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Run, Don’t Walk: Five Marketing Agency Red Flags

February 2, 2021

By Chip LaFleur, originally featured in SBAM’s FOCUS Magazine

In Michigan, most of us associate red flags with high waves, dangerous currents and a cautious approach. For many small businesses, hiring a marketing agency can feel just as precarious, especially if you’ve had negative experiences in the past. You don’t want to waste your marketing budget on bad advice, a sloppy marketing plan and ineffective tactics.

Throughout LaFleur’s history, I’ve placed transparency, collaboration, and mutual respect at the forefront of our agency culture. Unfortunately, not every marketing agency approaches its work with the same commitment and integrity.

Based on my experience as a marketing practitioner and executive, I’ve gathered this list of five marketing agency “red flags” that every small business owner should know. Hopefully, this will help you avoid any potential pitfalls when outsourcing your marketing efforts.

The Agency Undervalues Data and Transparency

Today’s marketing is about more than brilliant ad copy and beautiful design. While those elements are essential, exceptional marketers use automated data processes to identify the right messages, deliver most effective campaigns and maximize your marketing budget. If a marketing agency doesn’t value data, it can’t do its job. Even the most experienced marketer’s intuition isn’t enough.

Let’s look at a real-life example. Suppose you’re the owner of a boutique criminal defense firm in Michigan, and you’re building your first blog calendar. You have a list of possible topics, and your agency does some keyword research using SEMrush—a trusted data analytics tool. They prioritize two metrics: monthly search volume and the difficulty of achieving first-page search result placement:

Expungement in Michigan (1,000 monthly searches and moderate-to-high keyword difficulty)

How do I expunge my criminal record in Michigan? (90 monthly searches and moderate keyword difficulty)

DUI expungement Michigan (50 monthly searches, low-to-moderate keyword difficulty)

While “expungement in Michigan” gets a lot of traffic, it’s not going to be easy to achieve a good position on Google or Bing. Your content strategist examines the phrase’s top-ranking pages, and they include content from reputable sources like the State of Michigan and the Detroit Free Press. The same pages rank well for “How do I expunge my criminal record in Michigan.”

However, the results for “DUI expungement Michigan” showcase your competitors: small to mid-sized criminal defense firms. They seem beatable. Rather than waste your time and money on a potentially unattainable keyword, your agency chooses the topic that may give you the most reach and visibility. 

Your marketing partner should be doing this type of analysis consistently and continuously. Ask marketing agencies about their use of data-driven strategies and their preferred key performance indicators (KPIs). If they’re using a scattershot approach, you’ll get inconsistent results and waste your budget.

You should also receive frequent marketing performance reports from your marketing partner. It’s impossible to assess your return on investment and improve performance without consistent information.

Subject Matter Expertise Isn’t Important to Them

Whether your business provides clients with electronic components, financial planning services or insurance policies, you have a niche. Your marketing partner should understand your industry, products, ideal customers and unique challenges. Cookie-cutter solutions won’t resonate with your prospects or express the value of your offerings.

Your target audience has questions they want answered and needs that must be met. Regardless of how vague or specific these questions and solutions are, your marketing agency must be able to proactively identify them and deliver compelling, well-designed campaigns and assets that exceed your leads’ needs.

Be sure to ask your marketing agency contacts about their onboarding process, their staff’s experience and strong suits, who will be working on your account and whether you’ll have a dedicated team with the time, resources and expertise necessary to become subject matter experts on your behalf. If an agency doesn’t seem interested in diving deep into your business, its products and your competitors, it’s probably a bad fit.

The Agency’s Website and Social Media Presence Stinks

A marketing agency’s website and social media presence should reflect their voice and the quality of their work product. If it’s creating subpar materials for its own marketing efforts, it’s probably doing the same (or worse) for its clients. Look for a marketing agency whose digital properties and social platforms speak to you. You should also ask to see some of its client work.

They Don’t Have Long-Term Clients and Partnerships

While short-term agency-client relationships aren’t uncommon, excessive churn may be another sign of poor results or service. Ask agencies about their long-term client relationships and the results they’ve delivered for these clients. Better yet, ask for case studies and real-time testimonials.

At LaFleur, we’ve worked with some of our clients for years. One of them has been with us since our inception. And, because we’re highly data and results-driven, we can express exactly how we’ve delivered for these businesses. You deserve a partner that can do the same.

You Won’t Own Your Marketing Assets

I believe that when you pay for a website, blog article, eBook, email campaign or social strategy, you should own the work product. Unfortunately, some agencies use a different model. If you change partners, you’ll lose your website domain, design and content. It’s an underhanded way to discourage client attrition.

While you may pay less up front to essentially rent your website and its content, it’s a poor investment over time. If the marketing agency underperforms, you’ll have to start from scratch—which is a costly and time-intensive process. If you won’t have sole ownership of your digital assets, look elsewhere.

When in Doubt, Ask for a Second Opinion

Selecting a marketing partner can be daunting. If you don’t feel like you’re up to auditing an agency’s performance, evaluating its proposals or reviewing KPIs, seek out a consultant to help. At LaFleur we’re committed to helping Michigan’s small businesses succeed, and we’re always happy to review marketing plans and website performance.


Chip LaFleur became involved in website development when he used a dialup connection to explore the bulletin board system (a precursor to the World Wide Web). Soon, he was learning HTML and building websites. While working for an advertising agency, Chip became convinced that digital marketing’s trackability was more effective than traditional marketing platforms. 

In 2015, Chip founded LaFleur. In the beginning, the Grand Rapids-based marketing agency focused on legal marketing, helping law firms nationwide build effective marketing plans, empower their communities and reach their ideal clients. Today, the agency focuses on digital marketing for professional services, with deep specializations in heavily regulated industries like legal, healthcare and financial services.

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