The Agency Model – It’s Time For Disruption


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 execution.

Her next 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.

As someone 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:

1.     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.

2.     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.

3.     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 outsourced.

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 frequently. Julie 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.

5.     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.

I would 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.

The agency’s 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.

6.     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.

If that agency had someone with corporate experience, they would know this and angle for a much more bite-sized piece and then, work to expand.

These six 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