When the creative team behind Jurassic Park first proposed that computer animated graphics could replace stop-motion animation to bring a 16-foot tall T-Rex to life, most people—including Steven Spielberg—scoffed. At the time, computers were thought to be clunky, the programs were clumsy, and nobody believed that the king of the dinosaurs would be convincing. Except the unflappable CGI team

As the story goes, when the T-Rex first burst onto theater screens in 1993, audience members were stunned. To this day, Jurassic Park remains the fifth most successful movie of all time. Thanks to a determined group of computer nerds, the film cemented its place in cinematic history and irrevocably changed movies as we know them. 

What does this have to do with digital marketing agencies?
Don’t worry, we’re getting there. 

As Hollywood was discovering the power of CGI, the marketing world was beginning to realize the potential of digital channels. The World Wide Web was opening new doors (and granting new opportunities) to brands that were willing to take a risk. 

But there were plenty of naysayers who believed that the digital revolution would be a blip on the radar. Few could imagine that digital channels would reach the same level of importance as traditional media like print publications, TV, radio, and billboards.

Fast forward three decades

Today, we carry tiny, high-speed computers in our pockets. CGI is a fixture in everything from rom coms to summer blockbusters. And digital marketing has become one of the most important tools in any brand’s wheelhouse. And, much like CGI, some efforts are absolutely stunning while some miss the mark completely (sorry, Ryan Reynolds). 

The rise (and fall?) of digital ad firms

As analog media morphed into digital, ad firms followed suit. A new breed of agency emerged in those two decades—and has snowballed ever since. Specialties like web design and development, SEO, and PPC replaced television and radio placements, while inbound marketing, content marketing, and social media marketing became essentials rather than nice-to-haves. 

Desperate to keep up with a changing industry, more agencies dubbed themselves “digital,” whether or not they had the credentials to back it. Marketing departments began to bring their work in-house or outsource projects to freelancers, who could undercut the prices of full-service agencies. And big data replaced creativity as advertising’s focal point.

With the rise of interest in digital marketing came an influx of companies looking to ride the wave. Bad faith actors promised first page search engine results through keyword stuffing and spammy backlinks. Design agencies promised custom sites but delivered clunky templates. 

Now, as evidenced by the proliferation of ad blocking tech and digital privacy concerns, trust in digital ad firms is at an all-time low. In fact, according to Ad Age, only 4% of Americans think the marketing industry behaves with integrity.

Digital ad firms: the good, the bad, and the ugly

The truth is, that lack of trust isn’t entirely unfounded. If you were to Google “digital marketing agency” at this exact moment, you’d pull up over 1.1 billion results. And there’s a good chance that a significant number of those companies would be an expensive investment with little to no ROI. 

With over 14 years in the industry, we’ve heard it all—from digital extortion to branding exercises gone wrong. As a result, we have some insights into how you can protect your brand, get the most out of your marketing efforts, and create a true partnership with an agency you can trust. 

Consider the following when choosing to partner with a digital marketing agency: 

#1: Do they have positive client reviews?

With over a billion agencies claiming they can get you fast results for cheap, it can be difficult to read between the lines. That’s why we highly recommend reading up on previous client reviews during the selection process. Ask yourself the following: 

  • Do they feature testimonials or client reviews prominently on their website? 
  • What’s their Google rating? 
  • What do other clients appreciate about working with this agency (ex. Quality of work, customer service, fast service) and does that align with your needs? 
  • If they do have negative reviews, have they responded to them? Does it seem like they’re taking steps to make things right? 


#2: Are they setting realistic goals and expectations?

If someone says you can make millions of dollars in passive income by working just three hours a week—and only they can tell you how—you should feel a healthy sense of skepticism. The same is true of ad firms promising instant and unrealistic results. 

The truth: digital marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. While there may be low hanging fruit when it comes to boosting your brand’s digital presence (ex. A new website, launching a paid ad campaign, getting active on social media), most long term success will come from long term effort. 

Instead of flashy results and empty promises, look for a digital marketing agency that’s real with you. They should have a firm understanding of your industry, current market trends, and the competitive landscape. They should also work with you to set realistic, attainable, and measurable goals. 

#3: Are they easy to communicate with?

A legitimate digital marketing agency acts as your partner. Communicating with them should be as easy as reaching out to a member of your own team. That’s why poor customer service or a difficult customer support process registers as one of our top red flags. 

Unfortunately, things don’t always start poorly. In fact, many digital ad firms will use high pressure sales techniques to get you onboarded and then ghost once you’re ready to cancel or change your service. A few questions to ask ahead of time: 

  • Do you have a dedicated Project Manager or Client Care representative that you can quickly and easily communicate with? 
  • Do you have a contract and does it include information about cancelling, suspending, or changing service? 
  • When you read through previous client reviews, are there negative or positive mentions of the customer service experience? 
  • Is there an easily accessible phone number or live chat option on the company’s website? 

#4: Do you vibe with their style?

Smart digital marketing agencies are proud of the brands they work with. They make it easy to find a client list and portfolio of work samples. Before deciding to hire a digital marketing agency, take some time to scan through this portfolio. If you’re a buttoned up finance firm and their work samples include lots of loud, quirky food brands, you might want to look elsewhere. 

While digital ad firms can often operate across a variety of industry verticals and brand styles, there’s usually a certain style that sits squarely in their wheelhouse. Sometimes, it’s just not the right fit. And that’s ok. Instead of trying to fit your square peg brand into a circle hole agency, it might be better to find someone who’s work more closely aligns with your vision. 

So, are digital marketing firms obsolete? 

No. In fact, we’d argue that they’re more essential than ever in a rapidly changing, tech-driven world. The digital marketing industry is enormous and only continues to grow. With advancements in technology, development of new digital marketing channels, and changes in digitally-native consumer behavior, digital marketing isn’t an if, it’s a when. 

But a certain type of digital marketing has (and should have) fallen out of vogue. Gone are the days of keyword stuffing, get-rich-quick promises, and empty results supported by vanity metrics. Today, successful digital marketing requires true skill, experience, and a long term commitment to growing alongside brands. 

For more information on how Savy can partner with your brand, get in touch