10 Reasons to Hire an Agency: Reason #5

Reason #5: We have no marketing department.

Admittedly, this reason is generally limited to smaller marketers, as marketing can get lost in the shuffle of so many other business activities.  This can be true of all types of companies, from single-offering entrepreneurs (bakers, candlestick makers,) to high tech or Internet startups.  These businesses are so focused on making a great product or offering a unique service, that marketing – capital M – is often relegated to “we’ll get to that when we have some sales.”

So they go out in search of an agency to basically “outsource” an array of singular marketing needs, usually focused on promotion activity like website development or advertising or packaging.  In some cases, the limited funds (that precluded the marketer from establishing a marketing department,) tend to produce difficult choices.  Should we build a website first, or run some ads?  Should we fix up our product line or invest in finding the right distributors?  Should we sell direct or through intermediaries?  All of these functions would typically have been scrutinized by a marketing team and then decided on and cross-referenced with company/brand objectives.

A troubling problem with this approach, of course, is that marketing is often misunderstood, even by fairly accomplished businesspeople.  More accurately, it’s often only partially understood, and tends to be limited to activities that sound a lot like “promotion.”   What most smaller companies don’t understand is that marketing is way more than promotion, and should be everyone’s business, at virtually every level of every company.

So an obvious pitfall of hiring an agency because you don’t have a marketing department is that not all agencies can provide end-to-end marketing advice.  As we saw in post #3 in this series, many agencies have chosen to specialize:  some are great at advertising.  Others at direct marketing.  Others at branding.  Some are very competent digital or social shops. Additionally, the relationship between a company without a marketing department tends to get started off on the wrong foot, since the charge from the marketer is usually very specific.  They start asking around, and saying something like, “I think I need an agency to help with PR.”  Naturally, they’ll find PR agencies vying for their business.  Further, it can get a little icky for senior executives when an outside party comes in and starts asking real marketing questions, like “how did we arrive at this pricing strategy?” or “What are the plans for line extension?” or “How are we planning on expanding operations as we grow?” That can get a little too close for comfort for an entrepreneur who’s poured his or her soul into something for the last six years.

Conversely, there are many advantages to hiring an agency if you don’t have a marketing department.  Generally, someone at an agency (a senior account executive, or management executive,) or an independent consultant is usually well versed in the marketing functions.  Also, if the agency or consultant is a specialist in your vertical, you’re more likely to get road-proven advice that will lead to effective executions.  And let’s face it, every larger company that HAS an internal marketing department hires an agency (or several) anyway.  They can’t be that far off-base, can they?

Internally, any good business worth its salt is going to have to vet every marketing challenge:  the product line, the features, the accessories (if applicable,) the service plan, the pricing plan, the distribution strategies, the operational infrastructure.  A lot of un-sexy, un-advertising stuff.  But these are the basic building blocks for a successful business and a clear grasp of them is absolutely critical to building a brand with any merit.  If an agency can help you explore these concepts, it’s probably the beginning of a very profitable partnership for both parties.

Tomorrow:  Reason #6:  I know someone at an agency.

10 Reasons to Hire an Agency. Reason #4

Reason #4:  The agency gave a great pitch.

We’ve all heard this one.  There were four agencies on the short list, and it was clear that agency X was the frontrunner.  Then agency Y comes in (from the Midwest, no less!) and knocks the client over and and knocks the incumbent out of a healthy set of billings.  They must have done one heck of a pitch!

“The Pitch” is the holy grail for some advertising and marketing practitioners.  It’s the closing argument of the prosecutor; the 2-minute wrap of the hopeful candidate; the coach’s impassioned locker room speech; heck, it’s the warbly proposal on bended knee.  It’s the one chance the agency has to articulate how it sees the problem, how it crafts the strategy and how it envisions and stylizes the solution.  It’s the only legitimized  method left in modern business to say “pick me!”

Remember Don Draper’s “carousel” speech on Mad Men?  In less than 3 minutes, he encapsulated the problem for Kodak’s slide projector, (that they didn’t have a “technology” sale to make,) added a healthy dose of personal passion, and created new terminology for the client to use as a go-to-market differentiator.  Perfectly presented.  And punctuated emphatically by the account director’s closing remarks:  “Good luck at your next meeting.”  Wow.

Marketers love getting pitched.  And why wouldn’t you?  Imagine you had a problem and you could ask 10 prominent psychoanalysts to give you their best recommendations – FOR FREE.  One by one, they march in, they flatter you and your personality accomplishments.  They ease into your shortcomings.  They postulate the provenance of your problems.  They offer a unique analysis and then lay out an expansive road map to a solution.  And then they thank you for the opportunity. How wonderfully indulgent!

On one hand, hiring an agency because they gave a great pitch is a bit like getting married after a first date.  Sure, it’s always fun and flirty in the beginning, and full of possibility.  But a long-term relationship is something different, and something that requires work, and patience, and more work and the ability to articulate what you WANT from the relationship.  Some agencies pitch well, and have a hard time delivering on all those lofty promises.  Or don’t see the implications of what they propose.  And be aware, small and midsize marketers:  some agencies stack the deck by hiring great pitchers.  There are professionals out there who know how to get into character and learn how to read a room, and learn what the CMO or marketing VP is dealing with, and craft a story so compelling, it’s hard to resist.

But, on the other hand, hiring an agency because they gave a great pitch is not always the worst move a marketer can make.  In some ways, the marketer gets to hear first-hand how the agency perceives your marketing problems.  And in this way, the marketer can sift through whether or not that agency “gets it” with the product offering, has the requisite knowledge of the vertical, of the client’s customer base, and many more subtle but important facets of going to market.  In many ways, marketers don’t always know what they want, but they know when someone is close, because they can hear it somewhere in the details.

You may not always know what you’re looking for when you’re hiring an agency, but you might want to collaborate with a team that’s stumbled onto something fresh and new in reviewing your business.  You might learn that an agency has discovered an insight about your business or your customers and has sound processes and systems to get that insight articulated into a message and then get that message into the hands of the people who matter most. And you might even learn something new in the process.  All in all, if you got any of THAT from an agency pitch, it’s not a terrible reason to hire an agency.

Tomorrow – Reason #5:  We don’t have a marketing department.

10 Reasons to Hire an Agency. Reason #3

Day 3 in a 10-day series on reasons to hire an agency.

On day 2, we looked at a very popular reason that marketers hire agencies:  they have experience in my vertical.  See yesterday’s post.>

Today, we’re evaluating a slightly less popular reason, but one that seems to be making a lot of headway, especially in the din surrounding social media.

Reason #3:  The agency has a lot of experience in a particular medium.

This is becoming a popular reason for hiring an agency:  they kill it on television.  Or they’re social media experts.  Or they do great radio.  Or they’re DRTV specialists.  Or they’ve got out-of-home down to a science.

And agency owners (large and small) have been drinking the “specialist” kool-aid for a long time.  They think “I can be better positioned, and therefore more competitive, if I’m a specialist in SOMETHING.”  And so they focus on TV, because production budgets allow for a lot of buried costs.  Or they focus on radio because the creative director has a great voice.  Or they decide that mobile is the “shiny new thing” that they can own in their market.  Heck, they’ve probably written white papers (haven’t we all?) on how much they know about their specific medium and the opportunities it affords.  Haven’t you noticed all the specialized spinoffs from the big holding companies?

There is a healthy upside to this line of thinking.  An agency that has deep experience in a particular medium can be extremely helpful to a marketer, especially if the agency is buying the space or time on your behalf.  It likely implies that the agency also has strong relationships with the media reps, which can mean the most advantageous pricing and rate negotiations on your behalf.   It also may mean that there are some best practices that have been honed over years of channel experience.  You (the marketer) can certainly be a beneficiary of all that knowledge.

But hiring an agency because they kill it in a medium can also be a slogging, slippery slope.  It may mean that your entire marketing plan will be re-jiggered – by an outside party with interests that may not be aligned to yours – to focus on the medium it knows.  Not bad if your objectives call for a national TV launch, or a social blitz.  But what if it doesn’t?  And what if choosing the wrong medium does damage to your brand?  How much will that cost to recover?  Likely a whole heck of a lot more than you saved by buying your spot cable at an average of 6.88%.

Especially in the age of integrated marketing, choosing an agency for a medium specialty is shortsighted at best, and strategically disastrous at worst.  The fundamental shift in all marketing over the last 15 years has been towards the consumer, whether that consumer is a military housewife, or an enterprise IT purchasing manager or anyone in between. Marketers need to put the consumer, not the medium, at the center of the plans, and then choose the right channels, the right messages (and these days, the right conversations) and the right timing to meet that consumer’s demands.

Tomorrow:  Reason #4 – The agency gave a great pitch.

10 Reasons to Hire An Agency. Reason #2


Day 2 in a 10-day series on reasons to hire an agency.

So yesterday, we examined perhaps the most-often cited reason for hiring an agency, which was to have access to great, talented people.  See Yesterday’s Post >

Today, we’ll look at perhaps the second most popular reason, and perhaps the most dangerous (for both parties.)

Reason #2:  The agency has experience in my vertical.

This is another very popular reason that small and midsize companies choose an agency.  And also a very typical path for b-to-b companies.  These marketers are looking for some assurances that they’ll be in the hands of experts – and previous experience in a particular vertical (like steam pipe fittings, or enterprise servers, or mattresses,) provides them on some level.

Why is vertical knowledge so valuable?  There are many reasons, but the main one is definitely money/investment.  When a company wants to market itself in a particular industry – again, especially in b-to-b – it needs to speak to a specific audience through specific channels and create differentiation and memorability.  And quickly.  They last thing they can afford is to pay some agency to navigate a learning curve.  Plus, in these specialized industries, it’s easy to slip up, even innocently, and ruin a campaign, or an entire marketing plan with a wrong word here or a mis-usage there. That’s way too risky and expensive a proposition for any company to make, so you may hear a lot of the “let’s just find a shop who knows our business” being whispered between decision-makers as they sign off on the marketing budget.

Is it possible that an agency full of talented and intelligent people could do some research, and learn about your vertical?  Absolutely.  And in some ways (not all,) it may provide better, cleaner marketing expressions as a result.  It’s something I call “creative curiosity.” But it almost never happens.

But be warned.  Choosing an agency for vertical experience can also be dangerous for both you and the agency.  When an agency has been doing, let’s say, automotive retail for the better part of the last 15 years, it’s not likely to try anything remarkably new or daring…it’ll go to what works, it’ll run your ads in the media it knows, it’ll do what it thinks will generate results.  And chances are, if they’ve been successful for the last decade and a half, it probably will generate your requisite ROI.  And you’ll like the results, and you’ll be content that your message is out there.

But it may end up being boring.  Or just mildly effective.  Or worst of all, it’ll just look like everything else in your space.  This is why marketers have to learn to ask themselves hard questions.  Questions like “do I want to be safe and effective, or do I want to be different and daring?”  Both are valuable, depending on what kind of marketer you are, and what you instruct your agency to do. Remember, even if you hire an agency that has loads of experience in your vertical, you’re still going to want something new, something fresh.  So why not give that same charge to an agency who doesn’t have experience in that vertical, too, and see what comes out?

Tomorrow:  Reason #3:  They’re great in this medium.

10 Reasons to Hire An Agency. And what’s wrong (or right) with them.

A series of 10 posts in 10 days.

There are a zillion reasons to hire an agency.  And pretty much a zillion types of agency out there from which to choose.  Whether the agency calls itself a marketing communications company, an advertising agency, a consultancy, a PR firm, a branding firm, a branded entertainment company, an experiential marketing service, whatever…it’s not always easy to figure out what an “agency” is, or which type you need.  But it is, generally, good business to hire one of these types of companies to help move your brand/initiative/program/product/service forward in the marketplace, no matter what your size, what your goals or what your budget.

Figuring out which type of agency to engage is a tough task.  It largely depends on what YOU do, who your audience is, and a host of other factors.  If you’re a large company, it’s likely you have several types of agencies to handle specific tasks:  media, social, digital, etc.  But if you’re a small or midsize company (and let’s face it, 99% of you are,) it’s really hard to determine what kind of agency you should hire.  Because you probably need some PR.  And some social media help.  And some advertising.  And a bunch of other stuff.  So choosing one type over another is a challenge.

But once you’ve figured out which type of agency you need, a far more difficult question to ask is this: is there a good reason to hire one agency over another?  As gray areas go, this is pretty light, and fading fast.  So over the next 10 days, I’ll post 10 reasons typically cited for hiring an agency to perform marketing services on some level, and together, we’ll examine what they mean on a broader level and explore the good, the bad, and the “really?”

Reason #1:  “The agency has great, talented people.”

Many companies claim they hire an agency because the agency has great people working there.  Maybe a highly-awarded creative director.  Or a senior executive who’s written a bestseller or even a Hollywood screenplay. Or a former client-side manager who’s come over to the dark side to bring a particular expertise.  Or a celebrity CEO.  Or fantastic, motivated support staff in every department.

And while this is a very good reason to hire an agency, it’s also the most ambiguous.  If you walk into 10 ad agencies today (and I just use that as an example,) and start talking to various people in different departments, chances are you’ll find a cast of incredibly diverse, wildly interesting and extremely talented people at all of them.  Some may be brilliant fine artists.  Some may write gorgeous poetry.  Some may play Brazilian jazz in the evenings.  Some may have insightful business acumen that makes you think in ways you’ve never thought before.  Some may be gifted orators, and others, witty humorists, talented coders or concerned environmentalists.

That’s because ad agencies typically hire people with diverse backgrounds who have either an artistic or functional business talent that can be exploited (in a good way.) It’s almost a redundancy to say that an agency (marketing, advertising or otherwise) has talented people. After all, that’s why you seek their services.  Hiring an agency to execute your marketing because they have talented people is akin to saying you’ve hired a band for your wedding because they sound good.  It’s the baseline. It’s the expectation.

Now, can there be a serviceable agency that doesn’t have “great” or “talented” people?  I suppose so.  Drawing on the wedding band reference, I’ve met plenty of musicians who are neither great nor exceptionally talented, but can still play serviceably and get people on the dance floor.

But wouldn’t you rather have something exceptional?  On some level?  Wouldn’t it be great to have that exceptional talent working on behalf of your brand, and trying to stimulate demand for your services?  I should think so.

Tomorrow:  Reason #2:  “The Agency Has Experience in My Vertical”