Strategic Planning

Just One Paddle

Agencies are an incredibly valuable resource for modern marketers. They are a great source of help, among other areas, if:

  • You want to try out an area you don’t yet have a strong understanding of, prior to making a long-term commitment to the idea
  • Lack of immediate in-house expertise in an area that you need to jump on right now or risk losing the opportunity
  • Lack of time and bandwidth to execute with your existing headcount

However, 97% of executives said that they are unhappy with the innovation agencies bring to the table and the length of the average client-agency relationship has gone down from 7.2 years in 1984 to less than 3 years today.  One of the more common reasons clients say they change agencies is that they don’t feel their money’s worth because the agency doesn’t understand the client’s business. I buy that – but who’s fault is this?

We’ve talked about pros and cons of whether you should hire an agency to help you carry out your marketing transformation. If do end up hiring an agency, though, you need to be what PR and other agencies describe as “a good client” or you will not get the most you can from any agency.

rowing boat who leads?There is a lot of advice on how to be a good client but, to me, having worked on both sides of the client-agency relationship, it boils down whether you are at least an equal partner with your agency – if not the leader –of that relationship. Think of it as having a two-seater canoe but only one paddle. In too many situations, the agency is forced to take up the paddle and set the direction of the canoe’s journey because their in-house team is not prepared to do so. The result is not one that typically satisfies clients or provides the business-changing work all client and agency partners fantasize about.

The lack of the in-house team’s ability to take charge of paddle is a huge hindrance to success that impacts both the in-house team and the agency. That’s why you have to require certain changes in the agency/in-house team relationship as part of your transformation process.

  • Don’t forget, your marketing transformation has to be built so that it flourishes long term, well after you have moved on to something else. Therefore, the agency must be treated as another stakeholder you have to include in your messaging and address in your process changes.
  • Agencies need clear guidelines on what success looks like. If they don’t have that, they still burn up hours but the in-house team won’t be happy with the cost of what has been achieved. Saying the goal is to “create a website” or “create a paid media plan” isn’t defining success. In-house teams don’t actually want a website or a paid media plan. In-house teams want responses, leads, sales opportunities, and revenue. Thus, agency success has to be defined in the same terms that your transformation requires of in-house team success, with key performance indicators (KPIs) and benchmarks because these are the things, ultimately, that will lead to revenue and, thus, client satisfaction with your agency.
  • You have to ensure your agency – especially the “doer”-level people, not just the senior people who pitched the business – understand how you make money. Too often I see agency briefings on how the organization is structured, political sensitives among the executives (i.e., the CEO hates funny ads), and so on with very little explanation of who the buyer is, what need the product meets for the buyer, and details of the buying cycle mentality of the buyer that the agency’s work has to drop into. Educate the agency on what happens to the buyer along the rest of the campaign you’ve planned out and any data about what pattern of interactions results in the highest level of sales. This will help them help you.
  • Sometimes the agency has to spend extra time justifying what they are doing since the strategy they’re using isn’t one that makes sense to the client because of lack of subject matter expertise or perceived poor alignment to business objectives. Other times, the in-house team doesn’t see when the agency is getting sidetracked until it’s too late. Make sure the in-house team member(s) assigned with overseeing the agency are senior enough and well-versed enough in the details of the tactic or processes to have detailed conversations with the agency. Take advantage of all that free information on the Internet, including those sponsored by professional associations such as the American Marketing Association, International Association of Business Communicators, Public Relations Society of America, Content Marketing Institute, Marketing Sherpa, and online blogs where you can find esoteric topics like marketing transformation.

Once the in-house team and the agency are enabled properly and goals are set that align with the organization’s business goals, the in-house team is in a much better position to ensure the canoe of the client-agency relationship is paddled to a mutually-acceptable result.

Comments are welcome, especially if you have examples of how your organization ensures you retain intellectual capital inside the organization.

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