Nearly 86% of B2C companies and 91% of B2B companies say they use content in their marketing strategies.

Of these, 62% (B2C) and 56% (B2B) use external resources for certain content marketing activities. Content creation, content promotion, performance measurement and strategy are just a few examples of activities that are regularly delegated to experts outside the organization.

However, in more than half of the cases, the internal team is composed of a single person serving the brand as a whole. One can guess that this person has to wear several hats! … and may have to deal with burnout in some cases!

The choice of which external resources to hire becomes very important, especially with the speed at which the content marketing landscape changes each year.

This article aims to help you in your decision-making process towards the choice of the best content agency for your brand.

We will cover the following topics:

  • Agency or freelancers? 
  • Category experience of content agencies
  • Niche content agency vs digital agency
  • The breadth of services offered
  • Auditing the internal services of a content agency
  • How to evaluate the price 
  • How to evaluate an agency’s clients
  • The final selection

Once you’ve gone through our recommendations below, don’t hesitate to also read our articles on:

Agency or freelancers?

The first question you have to ask yourself is: Do I need an agency?

If you are currently experiencing one or more of these challenges, an agency may well be needed:

  • Lack of time to create content
  • Produce a wide variety of content
  • Produce truly engaging content
  • Measure the effectiveness of content initiatives
  • Develop a solid content strategy

But first, let’s define what we mean by content agency.

In our view, a content agency is a group of experts dedicated to content, working with a varied client base by providing them with one or more of these services: content strategy, production, publishing, distribution and amplification.

What is very important to us is the notion of a dedicated content team. A content department within a traditional or digital agency may not be your best ally. You will be better served by an agency with deep expertise in its field, content in this case, working together with your agency ecosystem including creative agency, digital agency, media agency and PR agency.

Experience has shown that trying to combine all these capabilities under one roof rarely results in a happy outcome. There is real relevance in entrusting different expertises to different agencies.

The birth of content agencies

The term content marketing agency has only been around for a few years now.

We see this situation as a repetition of what happened in the early 2000s with digital agencies.

When having a website became a necessity for any self-respecting brand, the traditional agencies tried to integrate this new service into their offer by hiring teams and developing internal expertise (programmers, integrators, etc.).

However, over the years, many brands came to realize that they had poorly performing digital properties, which were all too often copies of traditional TV campaigns (for example).

That’s when digital agencies came into being and became an essential part of any marketing manager’s life. A digital agency dedicated to the evolution of the different e-commerce platforms, user experience (UX), user interfaces (UI), and so many others.

That’s why nowadays, you will often see a creative agency working together with a digital agency.

And we believe the same thing is happening with content.

We are currently seeing several advertising agencies trying to integrate content expertise into their teams, sometimes working with the same creatives on both direct response promotional campaigns and content initiatives.

And as you can guess, in many cases the process is arduous, the result does not live up to expectations and so on.

The relevance of a content agency thus becomes more and more meaningful each year, with different teams than what the other agencies have (our employees come more often from journalism and television rather than advertising) and different timeframes (we work with content programs, year-round initiatives that medium- to long-term, rather than ad hoc content campaigns).

A question you should ask yourself before any agency search process is what structure you want to set up. What positions are to be filled internally, which positions will be outsourced, etc.? This topic has often been covered in various media, and we have also published an article on the subject.

Working with freelancers

One option chosen by many brands is where the internal team manages a list of freelancers, hiring them based on initiatives and needs.

This approach is interesting because it ensures great control over costs, allowing a lower average hourly rate than what you might get working with an agency.

By working with freelancers, it is possible to have a team that can cover a very broad spectrum of expertise, without the weight of managing a full-time internal team.

However, you should be aware that by working this way, you may find yourself working without a net. If a freelancer gets sick, takes a vacation, works on a different mandate than yours, you’ll have to deal with it on your own.

These are things to consider in the workload of the person who will be responsible for freelancers in your organization. This type of management can sometimes quickly become a coordination task, far from strategic thinking.

Several platforms allow you to find freelancers in your area, depending on your specific needs. Upwork is one of the platforms often mentioned for finding freelancers anywhere on the planet. Although the hourly rates offered by these freelancers are sometimes tempting, be careful, quality is not always a given. Be sure to offer test mandates before you entrust a major project to a new freelancer. Learn to know the resources that will be part of your address book.

Working with an agency

Working with an agency can have several advantages.

In many cases, the range of services offered by your agency will ensure consistency between the strategy, production and deployment phases of your content. You will be assured of the continuity between each step, obtaining a solution that can be very close to turnkey.

Your input into the process can thus be at the level of overall direction and strategy, without having to coordinate every step of the mandates in detail.

Working with an agency also allows you to be assured of consistency in service and depth from their team. If a team member leaves the agency or gets sick, you will be assured of continuity and a constant capacity of work.

However, these advantages also mean that an agency’s hourly rate is higher than that of a freelancer.

The questions you should ask yourself when choosing an agency are:

  • Does the agency have any experience in my category?
  • What services do they offer?
  • Are these services provided internally or via partners outside the agency?
  • What is the agency’s rate card?
  • Who are the agency’s clients?

All these factors mean that when you make the decision to change your content agency or find your first one, you must take care to make your choice in a thoughtful and structured way. There are a very large number of content agencies in Canada and elsewhere, making it all the more difficult.

Ask yourself whether you have the internal capacity (and desire) to manage freelancers, or whether the concept of a turnkey approach from an agency is what you need.

Category experience of content agencies

You know the sector and industry in which your brand lives. Is it in a highly regulated sector? In an industry where legislation has a strong hold on marketing and communication opportunities?

If this is the case, it can obviously be interesting to call on an agency with experience in your category. However, it may become a hindrance to innovation, with ways of doing things that are based on other customers who may not have been as innovative as you are.

As we have seen in the previous section, by using an agency, you free your internal teams from the coordination of projects, while allowing them to be able to work with your agency at a strategic level.

By default, you are also the ones who have the most intimate knowledge of the legislative framework in which your brand evolves. This gives you the opportunity to work with your agency as it navigates your category, while opening the door to innovative and unexpected ideas.

However, the comfort of an agency that has made its teeth on former clients similar to your brand may be what you are looking for and it is in such cases that it can make sense to pay particular attention to the category experience of the agencies you will consider.

Assess whether your industry is so specific and unique that it requires more experience from your marketing partners. In many cases, your own internal experience will be sufficient to guide and direct your external partners.

Niche content agency vs digital agency

One thing to always consider is if the agencies you are considering working with are specialized and experts in content marketing or if this is part of their larger digital service offering.

Many traditional agencies have started building content teams inside their organization, but make sure you do your homework. In many cases, these teams are actually composed of a couple content strategists that outsource a lot of the actual content work to subcontractors.

While it can be relevant for you to work with an existing partner that has an in-house content team, ask yourself if it could be relevant to integrate an expert content agency.

Working with a wider-offering digital or traditional agency can be relevant in many cases, but for some brands, existing partners might not have the processes or internal experts to support an always-on content program.

The spectrum of services offered

You have an internal team, you have developed specific expertise and your objective is to get support from an agency that can handle a certain number of expertises that you do not have in-house.

An important step in finding the ideal agency is to make a list of the services you will need. What internal capacities do you have? Which ones do you need?

Also, remember that while a member of your team may be able to take on a task, it does not mean that it should be done by that person. You may wish to delegate this task to your agency so that you can develop new expertise in-house.

At Toast, we divide all content-related tasks into three broad categories:

  1. Content strategy
  2. Content production
  3. Publication, deployment and amplification of content

These three categories comprise a series of tasks.

Content strategy

Content strategy is the initial step of your content program. The one where you define the tactics that will be put in place, the initiatives that will be implemented.

However, content strategy is also a series of tasks that must be present throughout your program, which allows you to constantly adjust and adapt the content produced according to the results and performance you achieve through the deployment of it.

Here are the main elements to consider when evaluating your agency in terms of content strategy. Assess whether the agency is able to accompany you on the following areas of expertise:

  • Analysis of business objectives
  • Establishment of performance criteria (KPI, ROI)
  • Market research and analysis of your audience
  • Audit of existing content assets
  • Development of personas
  • Editorial calendar planning
  • Definition of the tone and manner of the brand
  • Accompaniment in the hiring process of internal content teams

These services allow you to establish your content strategy, but also manage it along the way.

Content production

If you are one of the companies that have a single person serving the entire organization in terms of content, it would be very surprising if that person could manage strategy, write content, shoot video and make the media buys necessary to amplify what is published.

Content production is by far the type of mandate most often delegated to external resources.

Here are some examples of what may be needed in production:

  • Writing team (editors, journalists, copywriters, etc.)
  • Light shooting crew (for the production of simple digital videos, where you shoot 5-10-15 contents assets in one day)
  • International film crew (if your content needs require you to meet with foreign experts in your field for example)
  • Shooting crew for premium video content (these pieces of content you produce only a few times a year, at a higher budget)
  • Product photographer
  • Photojournalist
  • Translation team for the languages in which you operate
  • etc.

Your goal in the search for the ideal agency is to ensure that it will be able to provide the services you need. The idea is not to have to hire freelancers again for some of the services you need on a regular basis.

Publishing, deploying and amplifying content

Once the content is produced, it needs to be distributed to your audience.

A function often delegated to an external agency is the management of social media. This approach ensures that a team is responsible for adapting and publishing the content produced for the different platforms where your brand is active.

But this deployment stage may often require additional initiatives to ensure that content performance is met and results are measured and aligned with the performance indicators of your content strategy.

You could use an agency for the following services:

  • Content performance measurement (KPIs, analytics)
  • Social media management
  • Community management
  • Native advertising
  • Social Media Marketing (SMM)
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
  • Influencer marketing
  • Real time listening
  • Consultation on brand command centres

It is up to you to evaluate the different types of expertise you need, those you wish to keep internally and those for which you need support.

To properly evaluate your needs and the requirements of your future agency, build a table where you will make a list of the capabilities that you will need (you can use the three lists above). For each capability, indicate whether it will be performed internally or externally. The list of external tasks will be key in your search for the ideal agency.

Auditing the internal services of a content agency

Another important factor to consider when choosing your agency is whether the services they offer are performed in-house or whether the agency itself uses external partners and resources.

If, in the end, you end up using an agency that outsources all its services, there may be very little added value for you to use it instead of hiring an additional internal resource.

However, even an agency that outsources some of its services does not mean that you could recreate everything in-house as well. It may have developed processes with its partners, allowing it to be very efficient, thus offering you a significant gain on the challenge of creating the same structure in-house.

Ask the agencies you are considering what services are done in-house and which ones it uses partners or freelancers. Visit their offices, their facilities, meet their team.

How to evaluate the price

An important factor (often considered the most important) in choosing an agency is its price.

Where is it on the price scale? Is it rather high-end or does it focus on producing lower-cost, simpler content?

At Toast, the founders have been stressing for several years the importance of covering the entire budget spectrum for our customers. Thus, we are able to produce simple content assets where a single videographer can do the work, up to more complex productions, internationally with a team of 15-20 people. The same is also true for editorial content.

The best way to evaluate the price of an agency is to ask for a formal proposal. However, much like the production of a website, the same considerations can be done in several ways, having a significant impact on the overall budget.

What we often recommend to our customers is to give us a comparable, existing production, and ask us to price the cost of production of such a deliverable. The idea is to respond upstream to several production considerations by using a finished product and thus being able to establish the cost of production more precisely.

This can come from your own existing content assets, but it can also come from an example you want to reproduce.

This method makes it easy to establish the price range in which the agency works. This approach also simplifies the work of the agency team when pricing your example.

This method is not infallible, but it can allow you to easily obtain different proposals from different agencies, knowing that they will all have based their budget on the same level of production and work.

By asking an agency to quote on one or more existing deliverables, such as strategy, production or deployment, you will have better assurance that the price provided can be compared to other proposals you receive or even the price you paid if it was a production for your brand.

How to evaluate an agency’s clients

The logos on a site and its portfolio are only part of what is important in an agency’s history.

Ask to contact some of the clients of the agencies you are considering. Obviously, just as in the references provided for a CV, they will only be positive.

But when talking to these clients, ask them the following questions:

  • How is the relationship with the agency going? Are there several contact points or is it a key person who manages the account?
  • How does project management work when a resource is on vacation or on leave? Does the agency ensure depth in their service?
  • Are there any services on which it is particularly strong and others on which it is less strong?
  • How long have you been with the agency? How has the agency evolved during this period?

You can also consult this article from the Content Marketing Institute, which details a number of other questions you can ask the agencies you are considering, particularly when it comes to evaluating their performance.

By talking to existing clients, you will gain an overview of the relationship you may have with the agency. When working with an external agency, your goal must be to build a long-term relationship and the past can be an excellent indicator of the basis on which your future relationship with it will be. 

The final selection

In the end, you will likely find yourself with a list of three to five agencies you would like to work with.

A good way to make your final selection is to build a scoring system, weighing the importance you will place on each element that may influence your decision:

  • Category experience
  • Spectrum of services offered (be careful to distinguish their capabilities in strategy, production and deployment)
  • Auditing internal vs. external services
  • Price
  • Customers and their relationship with the agency

You may decide to give twice as much importance to the services offered (and what is done internally at the agency) as to the price, knowing that you will get value for your money. You are free to give more or less weight to each element in your calculation.

By creating a scorecard, you will be able to compare each agency in your shortlist against established criteria, a more formal approach to help you make your choice.

In conclusion

Throughout this process, also keep a little space for your instincts. In the end, it is you and your team that will work on a daily basis with the teams of the chosen agency and your instinct can often dictate what seems to be a good fit for you and your brand.

You will find many other articles on the subject, but we hope to have covered most of the factors that may influence your decision in selecting your future content agency.

At Toast (you can find us on DesignRush), we often find ourselves at the heart of a content agency selection process and appreciate marketing departments that take the time to evaluate an agency as a whole, not just on the basis of its online portfolio or a summary evaluation of their website.

So don’t hesitate to evaluate us, to include us in your scorecard, to ask us to talk to our clients, to come and visit our offices!