The method and extent to which businesses communicate with their customers has rapidly changed over the last decade. The maturity of the internet has brought a multitude of new channels to communicate with your customer base, and this has led to seismic shifts in how customers interact with companies before, during, and after they have made a purchase.
This presents a dilemma for businesses as they now need to make decisions as to which marketing activities to direct their focus and how budgets should be allocated, as well as who to hire to carry them out. This is especially the case when it comes to digital marketing; many businesses don’t have the employees in house with the right skill sets to cover everything digital marketing. Most marketing teams – including their managers and leaders – are traditional marketers with limited understanding of concepts like SEO, PPC or even web development.
Because of this, many companies look to external agencies to support their growth and increase their spread of marketing across the full (and ever-increasing) marketing mix. This often leads to an RFP process and inviting a few select agencies in to pitch to your business.
This seems simple, however, an all too common scenario emerges - a marketing agency comes in with a fantastic pitch, you feel they are a great fit for your business, they wax lyrically about how they help to achieve their organisational goals, etc. And then, six months down the line, a sense of frustration emerges that those results have simply not materialised… been there?
So the question arises – what’s going wrong here?
Are agencies failing to deliver? Are businesses failing in communicating their goals? Are businesses expecting too much too quickly? I’d argue the issue is simply down to choosing the wrong agencies for the wrong reasons.
Digital marketing agencies are service businesses, and similar to most service businesses their long-term goal is to create a stable cash flow. This is why most agencies look to adopt a retainer with their clients as it allows them to forecast over a longer period and to invest in great talent, infrastructure and training.
Ultimately, this model affords the client better results. Over time the agency becomes embedded as an extension to the team, more keenly understands the organisation’s goals, and equally shares in the successes. Because of the longevity you’re signing up for – and the cost you’re agreeing to over the full year (or more) upfront, businesses often look to the biggest, most established agencies with a lot of ‘case studies’ behind them as a safe bet. However, there are many pitfalls to this approach. Yes, there are some fantastic large-scale marketing agencies out there who will 100% deliver the results (and we can tell you who they are), but there are also some very large agencies out there who have fallen into the trap of getting too big to deliver proper service to their clients (we can tell you who they are, too).
At the outset, a client-agency relationship is very much an arranged marriage, and if you choose the wrong agency you will not only fail to yield the results you strived for, but you’ll also waste time and it often it can lead to agency apathy (an unfortunate brush that tarnishes the whole industry).
So how do businesses overcome this?
1. Ensure the agreement terms are reasonable
Businesses should seek out an agency that has reasonable agreement terms. Being tied up for 12 months when you realise after month three they are not delivering is a bitter pill, so you should look to request a 30 day exit clause for the first three months. You wouldn’t hire a member of staff without a probationary period, so why should you take such a big risk with a new agency? If the agency won’t agree then let it serve as a warning flag. If they’re truly confident at the pitch stage that they can deliver they will agree to such terms as they’ll know they’ll be able to deliver the results needed for you to keep them on long-term. With that said, it’s important to bear in mind that great results don’t (always!) happen overnight. If you have any worries or concerns about your agency’s performance, address it with them there and then and give them the opportunity to explain what is happening and a chance to turn things around. This ‘settling in’ period is a chance to get your working relationship on the right track, so remember to put in a bit of time to nurture it.
2. Set measurable and time bound goals and objectives up front
If your new agency doesn’t look to establish goals and objectives and truly understand your business model and what success looks like for you, you need to run for the hills. When you start working with an agency – even at pitch stage – you need to ensure they’re taking an interest in what they’ll need to deliver for you, and that they’re confident they can do so. They should also be able to give you an indication of how long results will take and set expectations up front. While setting up social channels or running some paid campaigns can be a quick win, things like SEO take a longer term view, and they should make you aware of this. Any SEO agency that says they can deliver instant results is simply lying – or using questionable tactics. So again, run!
What’s more, your agency should take a look at your current position and ensure this is used as a benchmark – otherwise, how can they possibly show improvement. For many businesses, their website data is a mystery and they don’t know how to analyse what’s there, so ensure your agency takes the time to really drill down and explain where you’re at now – and documents it – otherwise it’s impossible to set goals or track how they’re doing once they start work.
Essentially, you need to develop a clear picture of what success looks like – together. This is often a major cause of frustration between businesses and agencies, and that old adage of “being on the same page” really is critical. Organisational goals should be clearly communicated so that the agency truly appreciates the direction and internal success metrics of the business.
Ensure you and your agency agency has a clear and defined collective strategy in place that they should be working towards.
3. Measurement, measurement, measurement
It cannot be stressed enough that without measurement you cannot possibly know that you’re getting value and a return on investment (ROI) from your monthly agency fee. Far too often we engage with a new client after taking over from a previous agency only to find their monthly reporting consisted of barely more than site traffic levels and some basic vanity metrics on their social channels. Ask for a copy of an example monthly report from any agencies tendering to work with you and discuss what their reporting looks like and how they’ll be able to demonstrate their value.
The metrics you’re measuring should be jointly agreed, dependent on your company needs in a transparent format. This means that the whole story should be presented. So, for example, if you have a metric to drive organic growth and organic traffic increases, but the organic traffic you’re receiving isn’t converting or taking key actions on site, then your agency ticks a box but there’s no real business benefit. Your agency needs to take note of the fact that the traffic quality is low and then delve deeper to figure out what keywords are driving this traffic and how they can adjust their strategy to drive not only more traffic, but better quality traffic that’s relevant for your product and/or service.
4. Ensure you’re aligned and your business is a good fit with theirs
It may be a generic and perhaps cliché business term, but with regards to your chosen agency ‘alignment’ is truly crucial. The wealth of marketing tools available at your disposal allows you to really reach out to specific target markets. Keyword optimisation allows for a business to target specific segments of the wider audience. The key to this is ensuring your agency comprehensively understands your business even beyond its current goals, with an appreciation of your journey to date, where you are and where to you want to go.
5. Ensure your agency has exposure to wider business teams and takes on other perspectives It’s very easy for agencies to fall into a trap of only being aware of the marketing team’s perspective and business goals even though as an agency they should be looking to achieve goals on a higher level that goes beyond the realm of marketing alone. To prevent this from happening, ensure your chosen agency meets with a wider array of stakeholders. Don’t limit it to marketing only as the wider marketing strategy can only be complemented by having sight of the wider mechanisms of your business. What’s more, as a marketing leader, it will also assist in ensuring results are attributed back to the efforts you and your agency are putting in, ensuring you can continue to build up the importance of the work you’re doing with the agency and how that adds value to the business as a whole. This ensures wider buy-in across the business as well as the ability to ask for further budget and increase the exposure of your team.
Our final thoughts on the matter…
There’s no simple approach that guarantees success. Finding the right agency for your organisation can be frustrating - the ‘brochure versus reality’ is inevitable with some agencies. However, if you do your work up front to ensure the agency is definitely going to understand your business and drive value, you could end up with a truly wonderful client-agency relationship where they act as a true extension of your team, delivering measurable value and helping to grow your business.
Hopefully the above has provided some useful tips and insight into choosing an agency that truly adds value to your business. If your current agency is not performing then try broaching that directly to see if it can be rescued and then set some hard deadlines by which you want to see improvement, and if they don’t deliver it may be time to look elsewhere…
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