what you want the response to cover:

  • Thoughts on brief, show that you understand the company and it’s goals
  • Technology / Software proposal
  • Project Plan to implement
  • Fees
  • Next steps

Now you’re ready to send it out…

3) Shortlisting Partners / Agencies

In the world of Digital this can seem like an impossible task as there are literally 0,000’s, all of which equally capable on paper of doing the work. I find the best course of action is one or all of the following:

Let an independent shortlist for you
This can sometimes be the best option, while you might pay a small fee for this service what you are buying is an experienced person/companies knowledge of the industry and experience of working with multiple different agencies & suppliers. Normally going down this route will at least give 3-5 possible agencies with a detailed summary of who they are and how they work before even engaging them.

Websites or Work that you admire
This doesn’t even need to be from your same industry or sector, but if you have 3 or 4 websites or brands that you like and aspire to, then reach out to them and ask who they use. For websites you can also easily find out what technology their site is built on using tools like

Use your own network
Again, sometimes the most important thing is recommendation. Use your own network to ask around if anyone can recommend people they enjoy working with or had great results with.

Google / agency own websites
This can be very time consuming and nearly all websites look the same, but if you focus on case studies or ‘work’ then you should be able to scan through plenty of companies until you find relevant work to your own brief – however generally speak nowadays the only agencies that will show up on Google are the massive ones as it’s so expensive to advertise. So make sure you get a nice variation of size, scale and location (agencies outside of London can often be more affordable).

Supplier led recommendation
This last one is also sometimes untapped, you can approach the main suppliers i.e. Google, Shopify, Magento, Rakuten, etc and ask them to provide suitable partners based on your brief & budget.

4) Narrowing Down / Making a decision

Once you have your shortlist (Minimum 5, Maximum 10) and have sent your Tender Document, it is down to you if you have the time to meet them all face to face. If you can, then this is beneficial and is good to do across 1-2 days so you see everyone all together.

Expect most of their responses (by way of presentations back to you) to be very similar, assuming they have all understood the brief then they should all be similar! The main thing about meeting them is to get an idea of if they have gone further than the briefing document – i.e. really understood what you want and have gone above and beyond. Also it’s this stage where you need to start thinking about culture and personality fit.
Can you see yourself working with these people day in, day out for 2-3 years?
The working relationship is so important and needs to be one of your main judging criteria, find out how they work, how they communicate with their clients, how many people they have, who in the team will be working with you.

Then lastly it is about the cost. If you have provided enough detail in the brief then they should be able to provide costs 80% accurate.

Again, here’s our decision checklist:

  • Who attended the meeting? Just the sales guy or the wider team
  • Did they understand the brief
  • Do they understand your industry / sector
  • Have they gone ‘above’ just responded to your brief
  • Can you see yourself working with them long term
  • How do their costs compare with the rest
  • Were they able to offer references of existing clients that you can speak to.

Lastly, when narrowing down it is important for not only you to meet them, get the rest of your team involved and, if applicable, your manager as well – you are bringing in a business partner and should behave as one.

Good luck… but if you decide going through all of the above is simply way too much work then we can make it easy for you. Send us an email or give us a call 🙂