January 3

Don’t get scammed: How to choose an inbound marketing agency


I remember the first time I met the boss of a company with revenues of about SG$1 million to discuss about his marketing strategy.

He had burned through 3 different ‘marketing agencies’, and they had returned him close to peanuts in terms of online revenue.

They did limp, dull Instagram and Facebook posts filled with the product’s pictures, and written with copy that barely raised your heartbeat when you read through it.

He needed something different.

Sitting with him, I asked (what I thought were) simple questions.

Ah, how are you tracking the checkouts on your site? Do you have a Facebook pixel, for example?

He looks at his staff.

I don’t think we do.

Can I have your Facebook account?

He rubs his hands together.

You see, we don’t have the login details anymore.

I sat there, thinking,

Oh my. We have some serious work to do here.

This pissed me off. Because those ‘marketing agencies’ had ripped him off.

Just because he looked older and didn’t know the technology as well, they had misled him. They showed fancy metrics like impressions and likes, when it’s clear that these don’t directly lead to conversions.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that businessman was stupid.

He wasn’t.

I respect him a lot in terms of how he’s scaled his business from zero to the venerable, reputable brand today.

And that’s why it makes us more pissed that some agencies go on to be terribly unclear about what they do, and hold themselves to standards, that they know will not lead to the business’ long-term success.

How do I know this?

I confess. I’ve done it.

My confession of ripping an old man off

I did it once, and never did it again.

Because I realised it was so easy to do so. That time, I simply showed a simple chart of our metrics on Google Search Console, and then talked about how we had grown our impressions and clicks by 5 times.

Sounds impressive, right?

But in theory, it wasn’t the most important thing.

It had contributed nothing to us growing our revenues. In fact, if we had showed the real numbers for our sites, people would have been stunned at how little money we earned.

A review of the money we earned from our own site, revealed that all that traffic didn't really contribute much to increasing our revenues
A review of the money we earned from our own site, revealed that all that traffic didn’t really contribute much to increasing our revenues

But the problem was…

This ‘consultant’ was actually impressed by us.

That’s when I learnt,

With great power comes great responsibility.

And with the power to market, also comes the responsibility to sell, ethically.

Rather than overselling, I had to learn to be honest about what we could, and could not do.

Some marketing agencies will rip old people off

It’s easy to rattle off a host of jargon like CPC (cost per click), CPM (cost per thousand impressions), or CTR (click through rate).

As a content agency ourselves who’s done diverse things like run AdGrant campaigns, write annual reports, and even ghostwrite books,

Don’t be taken aback.

Here’s why these metrics don’t matter, and what the metrics you should actually hold your agency to are.

Impressions are not equal to conversions

In our company, we have interns. And our intern once tried to pull a fast one by showing me the number of impressions (or reach).

I almost wanted to kill him.

Impressions are not conversions.

Impressions are the number of people who scroll past your post, but is still counted by Facebook as 1 impression.

But if people scroll past, how can they possibly engage with your post enough to make a buying decision?

Known as interruptive advertising, these are ads that people haven’t asked for. Forget about what Facebook says about ‘personalised’ advertising. It’s the same. They still are disrupted from their normal sculling of their friend’s updates.

Likes or comments, or outrage are not conversions

Oh but look at the number of likes we had!

I remember the consultant telling me to get more likes for each post. In my mind, I thought,

You must be kidding me. Clicking something, and handing over your precious money are two different things.

Very different things.

What you need to realise is that people who ‘engage’ with your work are very different from people who ‘buy’ your work. You might have seen this phenomenon before.

It’s called the closet raving fan.

They are the ones who don’t appear much on your social media, but are the ones who are buying most of your stuff, and then reocmnendung your stuff to other people. Those are the true fans you need to chase after.


Definitely not through sensational content. Because you and I know that there’s nothing more off-putting than click-bait content that delivers little of what you want.

Ads may not be sustainable cost-wise over the long run

This chart says it all.

Why Facebook ads are more expensive over time
Why Facebook ads are more expensive over time

Sure, ads can generate the initial traffic, but if you’re not taking time to invest in longer term SEO, then you would come to the chart below.

The spike of hope, followed by the flatline of nope.

Sure, ads can help, but at what cost?
Sure, ads can help, but at what cost?

We hate that.

But many agencies take the easy way out by buying ads, playing with different configurations, and then telling you that you should pay for it.

Wait… come again?

You play, I pay?

Say that again?

There’s no skin in the game, because they are spending your money.

Try a different model.

Why not tell the marketer that you will pay a flat fee, with ad costs included? It guarantees that they would stop playing, knowing that they are the ones who are playing with their profit margins.

Past performance not guarantee of future success

We know this, but we don’t choose based on this. 

So how should you choose?

These are the key questions you should ask.


  • How fast can they execute?

Many agencies will dilly and dally once they get your money. After all, with your money in their pocket, they have no more incentive to work hard. All they need to do is quite simple.

  1. Run ads
  2. Show you the report from the ads
  3. Run more ads

Trust me. This is what most agencies will do for you.

They wouldn’t go to much effort in

  1. researching the industry,
  2. trying to understand competitors of what you’re selling
  3. trying to figure out the painpoints of customers
  4. Understanding where customers will encounter your product
  5. Getting into the mind of potential customers
  6. Building a backlink strategy for sites to start referring to you
The GetRanked framework we use to help companies get ranked for the keywords they want to optimise for
The GetRanked framework we use to help companies get ranked for the keywords they want to optimise for


What can they actually do?

Most inbound agencies will tell you that they will give you a list of keywords you can rank for, and then tell you to pay for it.

Sure, my grandmother can do that too.

What so hard about that?

You just:

  1. Key in some search terms into a keyword tool like Ahrefs
  2. Take the most ‘uncompetitive’ keywords
  3. Put them a list
  4. Hand them to you


The best inbound agencies do better.

  1. They find the keywords
  2. They rank the bottom of funnel keywords that are transactional (such as ‘buy cookies online’) according to competitiveness
  3. They execute the strategies that make it better


Lastly, the best inbound agencies are clear about what they need to do. They don’t wait for you to tell them what to do.

They take the lead from the start.

From the get-go, they have already started researching your domain, your work, your competitors.

They can predictably tell what will happen once they start executing on their interventions. In the SEO toolkit, there are basically three main types of interventions.

  1. Guest posts on other people’s sites
  2. Blog posts on your own site, to start ranking
  3. Targeted media outreach, to mainstream media, by getting media mentions

We started our agency with one mission.

To power the micro businesses of the future by setting up your MarTech stack, and executing strategies for you to impact more people.

Because we know this.

Daily, when we work, we remember these people.

This is for the coffee uncle who wipes his sweat behind the counter, and yet tirelessly remembers my coffee order.

This is for the creative who sits behind the computer, dreaming up new concepts, and yet worries about when the next paycheck will come in.

This is for the small businessman, who dreams up concoctions on his kitchen table, mixing, dreaming, and trying to delight yet another cookie-lover.

This is for them.

Because marketing agencies shouldn’t cheat people.

And we want to do differently. Because for us, this is a mission.

This is not about the money.

This is about building the canvases, where people can dream, and re-dream.



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