A few weeks
ago I sat down with a friend to discuss the pros and cons of leaving her
high-profile job at a giant telecom. First, she wanted to understand how the
transition from being a corporate executive to moving into the role of an
entrepreneur had been working for me. I told her, that although it’s a very
different beast, the transition has been 100% positive. But I also said that it
might not be the same for everyone. It’s a constant evolution. I’ve gone
from turning down potential clients – in order to stick to high-level strategy
and avoid the staffing requirements that come with managing execution – to
realizing that I was turning down the bank. I then began to explain my new
direction of starting a boutique digital agency to handle both strategy and
question was an earnest and good one: Don’t you think it’s a very noisy space
to enter? To be frank, I have an extremely high-tolerance for
risk, and noise never concerns me.
All of my professional endeavors have been in ultra-competitive spaces.
The real question to answer when entering a crowded market is whether you can
offer something unique and valuable. And the answer to that question in this
case is -- absolutely.
who has vetted, hired, and fired digital marketing and technology agencies, I
didn’t need to do a Google search (518,000,000 results for the query: ‘Digital
Agency’) to answer that yes, the space is NOISY.
But from my
experience, I also know there is a fundamental problem with the current agency
landscape. It’s the same problem that
many companies that are trying to evolve into social businesses face – their
values are off. Let me explain some of the top issues I’ve encountered:
Bigger Is Not Better. The truth
is: at some point, the best talent eventually leaves to lead their own
agencies. The other truth is: the best talent wasn’t actually spending much
time on your account anyway. Of course, if your company’s account is large
enough, you might get the best talent for the pitch meeting but then it’s most
likely to be pushed off to junior staff. There’s a reason why the big guys
constantly acquire the best boutique agencies – that’s where you find the
talent pool. Every client/project should receive at least one group strategy/creative session with all senior staff weighing-in with their experience, expertise, and insight.
Underplay of Social. Like the
brands they serve, many agencies are still tacking social onto the side of
their strategy and planning. They acquire a social team and then claim core
competency. Not so fast. If Social isn’t the *starting point for all online and
offline effort – including social branding and social audience profiling --
it’s not taking advantage of the full opportunity of social. Everything needs
to go through the social layer. Every touchpoint has an opportunity to create
deeper engagement with customers. Social data and the creation of social
experiences should take the lead -- not the other way around. I rarely see
campaigns that are well targeted, well integrated or create engagement more
than one comment deep. Every company, product and campaign needs a social architecture -- the platform and content comes later.
Smoke and Mirrors. Many agencies
will misguide a company in order to get more business, and companies are often
guilty of doing the same with customers. When I had to vet an agency partner,
the first question I’d ask was: Do you believe community management is better
as an internal function or outsourced? The correct answer is: if the company is
willing to put in the resources, it is always better managed internally. Period.
No question. There is a large amount of internal knowledge and customer
relationships gained when the role in house that doesn’t happen when
I can’t tell
you how many companies have told me they recommend this work be done externally
– because they sell that service. Bullshit. It’s an agency’s job to tell the
client the truth, even if they don’t get that piece of the business. This
creates a giant opportunity for honest, straightforward, generous agencies to
garner the respect and business of many clients going to agencies just about
the buck. The same holds true for startups competing against companies that
aren’t treating their customers right.
4. Greed. I only remember one
agency where I didn’t get a new
account manager every 3 months. This begs the question, why isn’t there any
consistency? Agency folks have shared with me this: Mid-level people aren’t
promoted in order to bill clients less. This combined with the
“You’re-lucky-to-work-here” mentality causes mid-level people to change jobs
Crabill recently explained how her PR agency always plans to bill less one month
out of each year in order to make time for her employees to spend time training and
bonding together. Nicole Jordan of Radix Collective has created a strong network of freelancers and other boutique agencies where her company builds out plans based on the rates independents want/deserve to be paid vs. the standard nickeling-and-diming approach used so often just to get the client. Talent is the most important piece of the puzzle – and many
companies still don’t treat people like they value their time and effort.
Creating an agency that values people first is the key.
Bullying. Don’t get me wrong. There are some very, very
good agencies out there. But there are others that do great work and are awful
to actually work with. I once witnessed an agency that would literally sneak
into the boardroom early and line up on one side of the table with the goal of
creating an intimidating atmosphere. No, I won’t name names here. The head of
the agency would proceed to point out weaknesses and steamroll the conversation
with a “Your company sucks and needs us” sales strategy. Meanwhile, the six
other “team” members would quietly nod in agreement. It’s a powerful tactic but
it’s bullying. And dark.
rather work with a positive, collaborative, visionary, and community-oriented
group of people any day. As a potential partner, a client, or a customer, I
want both agencies and brands to be honest with me. Tell me what you really
recommend – as if you were in my shoes.
job is to show the company areas of opportunity and help them get there. And
wouldn’t it be great if it was a pleasant, fun, and supportive experience at
the same time? If you work with an agency that operates this way, I would love
to hear about them in the comments. They exist and a list of these agencies
would benefit us all.
Agency Experience Only. This is
probably the biggest issue functionally. Agencies most often only want to hire
people with agency experience. This means they rarely have staff with
experience pushing through initiatives within an organization. This is a big
miss. When I was Vice President of Social Media at Live Nation, I can’t tell you how
many times an agency pitched an idea that involved integration with the
website, the mobile app, the payment system and/or the direct mail platform.
Who knows how many hours were spent brainstorming this amazing “idea” without a
clue at how much time it would take for buy-in with this many departments and
technologies. Let me tell you – no less than eight months.
agency had someone with corporate experience, they would know this and angle
for a much more bite-sized piece and then, work to expand.
core issues make the agency space ripe for disruption. Agencies that focus on
their employees and harness their best talent across their accounts, lead with
social, tell their clients what they need to hear (even if it’s not what they
want to hear), and think outside the proverbial agency box are primed to take
the lead – and deliver better results with a smaller price tag. Thoughts?
By Gretchen Fox, Social Architect at grtchnfx