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How to get the most from your marketing agency

Does your organisation work with an agency to manage some (or all) of your marketing efforts? Perhaps you work with multiple specialist agencies that are managed by an internal marketing team.

Regardless of whether you spend £300/month or £300,000/month, you want to know that you’re getting the most out of your investment, but unless you’ve got a high level of in-house expertise at your disposal it can be hard to assess return on investment.

This is something we’re asked to do by our clients all of the time: providing an objective view of their existing marketing or PR agencies and whether or not they’re getting the best performance and, ultimately, the best value for money.

In this article we’re going to combine our extensive experience as marketing leaders with insights from some of the UK’s leading agencies to help you to ask the right questions and accurately assess agency performance.

The role of a marketing agency

The role of an agency has changed a lot over the last decade.

As new platforms have emerged, algorithms have been tweaked and consumer behaviour has changed, agencies have had to adapt their service offerings.

In my experience, agencies fall into one of four categories:

  1. Technologists — they’re great with the ‘machinery of marketing’, such as paid media platforms, marketing analytics platforms or CRM.
  2. Creatives — they have a strong creative vision and create high quality work, whether that’s visual or written content.
  3. Well connected — they have access to a vast network of contacts and boast great relationships within a particular industry. PR agencies fall into this category most often.
  4. Relentlessly executional —they can churn out work consistently, but perhaps lack a more strategic mindset.

Of course, the best agencies are often a combination of all four.

No matter which services you require, clear direction on the marketing strategy and well defined objectives are both crucial.

That’s often where we come in – ensuring that businesses can clearly articulate where they are, where they want to get to, and have a plan as to how to get there. Understanding the target market, competitive positioning and developing a powerful proposition are all core to this strategic plan.

Armed with this, a business is better placed to find the right agency to work with and communicate what they want once they’ve found them.

Full service vs. specialist agency

Businesses also have to choose between full-service agencies that work across multiple sectors, or niche agencies that have a specialism.

Full-service (or ‘generalist’) agencies can provide integrated solutions and cross-functional collaboration which is great for larger businesses with diverse needs, but they don’t have that sector-specific focus and expertise.

Niche agencies offer deep industry expertise and can be more agile to changing industry trends, but they often won’t be able to provide a fully integrated service, leaving you to align activity internally.

When businesses operate in niche sectors like tech and telco, partnering with a specialist agency can be a game-changer,” says Jamie MacDow, Head of Client Services at onebite.

You need an agency with deep domain knowledge and an understanding of how a specific set of customers think, what drives purchasing decisions in complicated buying processes and how to effectively communicate complex value propositions.

However, regardless of whether an agency is a generalist or specialist, Atom Bank’s former CMO (and current Open Velocity Senior Partner) Lisa Wood says they must understand the commercial pressures clients are under, as well as the need to be agile so they can respond quickly to the market and consumers.

Increasingly, marketers are looking for an extension of their own teams with their agencies because they don’t have time for the traditional creative process any more,” says Lisa.

We’ve got to change and reimagine that creative process. It might start with a looser brief but through the process we can get to a more defined idea of what we want to put out there,” she added. “The best ideas come in tangents, sometimes.

It’s also important for an agency not to be simply taking your lead when it comes to marketing projects and new ideas. If you feel like you’re constantly driving forward the marketing strategy with limited input from the agency side apart from execution, that’s a sign they lack strategic thinking on your account.

If you’re working with a generalist agency their value should come from the breadth of their view, based on seeing what works across multiple accounts and industries. Conversely, niche agencies should be able to proactively share insights and recommendations based on their deep industry knowledge.

If your agency is offering new ideas and approaches make sure you’re open to them—even if they challenge the status quo. Pushing back on creative or ‘out of the box’ thinking is a good way to train your agency to be passive and keep repeating the same tactics, even if they stop delivering results.

After developing this marketing strategy, we can work with you to identify the right marketing agency, as well as work with them to execute the strategy effectively—but your agency should be given the opportunity to feed into it, too. Taking the time to clearly communicate your business strategy to agency partners will pay back tenfold in the long run.

How to align efforts with your business objectives

When talking to businesses across sectors, all too often we find that they’re not ensuring the efforts of their agencies are aligned with actual business objectives. There’s KPIs around impressions, website traffic, cost-per-click and other marketing-centric metrics, but they’re not judging their agency against the things that matter, whether that’s leads, revenue or customer retention.

In order to get the most from your marketing agency you need to have a holistic marketing strategy that’s tied to a clear business strategy, and this needs to go beyond marketing performance within specific media channels.

Share your strategic plans and goals with the agency, but also be transparent about your budget, timelines and any other constraints or challenges you’re facing outside of the scope of marketing. This isn’t just a one-off exercise, by the way—you should provide regular updates on business performance and any other strategic or priority changes.

The ideal is a strategic agency that knows your industry inside and out and can be so much more for you than simply being reactive and responding to briefs,” says Jamie MacDow.

You know when you have a good agency when they ask about—dare I say insist on knowing about—the bigger picture,” agrees Trevor Palmer, founder of digital agency Tank.

On the other hand, if your agency doesn’t ask about your wider strategic aims from the outset of the relationship, this is a big red flag.

They should want to see how their specific channel work fits into the wider strategic objectives of the business. If they don’t, you have to question the validity of their process,” says Trevor.

How to review an agency’s performance effectively

You probably have a ‘sense’ of how well your agency is performing, but unless this assessment is based on a clear framework you could end up retaining an underperforming agency, or ditching one that’s actually delivering results.

Clear and measurable KPIs

This framework needs to be built around clear and measurable KPIs and, importantly, these should be agreed upon between yourselves and the agency. When considering these targets, ensure they’re SMART:

Specific
Measureable
Achievable
Relevant
Time-bound

Making sure every goal is SMART will avoid obscuring genuine performance with fluffy vanity metrics, and make it easier to tie them to actual business objectives. You’ll also need to put in place an SLA for regular reporting. An agency that can’t, or is unwilling to commit to reporting on results is one to be avoided.

Does the size of the agency match your organisation?

Consider whether the size of the agency you’re working with matches where you’re at as a business. Is it better to be a big client to a smaller agency, or a smaller client to a large agency? There are pros and cons of both.

Being a big client to a small agency means you’re more likely to get attention and priority, but the agency may lack the resources and expertise to fully meet your needs. If you’re a small client for your agency you’ll have access to a wider range of services and talent, but you may not get the same level of personalised attention and care.

Personally, I’ve always preferred to be the big account at a smaller or independent agency, but I would always ensure they’ve got the knowledge and resources needed to deliver first.

Of course, it’s possible that you’ll outgrow your agency in time, particularly if you’ve been with a small agency from the start. This might be a sign that they’ve done a good job in helping your growth, but you have to be able to acknowledge when what you need to take the next step is beyond their capabilities.

Agency resource and expertise

Your marketing agency is only as good as its people, so ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Are the people working on your account responsive, and do they reply to emails and calls in a timely manner?
  • Do they proactively contact you, or do you feel like you’re always chasing them?
  • Are they frequently putting forward new ideas and opportunities, or are you leading the strategic thinking too heavily?

It’s also important that your agency is retaining their talent, as continuity is critical for driving long-term results.

As you work with the agency you want them to be learning about your business and wider industry context, but if they have a high churn rate there’s going to be frequent relearning periods as new starters get to grips with your account. There’s nothing more annoying than having to re-explain your business/objectives to a new account manager every six months, something that is more common with larger agencies who are moved from account-to-account frequently.

Inter-agency collaboration

If you employ multiple creative agencies or freelancers, it’s essential that they work well together, and are willing to work with each other. Some agencies will be wary of other agencies or experts coming in to work on your account as they’ll see it as a threat, but this leads to a siloed approach without joined-up thinking.

What you do need to ensure though is a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities to avoid overlap and confusion that can cause inefficiency and missed opportunities.

This is often where we assist clients, acting as a bridge between resources and ensuring everyone internally and externally is aligned to a clear strategy and plan.

Do they ‘get stuff done’

Some agencies will talk a good game but, when it comes to seeing through a project, they often drop the ball or leave loose ends for you to tie up.

An effective agency doesn’t just come up with great ideas and holistic channel strategies, but takes ownership of the work, sees projects through to completion and, ultimately, just gets stuff done.

It goes without saying that the quality of this work is important too. Does the agency deliver high quality work every time, or does their standards leave something to be desired, meaning you’ve got to spend a lot of time giving feedback and making revisions?

How do they respond to mistakes

Even the best agencies get it wrong sometimes, make mistakes or miss deadlines—the key is how they respond to them.

A red flag is if the agency doesn’t often take responsibility for their mistakes, instead shifting blame or making excuses. This is a sign the people on your account don’t have confidence in the work they’re delivering. Another is when they don’t highlight mistakes to you, but rather hope they’re going to get away with it.

What you want is for an agency that not only owns up to mistakes, but also has a plan to fix them and prevent them from happening again. Great agencies see mistakes as learning opportunities.

What agencies need to do their best work

Getting the most out of your agency requires a partnership between both parties. If you expect an agency to simply run with a strategy you’ve given little input to, in the long term it’s a recipe for failure.

In my experience, one of the most important factors that affect the success of an agency is the quality of the briefs, as I discussed on LinkedIn recently:

My advice when writing a brief would be to have a very clear objective that you’re looking to achieve,” says Kevin Gibbons, founder and CEO of ecommerce SEO agency Re:Signal.

Show the known issues and challenges you’re aware of, but have enough flexibility for an agency to show what they can do to address this.

You also need to be willing to share relevant data, insights and resources that will provide context to your challenges and the current landscape.

Your agency can do their best work when they have a great understanding of your business, performance, ways of working etc.,” says Alex Koujan, Client Success Director at digital agency Impression.

The more you can share with your agency, the better they can align their strategies, activities and ways of working to best meet and exceed your expectations.

You also need to be willing to provide the agency with enough time and budget to implement innovative strategies, and also trust them to apply their expertise and creativity. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t provide candid feedback when necessary and, according to Alex, your agency should welcome the opportunity to improve.

Please take every opportunity you get to provide feedback! An agency can only truly align to your business when they understand what does and doesn’t work for you,” she says.

We’ve learned things like reducing tech language in monthly reports so a client point of contact can share reports internally to non-marketing colleagues, saving them hours rewriting and translating reports.

When to stick, when to twist

There’s a running joke in the marketing industry that when a new CMO joins an organisation, one of the first things they’ll do is fire the incumbent agency.

This is somewhat of a misconception, and it’s one we frequently run up against when acting as a fractional CMO for our clients. However, simply coming in and immediately firing an agency without appraising performance is rarely in the interest of the client.

If I could offer any advice to an incoming CMO, it would be to give any prior well-performing incumbent agency six months as a matter of course,” says Trevor Palmer.

It’s natural to want to bring your own support team, a bit like in football coaching, and whilst that sort of loyalty has served us well over the years, it’s a bit ‘comfort zone’ and not always the best thing for the brand.

Businesses often forget about the time and cost required to source a new agency partner, and the end-to-end process of sourcing, assessing and onboarding them can take months—all of which is delaying the implementation of strategies and, ultimately, results.

If you’re a new senior marketer or CMO, instead of immediately ditching an agency you suspect is underperforming or that has become complacent, work closely with them to set clear expectations, provide constructive feedback and ensure they have the resources needed to succeed. Sometimes an agency just needs to have some pressure applied in order to start delivering improved performance.

If the agency consistently fails to meet expectations or drive meaningful results, even after doing your best to facilitate them, it may be time to consider a change. You might arrive at this point for a variety of reasons, including fundamental changes in personnel, communication breakdown or a lack of trust and transparency, but if these issues can’t be resolved it’ll often be best to part ways sooner rather than later.

If you do switch agencies, work with the outgoing agency to document all the key processes, assets and insights. This will ensure a smooth transition to the new agency and reduce friction in the early stages of working with the new agency. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what’s yours, so double check your contract and secure all of the end deliverables produced during the course of the relationship.

Working with marketing agencies should drive your lead and revenue generation forward, but it can be hard to properly judge their impact. To find out how we can help you to evaluate your marketing strategy and provide the marketing resource to deliver on it, backed by our decades of experience working with brands of all sizes, why not get in touch with us today? It could be the best thing you do for your business.

Author
Photo of Bethan Vincent

Bethan Vincent, Managing Partner

B2B marketer and entrepreneur, with over 12 years of marketing experience and leading teams at Marketing Director level. Bethan knows what it’s like to start your own businesses, they are a regular speaker at international conferences and podcast host of ‘The Brave’.

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