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How to Choose an Affiliate Marketing Agency

A MARTECH RECORD EGUIDE: from RFP to selection.


While some companies prefer to acquire and retain the talent and tools necessary for effective affiliate management, a growing number of businesses are choosing to outsource both affiliate strategy and execution to outside resources. Delegating affiliate management to agencies is common because the skills necessary for effective affiliate management differ from other channels.

As companies evaluate agency options, they need to take a focused and strategic approach to choosing. This post provides a model for choosing the right affiliate agency. It is built around information and questions in nine key areas. Note: for a list of affiliate agencies, click here.










In each area, what matters is the extent to which an agency’s services align to the specific needs. It’s less about “right” answers and more about “fit” with the requirements of a particular advertiser.

Along with a narrative discussion in each area, this eguide provides a list of questions that can help you determine whether an agency has the perspective and resources that are suited to your specific needs. The concluding section is a summary that collects all the questions for easy reference. You are invited to use this list as a foundation for an agency RFP process.

We hope you find the content valuable


For an agency to understand whether they can serve your business well and have valuable conversations with you about working together, they need some foundational information. After they sign an NDA, it’s appropriate to share brand background and a summary of program characteristics, strengths, and challenges. The extent to which agencies reflect this information in your response provides rich insight into how much they will care about serving you well. It’s like dating. Sloppy or uncaring behavior rarely changes for the better after you get the marriage license.


  • Provide information about your category, category trends, brand, and brand trends

  • Outline the major goals of the brand for the future.

  • Provide a summary of the founding, current size, growth trends, and partner composition for your existing program

  • Explain what is working and what isn’t with your existing program

  • Tell them why you are looking for an agency


The first part of your selection process should involve straightforward, apples-to-apples information gathering on the agency. The following questions can provide a good foundation for this portion of the process.

For a list of affiliate agencies, click here.


  • Please provide information about the history of your agency.

  • Please outline the details of agency ownership. If your company is public, please provide details. Are you part of an agency holding company or other larger business entity?

  • Our company wishes to ensure that new business partners have the financial strength and stability necessary to be potential long-term resources. Please summarize your annual revenue for profit for the past three years.

  • How many employees does your agency have?

  • Does your company have specific policies and practices concerning employee and vendor diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)?

  • Do you have any recent or pending litigation by or against the agency, its principals, or its directors? If so, please explain.

  • Please provide a list of your top clients.

  • What makes your agency unique? What about your agency are you most proud of?

One question that some may wish to add relates to “conflicts” an agency may have, where they already provide services for a similar brand. Some companies are adamant about not hiring agencies that serve similar brands; others don’t care.

In my view, based on 20 years of agency experience, conflicts shouldn’t be a dealbreaker if an agency can outline how data and intelligence will be kept separate. An ethical agency can work on similar brands if they avoid problems with the right policies and practices. Clients tend to be less concerned about conflicts in affiliate than in other marketing types. But the decision is ultimately up to your organization.

Recognize, however, that an agency’s ability to provide you with assurances about avoidance of future conflicts will likely relate to the revenue they drive from your business and the way you define your category. A small apparel brand, for example, will likely struggle to find an agency willing to rule out working with all other apparel brands. And, more to the point, if you sell women’s activewear, do you care if the agency works with a men’s businesswear brand? They might, however, agree not to work with another omen’s activewear brand if it is essential to you.


Which is best, a big global agency with scads of resources and tools? Or a smaller agency where your account may receive more focus and attention? We could argue both sides here equally persuasively. The answer is that it depends on your needs and the specific agencies in your consideration set.

Please recognize that affiliate marketing is fundamentally different from other marketing and digital marketing forms. It requires specific experience and knowledge to do well, coupled with sufficient resources to build and operate diverse programs and partnerships. SO whether you go big or small, specialist or full-service agency, make sure they genuinely have affiliate expertise in-house to serve your needs.

As you consider your agency options, you can choose specialist affiliate agencies (often called OPMs,) or agencies that provide a broader set of services. These days, many agencies have recognized the outstanding business trends and good margins of affiliate and have hung shingles for affiliate management assignments.

Be careful with the type of agency you choose. All classes have advantages and disadvantages. Further, the size of your account may make particular provider types more appropriate for your needs. A Small business will likely find better service from a small agency.

Additionally, while one can make broad observations about the different types of potential providers, a specific entity might not have the strengths or weaknesses outlined below. But here’s a capsule perspective on each class of potential provider and what to consider.

Consultants and Consultancies: Many strong affiliate leaders are very entrepreneurial, preferring to work for themselves. Great people can deliver fantastic results, and these businesses often provide lots of personal attention. Where they may fall short is in technology and process. Additionally, a sole proprietorship has the strengths and weaknesses of its proprietor.

Specialist OPMs: Often, specialty affiliate agencies have more experienced teams than other agencies and a complete set of tools and processes suited explicitly to affiliate. But they may not often consider affiliate in the context of the larger digital marketing programs.

Direct Response Agencies: Some have strong affiliate teams to manage programs, while others don’t. Carefully consider the team and experience level here and the amount of team time that will be devoted to your assignment. Ensure they have the necessary processes and tools to tackle most affiliate challenges.

Full-Service Advertising Agencies: These agencies will often be best at considering your affiliate programs in the context of the larger marketing strategy. But they may fall short on having people and resources dedicated to the channel. Carefully consider the team and resources here. Also, think about whether affiliate plays a significant role in the revenue and profit for such agencies - minimal revenue usually means minimal attention.

PR Agencies: More and more PR agencies are capturing affiliate assignments. Their key advantage is pre-existing relationships with editors and reporters, who are now more responsible for content marketing performance programs. Ensure they have the right experienced people and sufficient resources devoted to the channel. Be skeptical about having traditional PR staff managing your affiliate program because it is so far afield from conventional PR.

Presently, there is a trend of PR agencies taking on affiliate and affiliate taking on PR. As content becomes more important, this will continue. However, this remains nascent.

Additionally, while one can make broad observations about the different types of potential providers, a specific entity might not have the strengths or weaknesses outlined below. In short, the best (and worst) agencies for your brand can come from any agency type. But the devil is in the details.

Many brands will consider agencies in multiple groups to determine the best fit for their business. I, for example, have a list of four very different agencies I offer up when asked. One is a top provider with global reach. Another is medium-sized and highly focused on using processes and technology. The third is small but growing fast and has attracted an outstanding team from other agencies and advertisers. Their tools and techniques don’t yet compare with the other agencies, but their expert staff is compelling. Finally, one is an individual consultant/wizard whose work I know and respect tremendously.


  • Which of the following descriptions best describes your agency?

  • Affiliate Consultancy (team of <10 focused primarily on delivering affiliate marketing services)

  • Specialist Affiliate Agency “OPM:”? (primarily focused on affiliate/partnership marketing)

  • Direct Response Agency (offering services in addition to affiliate)

  • Digital Marketing Agency (offering services beyond affiliate and direct response marketing)

  • Integrated Advertising/Marketing Services Agency (offering both traditional and digital advertising and marketing services)

  • Public Relations Agency (focused primary on cultivating relationships and content with content teams at media companies)

  • Other (Describe)

  • How experienced is your agency in affiliate management?

  • What role does affiliate play in your overall business?

  • What percentage of your clients use the agency’s affiliate resources?

  • Do you work with brands that have similar needs to ours? Please provide examples.


Know the full range of services your potential agency offers, so you can determine if they can meet your immediate and likely future needs. No one can predict the future, but most companies have a multi-year vision for the growth of their businesses.

Consider future needs as you evaluate alternatives. Here are some areas that may be of interest to you:

Geographic Experience: Can the agency serve you in all the markets that matter to you/will matter to you in the future? International brands can, of course, work with different providers in different regions. But if your brand has a global footprint or aspirations of one, understanding how the agency works with teams in other areas is essential. Note that asking questions here is important because an agency operating in multiple regions may not collaborate well across regions. Or, they may win an assignment for one region and spend half their energy trying to win the other regions instead of focusing on their assignment. Similarly, a domestic-only agency may be highly adept at partnering with other agencies across regions. Or they may be terrible at it. It’s good to sniff around here if international matters a great deal to you.


  • Can the agency effectively serve brand needs in all relevant regions?

  • Is the agency serving other accounts across these regions?

  • What are the team resources in each region?

Partner Management: Affiliate is not a set-it-and-forget-it channel. Partnerships must be thoroughly cultivated and managed to keep critical publishers engaged and growing. Ask your potential agencies about how they communicate with partners. Pay attention to their approach to tier partners and deliver an appropriate level of attention based on their value to the business. If you want to pursue a program with more than 100 partners, ask them how they automate outreach to keep partners focused on your program.


  • What is the agency’s process for recruiting partners?

  • How does the agency communicate with partners? Please outline the components of a typical partner communication program. Provide samples if relevant.

  • Does the agency take a different communication approach with large versus small partners? WIth traditional affiliates versus the other types of partners? Please explain.

Non-Traditional Affiliates: Many advertisers are happy to focus on traditional partner types like coupons and cashback. Others want to combine these with non-traditional partners like tier-one content publishers, influencers, card-based offers, etc. Still others may want to avoid some sectors of traditional affiliate altogether. Make sure your perspective matches the agency’s.


  • What portion of the agency’s work for clients focuses on non-traditional partners?

  • Does/How does the agency regularly recruit and work with content publisher partners?

  • Does/How does the agency regularly work with emerging partner types like card-linked offers?

  • Does/How does the agency help brands partner with other brands on performance partnerships?

Social/Influencer: Are performance marketing programs with influencers part of your brand’s go-forward strategy? Then find an agency that has broad experience fielding and optimizing such programs. The key to winning in the influencer space is understanding that these partnerships often need special consideration. For example, many influencers are far less technically adept than traditional affiliates. They may need different onboarding paths and communications to keep them activated and interested in your brand.


  • Does/How does the agency manage influencer and social media partnerships?

Smart-Partnering: Some agencies and networks encourage you to add hundreds or thousands of partners - it’s a core tenet of their approach. Other brands recognize that not every partnership is beneficial or profitable and prefer a more focused program. Understanding how an agency finds profitable and scalable partners is essential.


  • What is the agency’s philosophy regarding the correct number of partners for a brand?

  • How do you identify the right future partners for a brand?

  • How do you evaluate issues and opportunities with existing partners?

Cross-Channel Collaboration: An increasing number of brands want to manage all channels - including affiliate - holistically. They want to maximize the interplay between channels and understand exactly what value each channel brings to the business. Having an agency that regularly collaborates with other agencies across channels can be valuable for these companies. Having a seat at the brand table is a responsibility and a privilege.


  • Does your team regularly work with agencies and brand teams that manage other marketing channels? How do those collaborations work?

  • What resources does the agency have to ensure that affiliate marketing data can be properly ingested by the brand for analysis, profile development, and attribution?


The best agencies have a foundation of processes that help them be more goals-focused and efficient. Further, these systems and procedures also help ensure that you don’t always need a superstar program manager to drive superstar performance. Tools and processes can make good managers great. Processes bring needed discipline to affiliate marketing.


  • How will the onboarding process work? Outline the checkpoints and timelines for establishing or migrating a program?

  • Please outline the ongoing management process for affiliate programs managed by your agency.

  • What is the cadence of reports and check-ins? For each time of communication, outline the deliverables that will be provided. Where possible, provide a sample of the information provided/reviewed.

  • Do you schedule periodic insights or QBR-style meetings? What will be covered?

  • Will we meet in person, and how often?

I find question two above very revealing because it is so open-ended. It gives you great insight into the agency’s operational approach.


Some brands bring their affiliate networks or measurement platforms with them. Others will ask the agency to recommend and implement a new affiliate partner or tool. Both are appropriate strategies. There is value in contracting directly with the network or platform but having the agency manage the instance. That helps ensure you have full access to the data for any purpose.

Some agencies will have recommendations on which network or platform is best. Listen to them. Their team is likely more adept with the tools of one provider versus another, or they may know which offering is best suited to an assignment like yours. They may also get preferred pricing from that vendor, which is appropriate so long as the agency is transparent about that with you. Be sure you understand the agency’s motivations, and they live up to fiduciary responsibility. Secret side deals compromise how well your interests are aligned with the agency’s. I am not suggesting that most (or even many) agencies will hide such side agreements from you, but some do if you don’t ask, so be sure and ask.


  • (If you have a tool you like already) We Use XXXX. Is your team adept with the XXXX platform? What is their experience level with the XXXX platform?

  • Do you have a preferred tracking network/platform? Why? Will you receive direct financial benefit from that company if we choose it?

  • If we engage with your preferred platform, will you train our internal folks in its use?

Some agencies have developed or licensed technology beyond the core tracking tech to help make program management easier, identify richer insights, collaborate better, review and approve transactions, identify new potential affiliates/partners, attribute sales to upstream partners or across marketing channels, or analyze and visualize data. For example:

  • New partner identification tool (e.g., Partner Discovery)

  • Insights Platform (e.g., CubeTick)

  • Brand Monitoring and Compliance (e.g., BrandVerity, The Search Monitor)

  • Creative Development (e.g., Canva, Designsta)

  • Search Management (e.g., Marin Software, ZETA)

  • Influencer Marketing/Content Creators Management (Sideqik, CreatorIQ)

While not essential for effective affiliate marketing program management, such tools can automate and simplify affiliate program delivery. Larger, more established agencies will be better able to afford such affiliate channel tools than smaller ones. But if you like a particular class of tool or solution and prefer a small agency, you can ask about their familiarity and interest in it. Your company could simply contract with the provider yourself and give an agency access to manage your affiliate marketing spending better.


  • In addition to a measurement platform or affiliate network, what other tools and technology (if any) do you use to glean insights and improve program effectiveness?

  • Are there additional costs for the use of these tools? If so, please outline those costs in your fee proposal.


Years ago, I would have argued that industry knowledge and strong partner relationships were the alpha and omega of the industry. But that has changed tremendously as affiliate’s revenue share has climbed and companies have become more focused on digital channels.

Today, the best affiliate manager leaders have a remarkable combination of skills, among them:

  • A rich understanding of the affiliate marketing channel and best practices

  • A management approach that puts effective collaboration first

  • Quantitative skills to set, manage, and optimize programs

  • The desire for targets, accountability, team achievement

  • An active and creative mind to develop new affiliate marketing ideas

  • Outstanding communications skills to connect, clarify, and collect insights

  • An entrepreneurial nature and an ability to get excited about commercial success

  • Personal integrity to build long-term relationships do what they promise

That’s a pretty tough checklist for anyone to meet. But recently, many observers have suggested an additional set of skills and experience that make a difference: the ability to understand the overall go-to-market of their brand(s) and the publishers they work with. This holistic marketing perspective is critical because affiliate is now a central growth engine rather than a niche channel. That means that affiliate leaders must understand the totality of a brand’s marketing and sales programs and focus on the potential interplay between media.

It’s very valuable to know who will be working on your affiliate marketing assignment before you award an account. But it is also important to be realistic here. Agencies cannot forward hire so that they have people on standby to work on any new assignments that may come in. Labor is the primary operating expense for an agency, so they need to control it as carefully as manufacturing companies contain raw materials costs.

Often, an agency will have to hire at least some people who will work on your affiliate program. And that’s OK. If you manage a relatively large brand, it’s appropriate for a brand to have one or more of the people on staff that will eventually work on your account, but not be entirely sure who will fill every position. It is also very appropriate for you to ask questions about the team - after all, the agency principals may do the pitching but are very unlikely to be doing much of the work on an assignment. Unless the agency or consultancy is relatively small, ask to meet the known team members before making your final agency decision.

One practical approach is to ask the agency to have relevant affiliate marketer team members participate in the pitching process. You can get to meet them, understand their approach to affiliate relationship building, and determine whether you have good chemistry. Additionally, major partners can be a great source of insight into the agency’s reputation and the quality of the individuals assigned to your brand. Ask about the people that would be working with you - partners are usually delighted to provide their perspective here since the people at the agency play a role in determining the strength of the publisher’s relationship with you.


  • Who will be working on my account? What is their experience? Why are they suitable for my assignment? When can I meet them?

  • Which roles will you need to hire if we award our account to your agency?

  • Will you let me speak with significant potential hires that affect my account before you hire them?


Any genuine partnership requires honesty and courage on both sides. It can be helpful to assess an agency’s abilities in this area by asking a few difficult questions that suss out their willingness to deliver uncomfortable news and information.


  • Why do brands choose to work with you?

  • Of all the challenges of great affiliate marketing, what area is most difficult for your agency/team? Where is it hardest for you to deliver excellence, and what are you doing to improve capabilities in this area?

  • Every agency wins and loses clients over time. Thinking about the last two clients you lost, what were the reasons for those losses? What did you learn from those experiences?

  • How do you establish strong client relationships that lead to better marketing efforts?

  • Briefly summarize how you think you can drive growth for our program and address the issues we defined in the background provided.


Speaking as someone who worked for agencies for almost 20 years, I can tell you definitively that the DUMBEST thing you can do is try to get rock-bottom pricing from an agency. YOU. GET. WHAT. YOU. PAY. FOR.

Happily, affiliate management fees have not declined as much as those for other types of advertising. But many brands try to put the squeeze on agencies to save every penny. What brands don’t realize is that the financials for agencies are fundamentally different from those of other types of companies. Labor is the primary expense, not raw materials or direct product costs. Any partnership you wish to form with another organization needs mutual benefit. A former client of mine said it best - “I want my agency to be happy, but not delirious.”

You have a responsibility to do a good price negotiation, but understand that you are setting yourself up for future disappointment if you cut fees too much. Most agencies won’t walk away from winning a substantial assignment, but they will find a way to rightsize the resources they allocate to it. They’ll cut the service level or put less expensive people on it. Or both!

And that is entirely appropriate. If you aren’t willing to pay much, you shouldn’t get much.

We can’t tell you the proper fee for your account. We CAN tell you that you don’t belong in partnership if you want to squeeze every last penny from your agency. This is an industry built on win-win, not win-lose. Different agencies prefer different compensation models regarding fee structures, from set fees per hour to 100% incentive compensation based on results.

To get the best value, a combination of base fees plus incentive compensation can provide great incentives while ensuring the financial wellbeing of your partner. Base fees ensure that the agency can cover basic expenses during the ramp-up of programs and ensure that the agency balances short-term and long-term strategies. Incentive compensation gives agencies tangible benefits when they focus the best people and attention on your assignment. Since affiliate is performance marketing, it’s appropriate for agencies to gain or lose based on their performance.

For the incentive portion of a fee system, tie compensation to affiliate revenue growth versus commission growth. After all, which do you want more of, affiliate campaign revenue or affiliate income/commission? While commissions should represent a win-win, make sure you incent the right sort of growth for best results.

And for gosh sakes, don’t try to cap agency compensation or cut it if the agency performs better than you expected. The right affiliate partnership agency compensation program should work for you at whatever sales volume they deliver. If there is a maximum number of sales you can afford for whatever reason, make that clear in the contract. But just as it’s insane to penalize great salespeople by cutting their comp, so too is it to punish an agency for success.


  • What is the structure of the proposed fee agreement?

  • What services will you will for this fee proposal?


Ultimately, agency selection usually involves a combination of facts and gut. Finding great chemistry with your team makes a massive difference in both results and the effort required to get them. When I have chosen agencies in the past, I used a weighting system that provided a 0-3 on every question to eliminate as much subjectivity as possible. But I’ve also gone through that process and picked the number two scorer because of gut factors.

There’s no perfect way to choose an agency, but I hope this guide has provided some ideas that will be helpful to you. I’d love to hear from people on both the client and agency sides, telling me where you think I get it right and wrong.




  • Provide information about your category, category trends, brand, and brand trends

  • Outline the major goals of the brand for the future.

  • Provide a summary of the founding, current size, growth trends, and partner composition for your existing program

  • Explain what is working and what isn’t with your existing program

  • Tell them why you are looking for an agency


  • Please provide information about the history of your agency.

  • Please outline the details of agency ownership. If your company is public, please provide details. Are you part of an agency holding company or other larger business entity?