I had the pleasure of working for Juan in my previous position. He is exceptionally professional and knowledgeable and always looking for the positive in everything. His energy is contagious! His ability to motivate and coach has not only taught me to excel as a professional, but also helped me personally to realize the most difficult challenges can be the most rewarding. – Donna M

What Agencies Don’t Want You To Know

There’s a common truth that we’ve all experienced: Capitalism, for better or worse, is the most dominant economic and political philosophy in the world. Of course, this has led to myriad innovations, and allows entrepreneurs to bring new ideas to the market and support their families.

But it also has its downsides. We’ve all bought products we thought would fill a need, only to feel disappointed, or even worse, taken advantage of.

Digital marketing is a prime example. As online marketing has become a necessity for businesses to get noticed and do business, there has been an explosion of marketing agencies to fill the needs in the market. In theory, this is great. Business owners and entrepreneurs have a need, and these agencies are rising up to meet that need.

But it’s not always what it seems. Many marketing agencies will have similar internal structures and incentives, which aren’t always good for their clients. That’s why we’ve decided to discuss just what it is that most marketing agencies don’t want you to know. We hope that this article will help you make better decisions when seeking out a marketing partner, and in the end, save you a lot of money and disappointment.

Incentivized For All The Wrong Reasons

A basic principle of economics is that no action will be taken without an incentive. This is one of the primary virtues of capitalism, that the market will incentivize investment and the creation of good products.

Now, that incentive doesn’t have to be personal gain. It can be to further the common good, to genuinely help others. When it comes to marketing agencies, however, you’ll find that often their internal incentives are not always in the client’s interest.

In my time as a strategist at a large marketing agency, the majority of my salary was paid in the form of bonuses. This makes sense from the agency’s perspective, as it encourages good performance.

However, that kind of structure can put the strategist between a rock and a hard place. Let’s say, for instance, that they receive a bonus based on how many clients they have and how much those clients are spending on marketing. Losing a client can often be a worst-case scenario, because that strategist will lose a big chunk of their salary.

While this is fine if the client’s campaign is going well, what if it’s not? What if PPC, or SEO, or whatever channel they’re paying for, just isn’t working? Will they tell the client? This is where the agency’s incentives work against the client.

The most likely result of this scenario, is that the strategist does everything they can to retain the client, even if they know the service isn’t working for them. If your business were going to lose a client responsible for 20% of its income, what would you do?

Unjustified Optimism

In order to retain clients that are underperforming, marketing agencies will often resort to unrealistic, unjustified optimism to keep their client ‘sold’. We look at it like this: If you went to your financial advisor, and they told you everything was great when really you were losing money, how would you feel?

This is a situation that many business owners end up in with their marketing agency. Rather than be upfront and honest, the agency strings them along, knowing they’ll leave eventually, but hoping to maximize the individual and business income they can get from that client.

I don’t know about you, but if my agency told me they’d done everything they could, and it just wasn’t working, we would likely leave it on good terms. They put in an honest effort! We both learned from the experience. And most telling of all, they were willing to lose my business in order to help my business. That’s good service.

On the other hand, if I’d heard nothing but optimism and seen nothing but ‘positive results’ for months, finding out on my own that my campaign was unproductive would be a punch to the gut. I’d feel lied to.

Cookie-Cutter Strategies

Naturally, there are best practices to follow when undertaking any sort of online marketing. They’re based on data, industry guidance, and years of experience. Not applying them would be a disservice to the client.

However, some agencies will take that too far and adopt a cookie-cutter approach. Imagine you’ve hired an agency for content services, only to find that the same content has been posted on sites all over the internet. Your content, or so you thought.

It can be tempting to find something that works, and then just use the same product across multiple clients. But that’s not what the client is paying for, and it’s not a good way to do business.

Other times, content will be outsourced to what can be called ‘content mills’. The content producers at these places will sometimes be producing up to 8 articles per day on a range of topics, meaning a serious lack of editorial attention.

Have you ever visited a site thinking you’d be reading an article answering your questions, only to find a mishmash of words that barely scratch the surface of the topic? Chances are, this content was hastily created by a third party.

Unsustainable Growth

One of the key factors used to judge marketing agencies, unfortunately, is their rate of growth. You will see many advertised as ‘fastest growing’ in some way or another. While this certainly evokes a sense of excitement, should you really be interested in their rate of growth?

Yes, but not for the reason you think.

There is a dominant strategy to grow as quickly as possible when it comes to marketing agencies. As we’ll see, that’s not necessarily a good thing for clients.

Often, these agencies are trying to maximize their capital by growing so quickly, and will not hire at a rate proportional to their growth in clientele. The result? Strategists managing forty, even fifty accounts at a time. With a portfolio of 50 clients, a strategist won’t even be able to spend an hour a week with each client’s account.

This means that many accounts that are on the books at marketing agencies will not be receiving the necessary attention to improve and ultimately succeed. I don’t think many clients would be happy to know they’re paying sometimes upwards of $1,200/month to have their account sit on autopilot.

As a strategist, I found it frustrating that I was discouraged from spending the necessary time to genuinely help my clients. Imagine trying to analyze and adjust a marketing strategy in half an hour a week. It’s just not possible, and it’s a disservice to the client who has trusted the agency with their digital marketing.

That’s not to say all those campaigns are failing, or that they’re all mismanaged. But it’s doubtful that clients would appreciate the knowledge that their hard-earned money is being spent on such a minimum level of attention.

There Is Another Way

This might be the #1 thing that marketing agencies don’t want you to know: There is another way of doing things.

But it’s only possible when maximizing agency income isn’t your primary goal.

Think about the problems with marketing agencies I outlined above, and think about how easy they would be to fix. All it takes is honesty, humility, and a willingness to say, “No.”

By prioritizing client results over agency growth, a company can build a truly sustainable foundation, expanding with careful consideration for what is necessary for an outstanding client experience.

Sometimes, that means turning down new business. Maybe the agency can’t handle a client that large, maybe they’re not a right fit. By defining the agency’s mission and identity, it can make more sense to turn down new business than grow in a way that will take away from existing clients.

And those clients deserve to benefit from the Golden Rule: Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Giving clients the honest deal should not be an exception, but the current incentive structures at many large agencies negatively impact the strategist/client relationship.

In order to truly serve their clients, agencies should also adopt a policy of full accountability. By owning up to mistakes, admitting failures, and accepting responsibility, marketing agencies will build better client relationships. Admitting to problems rather than hiding them with a false sense of optimism will lead to not only a more honest relationship, but will make celebrating victories together that much sweeter.

And most of all, agencies need to be creative. Reusing content or pushing it out without proper quality and content controls is counter to the spirit of marketing. Not only are clients hiring agencies because they don’t have the time to manage their own marketing, they’re hiring them to be a driving creative force behind their brand and marketing efforts.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As a former strategist for a large marketing agency, I found it morally compromising to continue in the position. I worked with great people, I had great clients, and I just couldn’t continue to retain clients who I myself would have told to leave our agency behind.

The moment of clarity came when I spoke to a client for whom I’d grown sales by 30%, and whose online campaign had been completely transformed after signing up with the agency. He called me and told me that he’d be canceling our services, as we’d solved his problem.

On a personal level, that felt great. I did it! He was extremely happy he’d taken the chance on me, and said he knew who he’d call if he needed help in the future. But as a strategist, I realized I was about to lose almost 20% of my salary for up to three months!
How can you be proud of your work, agree with your client, and also feel terrible at the same time? It was at that moment that I realized working at a marketing agency was not for me.

So what am I doing working for ZigSwift Marketing? Quite simply, I’m here because it’s nothing like a marketing agency. I have the chance to be honest, to tell clients the truth.