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How to Spot a Bad Digital Marketing Company

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It’s no secret that the South African digital marketing space is experiencing a boom. 

E-commerce is thriving in the post-pandemic world and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.
Alongside this growth, a whole new generation of digital marketing companies has emerged to try and help companies make the best of it.

Sadly, not all of them have your best intentions at heart. 

We’re constantly bombarded by stories from current and potential customers alike, of fly-by-night companies only out there to make a “quick buck” off of you, with no real intention of helping your digital channels grow. 

We hate that this is the case (it makes all of us look bad), so today we’re going to go over our five biggest warning signs of a bad digital marketing company. 

Taken from experience talking to customers who’ve had a bad experience in the past – we hope this helps you sort the legitimate agencies from the shameless opportunists. 

1. They Overpromise and Underdeliver 

In our opinion, the single biggest “red flag” is when an agency or company promises you huge results out the gate.
If they come out the gate with anything resembling the following, you’re in for a bad time:

  • “We’ll get you on the first page of Google!” 
  • “I will double your sales in two months!”
  • “We guarantee you hundreds more qualified leads!” 

Now, don’t get us wrong. 

You absolutely should expect your agency to deliver results, but all of these “hard sell” pitches have three major problems that make them red flags: 

1 – They make no mention of how they’re going to accomplish these things.

In digital, the how is almost always more important than the what

It’s easy to make claims like these, but it’s impossible to back them up without thought and strategy around the individual business in question. 

2 – Short term success is never guaranteed

Sometimes we can get amazing results very quickly, sometimes it takes a while and sometimes it just doesn’t work. 

We’d go as far as to say most of the time, a good agency will get you amazing results eventually. But, success is never guaranteed. 

There are too many variables in the digital world to account for everything. The best tools we have at our disposal, as digital marketers, are adaptation and flexibility. 

“Cookie cutter” just doesn’t cut it, because there’s no “best strategy” for every business in the world. 

So when people say they “guarantee results within X months”, we’re always doubtful, because either they know something no other marketer in the world knows (unlikely), or they’re lying. 

3 – They’re often misleading in and of themselves. 

It’s not that hard to get something on the “first page” of Google if you target an obscure keyphrase with no competition around it. 

However, the traffic this keyphrase brings in might be negligibly small, or a wrong fit for your business. In either case, it doesn’t actually drive organic sales.

Likewise, it’s not that hard to “double sales” if you’re not making that much, to begin with. 

Going from R10 to R20 a month is technically doubling sales. Neither is a worthwhile number.

Real digital marketing is hard and complicated, and it can take time to “get working” properly. Once it does though, it’s an amazing vehicle for driving long term growth and success. 

“Quick hacks” to success are rarely to the long-term benefit of the business, so we’d stay away from them entirely. 

2. They Insist on Owning Everything 

The second most common red flag we see is when an agency insists on owning everything itself. 

This could be your social media accounts, your website logins or even your customer databases. 

Let’s get something out the way, though, which is a common point of contention with new clients. 

Your digital marketing company will always need some form of access to your digital channels, and usually high-level access at that.

This is to ensure we can effectively set up and run your campaigns and make changes as needed. After all – what’s the point of outsourcing if you still do it all yourself? 

What we don’t condone, however, is when an agency insists that they be the only owner of your platforms or information. 

The reason for this is quite simple. 

Holding your data “ransom” 

An issue we see all too often is shady businesses holding their customer’s data ransom when they try to discontinue their services. 

This is obviously highly unethical, and even outright illegal at times, but there’s often really not much you can do when it happens to you.
The best way around it is to never get into businesses with someone who does this in the first place. 

Make it clear from the start that they can have whatever access they need, but primary ownership of all your platforms should be on internal accounts from your business as far as possible. 

Ask around for references from ex-clients if you’re unsure, and see how they handled it. 

When we take ownership

We do sometimes take ownership of our client’s ad campaigns, in the interest of full transparency. 

Mostly this is because they’re comfortable letting us handle it, and they don’t have their own accounts set up. 

In that case, we make the account and therefore we technically “own it”. However – we always provide access to any requested data from the account – should the client decide to part ways with us. 

The second exception we make is that we do not give direct access to ads we run for you – this is for very practical reasons – we assume you trust us to run your ads and we want to avoid any complications that come from multiple groups of people making edits or tweaks to campaigns.

We do this as policy, to ensure no clients are given preferential treatment in that regard. 

Again though, we happily provide this information if and when our clients decide to part ways with us. 

3. They Report Primarily on “Vanity Metrics” 

Things like likes, shares, comments and engagement are very nice to have.
They should not, however, be the basis of your campaigns or the only thing your agency is reporting on. 

You can have all the likes and shares in the world, if your bottom line sales stay the same you’re basically throwing money down a hole.

Marketing is, first and foremost, an investment. 

This can be a short term investment, where the aim is to drive sales right now, or a long-term investment where the goal is to grow platforms that can drive sales in the future

Reporting on these vanity metrics gives you no indication of whether or not your investment is paying off. 

That’s why we suggest including them, if at all, as a secondary list of KPIs. 

First and foremost, any reputable company should be reporting on bottom-line goals like sales or leads. 

This all, of course, assuming you’re not running a dedicated awareness or brand building campaign.

Even then, though, you should always be conscious if these campaigns actually create short term or long-term growth for your business. 

4. They Try to Confuse You With Jargon and Data Overload

Marketers are notorious for creating jargon and acronyms for everything they touch.

This has a place, don’t get us wrong, when you’re talking internally and want to express a very specific concept. 

The issue is when people misuse jargon or data to try and confuse and mislead you, instead of representing the truth of the situation simply and factually. 

We get why people do it, really, everybody has “bad months” that they can’t really account for. 

Still, we believe in being open and honest with clients. If something does go wrong the important thing is that we try and account for it, and failing that we come up with a plan of action to work around it. 

5. They Treat You Like an Invoice Number 

Marketing is an unusual industry in that it requires a great deal more empathy and understanding from the agency’s side than most services. 

Every client’s business is different, and every client wants different things. 

To the first point, as we mentioned before, “cookie-cutter” templates to success very rarely work across industries or even across businesses in the same industry.

That’s why it’s so important to find an agency that’s willing to understand your business and your needs. 

If they treat you like an invoice number and run you through a process that was set in stone years ago, it’s unlikely you’re going to find the level of success you’re after. 

Find an agency that treats you like a person first and foremost, and is willing to adapt themselves to meet your business’ needs (while staying within their core competency).


We hope this gave you a few useful pointers on red flags to look out for when choosing a digital marketing company to partner with. 

Outsourcing your digital marketing to another company is an expensive and risky process, so you want to make sure you get it right the first time

When in doubt, your best tool is references given by past clients. Most reputable companies should be happy to provide these. 

Do your research though, and you’ll hopefully find a marketing partner you can rely on for years to come. 


If you enjoyed this article or found it helpful, check out more e-commerce marketing content on the inSyte blog or listen to the inSyte Podcast.

This article was brought to you by Syte.

We’re a specialist e-commerce digital marketing agency dedicated to driving up your bottom line.

If you need any help running your business’ search ads effectively, feel free to reach out with the form below or check out our case studies page to see what we’ve been able to do for our clients. 


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