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4 broken promises agencies make to brands

4 broken promises agencies make to brands Drew Hubbard

First, my credentials: Over the last seven years, I have worked a lot of digital marketing agency jobs. I joined the industry doing entry-level research, and many years later I co-founded and helped build an agency of my own. I have worked as a freelance consultant on both the creative and technical sides. And I have directly experienced most aspects of the digital marketing agency world. I have both made and received broken promises.

4 broken promises agencies make to brands

The symbiotic relationship between brands and their agencies is a complex one, full of jargon and the constant rustle of asses being covered. Agencies make outlandish promises to their clients because the clients essentially ask to be lied-to. The agency doesn't want to get fired, so they tell the client what the client wants to hear. The client often reports to a manager who sets impossible goals. So the client depends on the promises that the agency tells him, so that when accountability rolls-around, there is somebody else to blame.

So what are the most common lies?

The lie

"We will be a seamless extension of your internal marketing team."

Why it's a lie

Until the robot clones take over the workplace, marketing teams will remain comprised of human people. Some people are nice, and other people are assholes (the assholes can cause problems, and overly-nice people are even worse). Plus, there's going to be friction as people work-out exactly what everyone's roles are. We're talking about two different companies with different hierarchies, holiday schedules, rules, skill levels, and most importantly, different recommendations for strategy. So it's never going to be seamless.

How to keep them honest

  • Communicate. A lot: Lots of meetings are going to seem like time-wasters at first. But if you want the relationship to work, you need to get to know the other team very well. You don't have to be friends, but get to know their personalities, work ethics, etc.

  • Create delegates: The client needs to know who to call when questions arise. Then both teams should clearly state to one another what each person's expected responsibilities are. This way, you create the structure of a single team working toward a common goal. This helps.

  • Take notes: It is way harder to forget stuff when it is written-down. Nothing keeps people honest like evidence.

The lie

"We make sure there are no competitive conflicts with other clients."

Why it's a lie

If you work in marketing long enough, you'll develop some areas of expertise. You kind of can't help it. For this reason, agencies also naturally develop specialties (e.g. real estate, consumer packaged goods, travel, etc.). It won't be long before an agency doubles- or triples-up on competing clients.

Theoretically, only one page can rank No. 1 for "Dwayne Johnson filmography." So what happens when an agency has two different clients with the same goal? Traditionally, agencies split their staffs into teams. One team is assigned per client, and nobody on that team will work for a competitor. In theory, it's like each client has its own mini agency.

Here's the problem: Eventually, I'm going to take a smoke break or go to Subway for a meatball sandwich. Somebody that I work with is going to come with me because I'm friends with people at work (except for the assholes and the nice people). One or more of those friends works for a competitor of my client. And we're going to talk about it. Everybody does.

How to keep them honest

  • You can't. You just can't. People are going to talk.

  • The best you can do is to do plenty of homework. Pick an agency that has an ethical track record.

  • Every agency that I have worked with has been totally ethical and has made strides to keep client confidentiality intact. But there is simply no possible way to keep confidentiality airtight.

The lie

"We'll gladly work with your other agencies."

Why it's a lie

They'll do it, but they won't like it. Between having some of a brand's business and none of a brand's business, the agency usually chooses some. That's how you make money and stay in business -- two things that agencies love. So they will begrudge the client's choice to work with other agencies.

How to keep them honest

  • In my experience, fewer agencies is a better scenario because there are fewer checkpoints (approvals) that any idea, strategy, or piece of creative must pass-through before receiving final approval. This process is often the biggest inefficiency of the brand/agency relationship.

  • If a brand wants to work with only one agency for their digital marketing needs, they need to interview each individual team as though they were an independent agency. It's OK to make small compromises in some (not all) areas to keep all of the work under a single roof.

  • The exception to the single-agency rule is if the client has very strong management in place in the form of a well-informed director or VP of marketing who is able to manage multiple agency teams and keep them working, efficiently, in-congress. But since that never happens, see the above points.

The lie

"We'll watch trends so you don't have to."

Why it's a lie

Agencies are notoriously bad about updating their own websites. Why? Because client work is more important. And when 100 percent of the agency's time is filled with client work, other things get neglected. One of the first things to go is daily research and reading, which is something that any good marketing consultant must do to stay competitive. But only the most dedicated employees stay late to catch up on reading. No, they go home to read a story to their kids, as they should. But now they're a day or two (or a week or a month) behind on trends and news.

How to keep them honest

  • Nobody intimately understands your brand better than you. Nobody, not even a great agency, can replace your need to stay on top of your own industry's trends.

  • Present your discoveries during your recurring agency meeting. Don't expect them to already know about every new technology and service. Gauge their ability to adapt to new information.

  • As long as you continue to trust your agency partners, respect their recommendations. While you understand your brand best, it is often your agency who understands your marketing strategy best.

  • Request clear analytics reporting. If you don't understand all of the complicated data, don't worry -- you're not dumb. Agencies have a bad habit of creating overly-complicated reporting because it makes the agency look smarter and allows mistakes to be more-readily hidden.

Study guide

  • Communicate. Meet face-to-face whenever possible.

  • Know that your agency might also be working with one of your competitors.

  • Strive for a single, integrated agency. But not at the expense of successful campaigns.

  • Do your homework. Learn the language of marketing. Learn the marketing of your industry. Discuss regularly with your agency.

  • Request clear, understandable analytics reporting.

  • Hold your agency accountable for goals that aren't met.

Drew Hubbard is the owner of LA Foodie.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Hole glass shot" image via shutterstock.


Drew is mainly a dad, but he's also a social media and content marketing guy. Originally from Kansas City and a graduate of The University of Missouri, Drew will gladly discuss the vast, natural beauty of the Show Me State. Drew and his wife,...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Obi-Wan Plunkett

2012, August 28

good points... but.... i've worked at some very professional agencies..
(and not saying you aren't right.. just not 100% of the time.)

"We'll gladly work with your other agencies."

Agree the gladly part is a lie.. but sometimes the other agency is more qualified, sometimes you have to give them rope to hang themselves with... better to be professional and put on the "{gladly}" attitude.

"We'll watch trends so you don't have to."

this may not be true some places.. but it's my job to do this specifically.. it took 17 years of doing SEO and social media to get the R & D job but i'm a search scientist.. i'm still doing the work, but mostly observing Google and making sugesstions.. p.s. they call me the Nostradamus of Google.. so i guess i'm doing it right. (crosses fingers)

i do think, interviewing depts as separate agencies is the great thing... and working with one agency for multiple facets works well.. i have exposure to 8 different campaigns in different areas and i can assist them all.. this is a very good thing.

Commenter: Piyush Aggarwal

2012, August 28

strange and interesting. strange because i wrote something very similar "6 steps on how to select an online marketing agency" http://bit.ly/NzSuTM

I thought the problem is prevailing in India only and global counterparts in US/ UK / Singapore are slightly better off considering the clients are lot streamlined on digital platform and hence they do the filteration during the pitch itself.

Very valid point you have made in the article, when you mentioned of agencies not updating their websites or not staying in touch with the news about the brand. Recently I met a "so called" social media agency who haven't even updated their own FB page for ages which highlights the irony in the entire situation.