Beware the expensive false promises of bad marketing agencies

Since establishing Verb Marketing in Liverpool five years ago Dean Currall has generated millions in extra sales for his clients. Here, he explains how a bad agency can waste your time and burn your cash

Verb marketing
Verb Marketing founder Dean Currall


I created my own digital marketing agency, Verb, more than five years ago now. Verb is here to go above and beyond to provide for our customers, which is the mindset all marketing agencies should have.

Over the years I have heard some awful stories about other agencies. I’d say around 50% of our clients have come to us having being let down and stung before. It always starts with a horror story, such as being charged over the odds for extra services which should’ve been included, and every month they ended up paying more and more whilst getting very little back.

There are several warning signs to look out for when choosing a marketing agency. In this article I’m going to discuss some signs to look out for and what to avoid, to help people pick the right agency.

Hopefully this will help to stop anyone else getting reeled in by one of these money-grabbing, useless agencies. I want to do this to benefit the industry because I am passionate about business. If I equip people with this knowledge, I can start relationships with my clients better, because they will know what a good marketing agency is and can trust that we want to help them sell more effectively.

Warning signs: long-term contracts

One of the first and most important things that would warn me off an agency is long-term contracts. Any agency who is asking you to sign a 12-month contract, or anything long term, upfront you should be very wary of. Having a 12-month contract is a big commitment for the agency, it means they have got you tied in for a year, and have at least a year’s worth of your money in their pocket.

By signing this, the agency is getting all the security when it is you as a customer who should be getting security, you are the one spending the money. When else in life would you tie yourself into something long-term without checking it actually works for you? It just allows these agencies to drag out the work they are doing for you and not offer any real results any time soon.

If you complain they’ll just say “well you signed the contract” and there will be nothing you can do to about it.

If a company is any good, they won’t feel the need to tie you in. They will issue shorter term rolling contracts, which is what we do here a Verb. This means after a short period of time you can evaluate the work they have done and if you are unhappy with the results you don’t have to continue your contract.

Marketing agencies shouldn’t see it as a ‘year-long contract’ they should be seeing it as a lifetime contract in rolling terms because if you are good at what you do and deliver results, they’ll want to stay.   

Taking a percentage of your PPC budget

Another thing I feel is a big warning sign is an agency taking a percentage of your pay per click (PPC) spend. So many agencies offer this it’s scary. Why would you let an agency take a cut of your spend just for managing the account? Managing things such as PPC should come as part of the contract, not as an added extra out of your advertising budget.

It is just a way of trying to get you to spend more and comes from pure greed. The motive here is all about spend and not about earning, because if they take say 20%, the more you spend, the more they get. A good agency won’t take a percentage of your PPC budget and instead will focus on getting you more for your money.

For example, they may focus on reducing the cost per click on your PPC campaigns. This means you’ll have more money left over to build on your campaign meaning you’re getting more out of your budget.

Poor marketing agencies will make unrealistic promises to get your business


Ambiguous services

Look out for agencies who add on costs for ambiguous services such as ‘imagination sessions’. Do you have any idea what the hell an ‘imagination session’ is? Sounds ridiculous right? That’s because it is. An imagination session is a whole day where agencies sit around and supposedly come up with ideas for your business, half of the time, you, the actual client, aren’t even there.

Agencies charge ludicrous amounts for these days. Ideas should come included as part of the package, it’s a standard service. Good marketing is a science. It involves things like, AIDA funnels, micro targeting and AB testing, not imagination sessions. Imagination is just a small part of the process and marketing should come integrated with creativity.

Charging for this is like going to a pub and ordering a beer, then being told you have to pay for the glass. Ridiculous. If something an agency is offering doesn’t make sense to you and when it’s explained it still sounds like bullshit, it probably is bullshit. Do not pay for this.

Confusing Terminology

When agencies use lots of terminologies you don’t understand in a pitch, beware. If the pitch is confusing, imagine how confusing they’ll be to work with. This is the point where they are trying to sell to you and convince you they’re the company to go with. Everything an agency is saying should make perfect sense and be easy to understand, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Usually, these agencies are just trying to confuse you or sound smart and professional by using a load of boring, technical terminology. Avoid them.

Cheap agencies

Another massive red flag is agencies that are willing to go too cheap. If it looks too good to be true, it usually is. With marketing hours spent is the key to success, this takes time and time costs money. There have been countless individuals who we have dealt with who have gone with the cheapest and got stung. If something is that cheap what can you really be getting?

You’re paying for the expertise of the staff and their time is not going to be cheap. You have to put in the hours to make something successful. Say someone says they’ll do your marketing for £600 a month, but they are charging £100 an hour for their services, this means you are getting six hours a month of marketing. No company can be successful on so little work. You may think you are getting a good deal but really you get next to nothing.

There are so many people who think quality is inferior to quantity but the value isn’t in what you spend it’s in the money you earn. Good marketing will make you good money, so you won’t mind paying for it. I’d rather spend £3,000 and get something than spend £600 and get nothing.

In Britain we are a nightmare for this, we pay £1 to double up on our burger or 30p to go large. We buy two for £5 when one was only £2.52 each and that was all we needed. Then we end up throwing the other one away. People do the same with marketing. They are always looking for the best deal and often the cheapest deal is just a waste of money in the long run.

Look beyond the pitch and ask for evidence of results


Block of hours

Keep away from agencies that sell blocks of hours instead of fixed monthly retainers. This is worrying because you are buying into an agency that is almost certainly going to drag the work out. Their primary objective will be to burn through those hours as quick as they can so they are out the way, when their main objective should be delivering results.

They can easily tell you that something they’ve done took longer than it did just to use up your hours. Say they put up a new webpage, do you know how long that takes to do? I bet you don’t. They could say it took six hours when really it only took two. There’s also the fact that if you ask them to do something else that hadn’t been discussed they can say ‘Okay well that will take an extra three hours.’ Then you end up paying extra for it.

Things such as SEO and PPC are very technical and you are blind to knowing how long they take.  The blocks of hours they sell you may not be enough to do all the things you want to start with and that allows them to send you invoices for extra hours and more money. It isn’t just the limitless costs you could be involving yourself in but it’s the fact you’ve allowed an agency to charge you that little bit more.

Guaranteeing success

Any agency that guarantees success is full of shit. This is such a big no-no. You just cannot guarantee success. It’s impossible for a number of reasons. Marketing is a complex service and a partnership between two businesses. In all honesty, the customer could just not be any good at converting leads made by the agency into sales, so you can’t promise revenue.

It’s out of the agency’s hands at a certain point. As it isn’t solely the marketer’s responsibility how can they guarantee you success? The short answer is they can’t. Avoid these agencies.

What to look out for

Now I want to let you in on some signs you should look out for which will help you when picking and meeting with an agency. Listen and look out for these things when you meet with them, and make sure to ask them about the things I am about to mention. If you do this, you’ll be able to tell if they’re a bad agency, trust me.

Look for evidence

First of all, when they are making a pitch, you want to look for actual evidence. This will be financial figures, statistics for traffic increases and case studies of people they’ve had success working for. If you don’t see these things, you should be worried. These are the things that they should be most proud of, the things that are going to get actual sales because they prove how good the agency is

If you aren’t shown them, they probably don’t have the evidence. If they don’t have any evidence of success, they aren’t a company you want to go with. They may claim they can do this and offer that, but is there any actual proof to back this up? I myself used to have a long, well put together, professional pitch but I scrapped the most of it and now I just show potential clients my evidence.

I show the figures in which I have made more than £23m for clients, the statistics for businesses in which I’ve quadrupled their revenue, and case studies of clients I’ve rebranded and increased their leads. These are what people want to see, and this is what will convince people to go with you.

Make sure everything makes sense

Make sure everything you are being told makes sense to you. I have never and will never deliver a pitch that has left the customer confused with how we are going to deliver success. Bad agencies try to confuse clients with fancy words and confusing pitches to make it sound more technical than it is. Businesses then go with an agency out of blind faith.

Really, they should explain clearly and easily exactly what steps they will take and how that will help to market your company effectively. If what you are being told makes sense, then you know exactly what services you are getting and what will happen, this is what you want.

Ask for every single cost that may come up

This is an important one so you aren’t spending ridiculous amounts of extra money. Make sure you ask for every single imaginable cost that may or may not come up. Bad agencies are very good at delivering new invoices with additional costs and claiming that it’s not included in your package.

Everything you want should be discussed and written in the contract as part of your monthly charge. Make sure that the proposal that is written has all the figures for everything you need in it. Agencies will add on extra services every month just to make more money out of you.

This has happened to one of our clients Danny, owner of 365 Gainz, with another agency, he said: “I worked with another marketing company in Liverpool before Verb and they used to add on extra costs every month for every single little thing. We had agreed on a monthly fee of £1,900 but every month it was different, sometimes they’d charge me as much as £3,000.

“If I rang them up and asked them to do something or told them something wasn’t right and needed changing, they’d charge extra for it. I’d look at the invoice and it’d say something like ‘thought session – 20 minutes – £300.’ It was absolutely ridiculous.

365 Gainz
Danny, owner of 365 Gainz



This here is one thing I feel is really important. Conversion should be part of the deal. Many agencies focus on getting leads and leads alone. They may well help you get leads but then when people ask ‘oh okay so what do I do with these leads?  How can I convert them to sales?’ the marketing agency will say “Oh I don’t know that’s nothing to do with us.” When really, it should be everything to do with them.

As a marketing agency, your job is to provide your clients with sales and make them money. You cannot just get them to spend a load of money to get them leads but with no real conversions or extra revenue. These agencies are lazy and inexperienced, a good agency will make sure you get conversions.

As an example, one of our clients came to us and told us they were getting 20,000 clicks a month onto their website however, they were only making £20,000 a month, just £1 per click. They asked us to help get them more leads, so they could make more money.

We told them what we need to do is fix your website because it was hard to navigate and wasn’t enticing customers to buy. By fixing their website we quadrupled their sales simply by converting more of the leads they were already getting.

A bad agency would’ve taken their money and spent it on a load of advertising and promotion to get them what they were asking for, more leads. However, it would not have worked because this was not where the issue lay, a good agency would know this, and fix what it needed to.

Fast-growing agencies

Now here’s something that is actually a positive sign. Usually, a sign of a good agency is if they are fast-growing. This means that they must be providing results and doing it well because clearly a lot of people want to work with them.

More importantly, if an agency is fast-growing it shows that they can successfully grow a business in a short space of time and if they can do it for themselves, they can do it for their clients. The proof is right there. A fast-growing marketing agency is a successful marketing agency.

Right, now you have read this you have a shortlist of things to look out for and things you should definitely be avoiding when choosing a marketing agency. Print it off, take some notes, make a checklist, don’t be afraid to grill them a little in a meeting. Do whatever you need to ensure you’re getting everything you want out of an agency. Don’t fall for the bullshit and false promises.

Remember, a marketing agency is there to serve you and your needs, not the other way around. If enough people know what to look for and what to avoid, we can put an end to these useless, money-grabbing and inexperienced agencies and help a lot of businesses save a lot of money. 

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