As a business owner, you’ll find many marketing agencies clamoring for the dollars in your marketing budget. As a leading marketing agency for small to mid-size businesses, we’ve heard many a nightmare story from clients, including getting delisted from Google while working with another agency and not having access to their own logo and not even owning their own domain name. At Precise Creative, we want to make marketing easy and accessible to businesses of all sizes — even if you’re a solopreneur working remotely.

Let’s take a look at these top issues with marketing agencies and what you should watch out for when selecting your marketing partner.

Red Flag #1: Make Sure You Own Your Brand Assets

We’ve inherited many a client that had a logo designed on the cheap—and what they got was a poorly pixelated design against a white rectangular background. This is about as basic and kindergarten as you can get with logo design. In the end, these clients have had to pay us to redesign their logo and provide all brand assets.

With any logo design project, be sure you receive the following:

  • Original Adobe Illustrator files (.ai)
  • JPG files
  • PNG files (transparent background)
  • PDF files
  • Black-and-white logo
  • Grayscale logo
  • All-black logo
  • All-white logo
  • All color values (CMYK, RGB, Hex)
  • All font names
  • Any gradients
  • Any transparencies
  • Logo/Brand Style Guide

Website design is another place where the wrong marketing company can take advantage of you. Be careful what you sign up for, and always read the fine print. Case in point, we’ve had clients to come to us for a new website design. On several occasions, we’ve found that the client didn’t even own their own website or domain name. As long as they continued to pay the prior agencies monthly fee, their website would be live and active. But if they stopped paying at any time, they’d lose both their website AND their domain.

With any website design project, be sure you receive the following:

  • Administrator (admin) access to the back end of your website.*
  • The ability to transfer your website to another developer or host provider with notice.
  • Ownership of your domain name. (It’s best if this is auto-billed to your credit card annually, rather than to the agency.)

*NOTE: If you don’t know what you’re doing, we don’t recommend making any changes to your website on your own as you can really create some havoc—and it will cost you more money to fix it than to have had someone else make the change in the first place.

Red Flag #2: Watch Out for Rigid Contracts

Before you begin working with any company, make sure you understand exactly what you’re signing up for. You should also ask questions about the process, such as whether there’s a contract, what happens if you need to cancel, and what happens if you want to terminate the agreement.

Most marketing agencies will want you to sign a contract or agreement before working together, and they’ll want to collect some deposit money as well. This is standard. A deposit on upcoming work allows both of you to share the risk. You are only paying a partial amount upfront in case what they deliver doesn’t meet your standards. On the other hand, they are collecting a partial amount up front in case you don’t follow through and pay them for the remaining balance. That being said, an agency shouldn’t ask you for more than 50% of a project balance in advance (or a one-to-three-month deposit for ongoing work).

You should also pay attention to clauses surrounding work satisfaction, price fluctuations or changes, and cancellation of the agreement. The best agencies will give you the best of both worlds while minimizing their own risk as well. So, be sure that you are comfortable with the opt-out clause and any language surrounding price changes after you sign the agreement. Agencies that pride themselves on great work will allow you a 30-day opt out for any reason, as long as you pay them for work completed. Most agencies can’t stop on a dime with their work, as they are working ahead of schedule on their deliverables in order to meet the pre-determined deadlines. But they may require a small buy-out for a large, ongoing project, which helps provide some cushion to big changes in their cashflow.

black hat SEO

Red Flag #3: Beware of These Unscrupulous Agency Practices

Just like most people are inherently good, most marketing agencies are good companies as well. The people who work there tend to get joy in being paid to create every day, to use their skills and experience to strategize for their clients, and to help other good businesses succeed. That being said, there are some questionable people and unscrupulous practices that we’ve seen over the years. Here’s what we caution you to watch out for.

Black Hat Marketing Tactics

If you’re not familiar with this marketing terminology, it’s pretty simple. Marketing tactics fall under one of three categories: black hat, gray hat, and white hat. And, yes, your instincts are correct. White hat marketing tactics are both honest and honorable. Black hat tactics are underhanded and not truthful in practice, while gray hat methods straddle the line between white had and black hat strategies.

Black hat techniques are often used by those “fly-by-night” agencies. These tactics may get you some quick—and even amazing—results. But like everything else in life, it will catch up with you and these strategies will almost hurt you in the end. But by the time this comes to pass, that agency full of big promises is long gone, and you’re left to pick up the pieces and recover.

So, what black hat strategies should you be aware of? Here are a few examples.

  • Cookie stuffing: While using tracking cookies is for the moment an entirely acceptable practice, the black hat method involves secretly loading users’ computers with fraudulent cookies even when they do not click on a link. This tactic, once discovered, can result in large fines.
  • Scraped content: Who needs to do keyword research and write original unique content when you can just lift someone else’s content—even word for word—and claim it as your own. This tactic hurts both you and the original writer.
  • Content spinning: Content spinning is only slightly less dishonest than scraped content. This technique involves reusing someone else’s content as your own but taking the extra step of rephrasing content or changing the keywords/phrases used.
  • Hidden content: This technique involves stuffing your content with a bunch of keywords in text that is the same color as the background. Users can’t see these extra keywords and phrases that would make no sense to read, but search engines will scan this content. Again, while this tactic may get you some big and fast results, it will hurt your site in the long run and may even get your website delisted by search engines.
  • Meta keyword stuffing: Your meta description is the website description that appears in search engine results. Instead of telling a user exactly what they’ll find on the web page, a black hat marketer will use that opportunity to stuff that content with keywords and phrases. The best practice is to treat people like people and be honest about the content that appears on the page. That way, you’ll get the right traffic and customers visiting your site.
  • Redirect/gateway pages: This black hat method entices a user to click on a webpage link that takes them someplace else entirely. Have you ever had this happen to you? Very frustrating, right? We highly discourage you from doing this to your customers. It will hurt your reputation very quickly.
  • Cloaking: An extension of redirect and gateway pages involves cloaking: showing search engine crawlers and users different pages entirely.
  • Social media manipulation: Black hat marketers can install widgets on your website that force visitors to automatically “like” your page or post and/or share your website/content automatically on their Facebook or other social media accounts. This does nothing but upset your potential customer and make them feel violated or taken advantage of. But by the time they discover the infringement, their friends and family have already been shown the post or ad. Other methods of social media manipulation involve posting content not related to your company just to gain attention, liking or commenting on other posts through automated bots, and following accounts then unfollowing them once they follow you back.
  • Fake locations: Wouldn’t it be great if your business was located in the heart of downtown, but you didn’t have to pay the lease for that space? One black hat method creates a fake office space for your business, so it looks like you have a prime location. Of course, this can be used for businesses that don’t have walk-in traffic but would love to have that central location. But in the end, Google will find you and your real Google Business Profile can get suspended or permanently deleted.

Gray Hat Marketing Tactics

As mentioned before, gray hat marketing techniques fall somewhere in between black hat (illegal or bordering illegal) and white hat strategies (entirely above the board marketing methods). While these methods aren’t entirely illegal, they still require an amount of manipulation. Here are a few examples of gray hat marketing methods.

  • Buying likes and followers: Some unscrupulous agencies will buy fake social media account followers, likes, and comments to boost the ROI for their work and your investment. There are also plenty of websites out there that will do the same for you. All this gets you is a fake number of followers… a vanity number, really, because none of those fake followers are ever going to purchase your service or product or engage with your brand.
  • Social washing: Instead of creating unique, original, branded content for your company, an ‘agency’ that specializes in your industry will create the same exact social media post for all of their clients (i.e., you’re paying for regurgitated content vs. content that’s been created specifically for you). You may not even be aware of it. All the while, the company makes money from you monthly without having to do any extra work other than posting it to your social media profiles. You can easily determine if this is happening to you. Just copy all or a portion of your social media post caption into the platform’s search bar (Facebook, for example), and you’ll immediately be shown if any other social accounts have the same post as you.
  • Greenwashing: This is a mistake that some companies can make entirely on their own: claiming that their product uses more recyclable materials than it really does, calling oneself a green company when you really aren’t, or purchasing carbon offsets instead of finding a way to run on clean energy. Let’s just say that honesty is always the best policy. Consumers, reporters, and consumer watchdogs will eventually find out, then you’ll be dealing with a PR crisis, a loss of respect, and a forever-tarnished reputation.
  • Selling information to third parties: Although this may still be a common practice—and companies need to let you know up front that you will share their identifying information with third parties—it’s best not to take part in information sharing. Your customers will appreciate you more when you respect their inboxes and hold their identity sacred.
  • Spam: Let’s face it, no one—no matter who you are—likes to get spammed. Spamming involves fake comments on forums, contact forms, and social media sites as well as social media direct messages, emails, and more. You’ve seen them all. Don’t be that company… and don’t work with an ‘agency’ that takes part in this practice.
  • Paying for reviews: Yes, just like buying social media followers, you can also buy fake reviews. But what does this really mean to your end consumer? The easiest possible effort you can make—and not have to pay for—is to run a good business, hire good people, and treat your customers well. That way, you’ll never have to pay for a review in your life. You’ll only have to ask your happy customers, and they will be thrilled to tell others about how you made them feel. And most will post a top review for you without even being asked.

These are just a few examples of unscrupulous marketing as well as some black hat and gray hat methods. We highly recommend and only use white hat methods for our clients—and for ourselves.

When selecting your next marketing agency, take the time to do a little research and ask questions—lots of them. When you become an educated consumer of marketing services, you’ll be more likely to have a good experience instead of falling into a trap that you may spend years extracting yourself from.

Call Precise Creative for Your Next Marketing Partner!

We’ll be happy to help answer all of your questions, so that you can make the best decision possible for your company.

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