Agency vs. Firm vs. Digital Company: Do the Terms Really Matter?

Illustration of Business People

In everyday conversation, the difference between something being called marketing or advertising, or the difference between an agency or firm, would just be semantics. But in today’s world where search engines do their best to deliver you the exact results you are looking for, word choice matters.

Or, put another way:

The terms you use to search for a company that fits your marketing needs determines the types of businesses you get returned in your Search Engine Results Page.

To get connected to the company that will fit your needs best, know what you are looking for.

What is the difference between a marketing firm and a marketing agency?

“Firm” implies a small group of professionals with a limited range of services, usually specializing in one or two areas of marketing. For example, a marketing firm might be well suited for understanding and planning for campaigns, but might lack the resources to implement all of them in-house. Or, a firm might be limited in the services they offer: a PR firm might only offer PR services instead of having PR as part of an integrated plan.

If you are able to execute another’s ideas, you might only need a marketing firm. If you only need one marketing specialty, such as PR, a specialty firm might be the right fit.

That said, a marketing agency is likely to offer a broader range of services and employ a diversified team of specialists. Regardless of the agency’s size, they generally keep more of the work in-house and fill their team with experts in a variety of fields. The advantage to working with a marketing agency like Scheffey is that once we understand your goals, your audience, and your brand, we can create an integrated strategy that uses the best combination of marketing services to help you achieve your goals.

All marketing services are available, but we only recommend and execute on the ones you need.

What is the difference between marketing agency and digital marketing agency?

Search engines might treat them both as the same, since “marketing agencies” might offer digital services as well, or consider themselves “digitally-focused.” You want to make sure you’re looking at what services they offer to make sure they really understand the digital world, such as search engine optimization (SEO), social marketing, website design and development, display advertising, and others. Another place to check for expertise is the agency’s team profile. Do they have team members dedicated to digital marketing trends and strategies? As digital is a rapidly changing world, it’s important for agencies to invest in building a team that can keep pace with understanding the industry’s advancements.

Those who advertise themselves as a “digital marketing agency” specialize in digital tactics. You can be assured they are investing in keeping up with digital trends! There are two things to watch for, however. 1) Do they chase new trends, or does everything they offer have strategy behind it? 2) Do they immediately jump into tactics and recommend the specific digital tools they offer, or do they focus on your business’ needs first?

There’s a psychology to marketing, not just tactics. If you need a company to get into the deep thinking, to understand your business and audience first, you want to look for a marketing agency that has a solid digital team. If you have already identified your business goals and buyer personas, and you just need a company to execute the digital tactics you’ve identified as necessary to compel your personas toward quantifiable action, then a digital marketing agency could be a fit.

What is the difference between a marketing agency and an advertising agency?

“Marketing agency” and “advertising agency” are often used interchangeably. “Advertising agency” is a legacy term for what has been rebranded in recent years as a marketing agency. There is potentially a negative understanding of “advertising agency” or “ad agency” as strictly a conduit for creating head-turning ads and catchy taglines, like the swanky ad agencies featured in the popular TV show, Mad Men.

In reality, terms like “ad agency,” “marketing agency,” and even “creative agency” are similarly used to define companies that are dedicated to creating, growing, strengthening, and promoting brands in the marketplace. This could include strategic elements, such as developing a brand, creating brand personas, identifying buyer behavior at different stages of the sales cycle, influencing direct and indirect brand awareness, and more. Promoting brands in the marketplace could include inbound and outbound marketing strategies, tradeshow strategy and support, collateral and graphics development, and a host of tactics to support a brand’s positioning strategy.

How do I know if I found the right fit?

These days, where patience is an afterthought and exactness is prized, you don’t have time to filter through all of the companies, firms, and agencies in your area to see which would be a good fit for your needs.

So, some basic suggestions:

  • If you are looking for a good fit, do the work: scour potential partners’ websites for lists of services, diversity of staff skills, and proof of work
  • If you need a specific service or to fill a gap in your marketing, then you want a firm or a specific title, like “PR Firm” or “Digital Agency”
  • If you need a marketing arm or strategic partner, call Scheffey