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6 Easy Ways to Help Spot a Bad Marketing Company

Congratulations! You did it! After all that hard work, you finally started your own business. Now it’s time to get the word out and hire a marketing agency. As you’ll soon find, if you haven’t already, there’s an infinite supply. How can you possibly choose? Between the buzzwords and jargon, you may feel lost. But maybe these six tips can help you avoid hiring a bad marketing company.

To be clear, we aren’t talking about illegal marketing scams, but legal entities that may not be the best fit for your brand.

Before we get into that, let’s define our target. What is “marketing,” anyway?

There are actually two definitions:

By definition A, everyone’s a marketer.

But by the common term, we’re talking about how to promote your business in the marketplace.

After working in the restaurant industry for 20 years, I can tell you perception is reality.

If it doesn’t look clean, it ain’t. And when new customers see your business either online or in person, it must look legitimate.

Because if it doesn’t look legit, it ain’t.

You’ve already spent much of your hard-earned money building your business. And now it’s time to spend more on marketing.

Only now, you must place your brand reputation in the hands of strangers.

When we put it like that, choosing the right agency seems even more daunting.

Who can you trust?

Only you can answer that. But with a few tips, you might have better luck spotting a bad marketing agency.

Look at all the People

Open a browser and tab out a few potential marketing agencies if you have any in mind.

Pick your favorite, and reference it as we go through this article.

Now, scroll down the main page, and click around on other areas and see what you notice.

No specific order, just casually browse.

Do you see any people?

Specifically, do you see any real people?

I mean people that actually work at the agency you’re researching. Not stock photos.

For example, this image is a red flag. You know these people aren’t clients or employees.

But what’s wrong with that, you ask?

Well, think about it.

We defined marketing as promoting your business in a market. And if a market consists of people, then shouldn’t marketing agencies naturally promote their people and clients?

I’m not going to pick on anyone’s website negatively, so let’s do the opposite and check out a “green flag” example.

Open this ‘About me‘ section for Parachute Media. You’ll like this one.

Notice how the team instantly pops? These definitely aren’t actors.

After scrolling down, you see individual profiles for each person. They don’t only talk about their professional skills. They highlight who they are as people, not tools.

Parachute Media is clearly a cohesive and creative unit.

Before you contact anyone, you already feel like you’ve met them after reading about their interests and hobbies.

More than that, they let their marketing skills shine. If they put this much care and effort into their ‘About Us’ section, think of what they could do for your brand.

Do you only see stock photos with your prospects?

If not, how can you expect anyone to promote your people when they don’t bother to promote their own?

Do They Want a Cookie?

While you browse your prospective marketing company, do you see any awards?

Of course, legitimate accolades are excellent. It shows the agency has credibility.

But do they post generic-looking trophies everywhere? Or do they brag about legitimate awards?

Check out Foundry 360s website. They earned the Content Marketing Agency’s Agency of the Year award in 2021.

Awesome. They share that as they should, they earned it.

Snip from Foundry360's website showing Agency of the Year 2021 award
Image from

And they have a few other awards on their ‘About’ section, but they don’t overdo it.

You’ll know bad taste when you see it.

Bragging comes off as disingenuous even if they earned prestigious awards.

Also, watch out for reviews. Especially when they score a perfect 5/5 from unverified users.

If your prospective agency is more interested in sharing their trophy collection than their team, that says something.

Some companies talk more about skills and awards but integrate how the individual team members helped. Or how the agency helped boost sales for clients.

Proven results are great, but you need to see how they earned them.

Hello? Anyone There?

Woman on phone, waiting on hold can be a sign of a bad marketing company
Credit: Stocksnap

As we’ve said, a good marketing company puts its people first. But can you make human contact?

We know marketing agencies range in size from a couple of people to international businesses.

For example, I’m a one-man band, so my contact page is super simple.

Some agencies must use toll-free lines due to their size, so we expect some are easier to connect with than others.

But it’s not understandable when companies make it extremely difficult for potential clients to speak with a live human.

Take a look at your prospects and see if you can find a phone number. A local line is a good sign someone will actually pick up.

And phone trees aren’t necessarily a sign of a bad marketing company. It just depends on how long it takes to get a real voice on the line.

Also, many websites host live chats, but they can be hit or miss.

I stumbled upon Making You Content recently, an agency in England.

When I said ‘hi’ in the chat, I was pleasantly surprised to find I got the agency manager. I checked their LinkedIn and matched the name.

Not a third-party customer service tech or, worse, a bot.

Your marketing agency must be an expert in making human connections. That’s what you’re paying them for.

See if they know how to bond with people before asking them to promote your business.

What’s the Story?

Boy amazed while reading a book
Image by Kindel Media

The most effective form of marketing is storytelling. For humans, storytelling predates history.

As homo-sapiens, we’re naturally drawn to stories.

Park Howell created an entire marketing company based on storytelling. In Howells’s book Brand Bewitchery, he describes the origin of his business model.

If you like movies or fiction, you’re already familiar with it.

The Monomyth, more commonly known as “The Hero’s Journey,” is the basic formula for storytelling.

Diagram of The Hero's Journey
Image from Wikipedia

You can apply just about any movie to this formula.

But there’s a reason why storytelling is essential. That’s because people are more likely to remember facts when wrapped in a story.

Also, people are more likely to support your brand if the back story resonates with them.

Take Combat Flip Flops, for example.

After serving in the US Army in Afghanistan earlier in the war, the founders wanted to help make real change in the war-torn country.

Once they left the service, they opened a flip flop factory in Afghanistan to create jobs and help put Afghan girls through school.

That made it super easy to know where to get my next pair of toe-splitters. By the way, they’re high quality too.

Now, look at your potential agencies. Do you see a story?

It doesn’t have to be a complete biography, but a good marketing agency will share their mission and their ‘why.’

A bad marketing company will leave you without making that natural human connection.

Copy and Design

Two computer monitors showing design templates, a bad design could be a sign of a bad marketing company
Image by Tranmautritam

They say brands have about seven seconds to impress potential customers once they land on their website.

That’s how long it takes people to judge website credibility.

What was your first impression of your potential agency’s design?

Was it sharp? Or did it look like something from the 1990s?

How times have changed.

Don’t get me wrong. Looks aren’t everything, and my site isn’t winning any awards.

But if you’re looking for someone to create and maintain your site, the design might be more important.

Either way, their layout indicates how much time they invested into impressing you.

Don’t forget that’s what you’re paying them for. Did they give you a good first impression?

Also, check the web copy.

Do you get a human connection from the text? Or do they fill their page with buzzwords and jargon to convince you they can deliver the world?

Also, see if they have a ‘Services’ or ‘Solutions’ section on their site that defines what they do.

Do they focus on content marketing? Or maybe social media?

Generalist agencies are great, but it might be too good to be true if they say yes to everything.

Go Undercover

Monochrome Photo of Man Wearing Fedora Hat
Image by Cottonbro

Ok, this might be unusual. But you’re about to invest money, time, and your brand’s reputation in the hands of strangers.

So hear me out.

Consider making brief contact with a potential agency without expressing interest in becoming a client.

Don’t worry. You can do this ethically.

As you probably know, people will treat you differently when they want something from you. In this case, your money.

If you have a sibling or family member that’s willing, have them call and ask about job opportunities. Or maybe ask them to pose as a marketing student and ask about internships.

A call doesn’t have to be a 15-minute conversation. Just get enough time to feel out their attitude.

Do they genuinely want to help? Or do you feel like another voice on the phone?

If they have a local office, stop in and ask for directions. If they tell you to check Google Maps and go back to playing Candy Crush, that could be a sign of a bad marketing company.

I know what you’re thinking.

Talking to someone about an internship is totally different than inquiring about becoming a client. And it is.

But regardless, your interaction will indicate what kind of people you’re dealing with.

You want people-people. Not a toxic agency where people only smile at you when they want your money.

How they treat people, in general, speaks volumes.

Finding a Bad Marketing Agency is Easier Than You Think

To recap, there’s a lot to consider when deciding who to trust with your brand messaging and reputation.

And with so many variables between your business needs and agency offerings, there’s no hard and fast rule on who is best.

A marketing agency that’s good for me may not suit you.

But with these indicators, you might get a better idea of how to spot a bad marketing agency.

I wouldn’t judge any business based on these red flags alone. Yet combining these observations with what they offer you, you might have a clearer picture.

But really, you are the best judge for your business.

Spend some time looking at different sites, and you’ll start to pick up on patterns that suggest who looks promising and who looks like they just want your money.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to listen to your gut!


Hi, I'm Greg. The pen IS mightier than the sword!