What To Look For In A San Francisco Marketing Firm

by AJ September 25, 2017

San Francisco is the hub for a lot of things. From Michelin star restaurants to unicorn tech companies, this is a place where new ideas form and risks are taken. However, when it comes to marketing this stuff, it seems as though there’s a treasure trove of agencies out there to choose from, which can be overwhelming.

What makes the Bay Area’s agencies so great is there’s a healthy enough economy for all of them to thrive and prosper off of niche markets. From those that focus on startups to one-stop shops for big brands, the price point, offerings, and strategy of each is going to vary significantly. And if your business is looking to bring on a marketing firm soon, then luckily for you, I’ve put together a helpful guide on not only what to look for, but how to find the perfect fit. Check it out below:

Knowing The Market

Unless you’ve been living under a rock by the Bay Bridge, then you’re probably well aware that San Francisco is an expensive city. And with marketing agencies, the price point is no different. Granted, a lot of these firms end up doing much better dollar for dollar than their competitors across the board, simply because there’s more of a need for their services, particularly within the startup realm. Currently, on Angel List, there are 17,622 startups which have an average valuation of $5.1 million. I’ll note that this figure is subject to change because as noted by Reuters, Seed Funding in 2017 has slowed, with transactions down 40% since mid-2015.

Despite these recent trends, the tech industry is still the pinnacle driver of how marketing agencies thrive. When you break it down, the amount of money that trickles down into restaurants, transportation, entertainment, and other services throughout the San Francisco metro area, almost every business has a higher than average budget for their marketing efforts. And when competing for these dollars, the type of agency you’re after and what you’re willing to pay in achieving results are going to vary greatly.

Know What Type Of Agency You’re After

A lot of people use the term marketing agency as a catch-all for any digital or creative service. However, this is simply not the case. Marketing firms can range in having specific purposes like political campaigns to being strictly for the food and beverage industry. Granted, boutique agencies have a higher price tag across the board due to their speciality but for now, we’ll focus on the major branches that you’re most likely looking for.

The reason why it’s so important to know the difference between each is because of the goals you might have, as well as the price point you’re able to afford. According to the San Francisco Center for Economic Development, the average managerial for a marketing manager clocks in at close to $200,000, while advertising managers hovers around $120,000. These prices make sense when considering the scale to which each one might have to do, with the former dictating how data, budget, and opportunity come into play, while the latter focuses on the creative aspects and distribution. Furthermore, in certain instances, it might even be best to just hire a freelancer or team of freelancers under your marketing umbrella for singular campaigns, which can fluctuate in price as well. However, that’s why I’ve outlined a few primary choices below.

Creative Agencies

Creative agencies tend to handle anything involving branding, messaging, strategy, and design. Their considerably one-stop shops for anything, well, creative. Around the Bay Area, you’ll find a lot of firms are hybrids with a focus on digital, meaning they serve a lot of the preliminary elements you’d find with traditional branding, only translated to being consistent online (I.e, social media, email blasts, etc.) I’d recommend using one of these shops first if you’re just getting your brand off the ground and need a sense of identity to go along with it, as it’ll serve the rest of your marketing efforts with much more ease.

Digital Marketing Agencies

A digital agency is going to have a focus on how to increase the online presence of your brand. According to AdAge, these shops are some of the fastest growing, taking in 40% of all U.S. agency revenue. The work that digital firms do involve analytics with tools like SEO and email marketing,  as well as expanding your audience on the web. If you find the right company to serve your needs, then these folks can produce the best value for the lowest price in increasing your ROI. I’d recommend putting together a shortlist and interviewing a few to try and gauge if there’s a fit.

Traditional Marketing

Finally, traditional marketing firms can handle a lot of the conventional materials, which can range from extensive research and data to street level efforts and direct mail. A lot of these companies have either been grandfathered in or have a focus on other small businesses (I.E, being a one-stop shop for a restaurant or coffee shop). Depending on your business model and budget, this option might good to consider if you’re looking to get your feet wet with marketing.

Deciding On Value

Now that we’ve established the functions of each agency, it’s time to determine what value each can provide to you. Let’s start out with what you might need overall, with the assumption of creative work coming forth. While hiring an agency in this regard could be great in coming up with identity and brand voice, this can be an expensive venture. However, as Entrepreneur notes, this might be a time when you go with a freelancer, as the hourly or project rate of an individual will serve you much better than bringing on a branding firm on retainer.

However, if you already have your brand guidelines in place, then your best bet would be to start looking into marketing options, particularly in the digital realm. As we stated above, this can be one of the most cost-efficient options, as well as one that will give you the highest ROI. Keep in mind, the mission is to find someone that meets your overarching goal, so make sure to have a list of questions on capabilities that an agency can perform. For example, while you might need to touch up one or two branding elements to start on email campaigns, then an agency might have a freelancer on retainer that can handle the work on a project-by-project basis.

Separate your goals in quantifiable and qualifiable terms. A use of this would be saying something like “We’re able to tell our brand story better, which has resonated with our team and customers” (qualifiable) versus “X amount of people have started engaging with our brand roll out on Facebook, an increase of 20%” (quantifiable). Looking at things this way will help you determine where your success is and how you can improve. One point of skepticism that’s common with companies hiring marketers is the question on “is this working?” Granted, marketing isn’t cheap, so those expecting to see results right away or within a short time frame are generally disappointed. Remember to allow periods of both growth as well as trial and error, as the most successful campaigns are going to be those that take a realistic approach to the process at hand.

Digital Trends

In starting your marketing efforts, the digital aspect of promoting and growing your firm is going to be crucial. This is where you’ll be able to see trackable results that have a direct correlation between money spent and awareness built or purchases made. As your budget will always be the biggest driver to what you can afford and how much of a return you want to make off of it, I highly suggest focusing on agencies that have the capabilities to do the following items below. After all, there’s a reason that digital agencies have taken the forefront of marketing, as they provide the best results for the lowest price.


SEO or Search Engine Optimization is essentially how you rank on the likes of Google or Bing. While a favorite topic amongst digital marketers, it’s a hard egg to crack. As noted by Hubspot, only 22% of marketers are satisfied with their conversion rates on SEO, which it’s easy to see why. Many companies try to make their keywords or search terms (the actual items people type into a search bar to find your business) too broad or don’t include enough content on their site (more on this later). Furthermore, in paying for search results, the return doesn’t always equate to the dollar-for-dollar amount spent on the words. However, despite all of this, having an agency that knows how to get your SEO up is absolutely crucial. Some things to ask about include how their testing of search terms work, their strategies on paid search, and what specifically their process is in finding terms.

Social Media

As over 69% of internet users are on some form of social media, finding a marketing agency that understands social is crucial. While most of us have interacted with brands on social before and know how these apps operate, utilizing a social media strategy is a whole different ballgame. I’ll note that there are agencies that specifically work in social, analyzing data, working on testing, and even producing content but these are mostly beneficial to the Fortune 500’s of the world. For your business, I’d highly suggest looking at the skillset you currently have and decide what social help you might need. Some agencies might work where they advise you on the content and copy,  but primarily are there to help with analytics, data, and the best times to post. Factor this into your list of needs to explore deeper per each firm.

Email Marketing

Email marketing is considered one of the most efficient means of outreach, especially when it comes to subscriber lists. According to SmartInsights, the average open rate per industry can range from 16-28%. That’s a pretty drastic difference, especially when considering how much goes into each versus the rate of conversion. Depending on what type of field you’re in, bringing on an agency to help with these points is never a bad idea.

Content Marketing

When it comes to content marketing, the goal runs much deeper than just posting to your blog. No, content marketing involves a blend of being educational and entertaining while simultaneously writing with SEO in mind. This includes putting keywords into your pieces, as well as how they play out on your social media/distributed outlets.  For most, it can be tough to stay consistent, even as a top priority. The competition for content marketing as an inbound strategy is stiff, with a study by Impact Bound stating 63% of marketers committed to it being a top priority.  

In looking at how an agency might help you with your content strategy, ask yourself how often you write for your blog and what success you’ve seen. Additionally, it might not be a bad idea to see if they have writers on staff, or can help you find one. These people are experts and will know what exactly is necessary to make your posts grow to a wider audience.

Future Opportunities

Beyond just what’s being done now, another point of consideration in searching for a marketing firm is who’s up on the next biggest things. And with San Francisco being at the forefront of innovation, you better believe there are some great companies out there. While marketers have always loved technological advances like Big Data, these tools are morphing into solutions that are becoming smarter, faster, and more accurate at helping you reach your goal.

An excellent example of this is with AI, or artificial intelligence, which according to CB Insights, has seen a 60% increase in investment over the past four years. AI makes targeting smarter, helping you reduce the cost on outreach, as well as can work with your engagement strategies as well. I’ll note that agencies that can handle this type of marketing are probably a little bit more expensive, but the payoff can be amazing.

Aside from AI, other innovations that have been happening around the industry include chatbot automation, virtual reality marketing, and even voice search (I.E, Google Home, Alexa). When chatting with potential firms, see if they’re up to anything involving these sectors. Not only will you be up on the latest and greatest, but you could potentially get in at a cheaper rate than expected. Who knows? This could really be the point where you separate yourself from the competition.


Finding an agency is no easy task, especially when it comes to the Bay Area. As a hub for innovation, tech, and culture, there are tons of people fighting to get the chance for you to hire them, so take the time to find those that are going to do it right. Ask yourself if you feel their approach will give you the best ROI, as well as what strategies they’re using that might be helpful to your growth.

Aside from all the marketing talk for a minute, the most important thing you can find is someone that cares about your business’s mission and goal. So many firms are just out to make a dollar without actually going out to solve a problem, which ends up hurting the client more than it can help. Even if someone doesn’t meet every single point you’re after, if they have a passion for what you do, then they’ll be well worth your dollar. After all, the entire point of marketing is about growth. And as your business is this living, breathing creature, don’t you want to find someone who will help you keep that progress along?

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