I’ve worked at nine agencies in my career. In that time, I’ve provided marketing support for literally hundreds of clients of all sizes and shapes. Based on the relatively large sample size, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern: companies that treat their agencies as strategic partners are dramatically more successful in achieving marketing objectives than those that treat the agency as just another vendor. For companies interested in maximizing the return on their agency investment, I’ve outlined six best practices below.
1. Understand Your Business & Marketing Objectives
While it may seem obvious, if not mildly offensive to savvy corporate marketers, having a solid grasp of how your business operates and how marketing supports the organization’s success is critical. Far too often, we’ve experienced a situation where the client contact has inadequate understanding of key performance indicators (KPIs) for the business, and how marketing programs support those objectives. Marketers should have an intimate understanding of product margins and related corporate financials, market size, target audience, competitive landscape as well as revenue goals and how marketing efforts are measuring up. Additionally, the client contact(s) should have clearly defined marketing objectives, associated metrics and specific benchmarks or goals. Be aware of any agency that does not request or require this information early in the relationship. Tip: create a “cheat sheet” containing the information outlined above, and be prepared to share that information with your agency or agencies, as appropriate. The more information an agency has, the more likely they can devise effective marketing programs to grow the business.
2. Be a Partner
At Anvil Media and Formic Media, we’ve made a conscious effort to weed out clients that do not see us as a strategic partner that is an extension of their marketing department. As marketing agencies, it is our responsibility to help develop, implement and manage effective programs. This is much more difficult when companies treat us with the same level of respect as a paper supply company (no offense meant to Dunder Mifflin). When you see your agency as a strategic partner, you take an entirely different approach to the relationship, which in turns positively influences the output and success of your agency. For starters, treat your agency with the same level of respect you would give to an important employee, and they will reward you with an equivalent level of valuable output. Trust is also important: if you are hiring an agency “expert” then give them the benefit of the doubt that they have your best interests in mind and know what they are doing. Like a good employee who always gets paid on time, don’t forget to process agency invoices in a timely manner, as late payments can result in work-stoppages, which cost time, money and opportunity. Tip: schedule weekly or bi-monthly calls or meetings, as quality time is important to an effective partnership. Also consider scheduling annual or bi-annual strategic “deep dive” planning meetings well in advance.
3. Manage Communications
Once you’ve outlined objectives and have the proper mindset about agencies as partners, then it’s time to identify, structure and facilitate open lines of communications. Similarly, identify and share related expectations of your agency partner, and make sure the agency reciprocates. Both organizations must agree on the definition of success and the associated timeline. Secondly, but no less importantly, ensure your organization is prepared to provide timely feedback, making key internal constituents available, as needed, to the agency. Tip: Identify a winning communications process early-on, including identifying and engaging all decision-makers, developing timelines and potential contingency plans.
4. Allocate Resources
One of the greatest roadblocks to success for any client is an inability to implement recommendations, in whole or in part, provided by its agency. Early in the agency relationship, ensure you’ve identified and allocated appropriate in-house (or external) resources which can be available for implementation. This is particularly true for search engine and social media marketing agencies, where time is compressed and delays can be costly. As in racing, smooth is fast, and fast is usually cheaper in the agency world (all else being equal). Tip: Work with your agency to develop a workflow process that minimizes bottlenecks and maximizes efficiency.
5. Do Your Homework
Recently, I was talking with a client who was unaware we’ve provided social media marketing services to clients for as long as they’ve been a client. This was troubling, but not surprising; due to the “siloed” nature of our business and structure of that particular client’s organization (a senior marketing executive took on the responsibility of developing an RFP, to which our contact wasn’t privy). To get the most of your agency relationship, make sure you have a solid understanding of your agency’s overall philosophy, services, team, clients and partners. Of course it is the agency’s responsibility to share this information, but oftentimes, both sides fail to provide regular updates, knowing businesses evolve continuously. As mentioned earlier, regular meetings and infrequent strategic planning meetings are ideal opportunities to provide updates on new products and services. The other area of missed opportunity is for corporate marketers to develop their working knowledge of the agency’s discipline(s), whether they are focused on search, social, mobile, PR or advertising. At one point, the Vice President of Marketing for a major fashion footwear client took our search engine marketing workshop at a Portland State University, to get a better understanding of our discipline so she could deploy us more effectively. Tip: Dedicate a few hours a month minimum to read relevant industry publications, attend industry conferences and take workshops, as appropriate.
6. Be Flexible, Yet Challenge
Companies that hire agencies to outsource production or “dirty work” are missing the boat. In fact, I would argue it is not fiscally responsible to hire external parties to do glorified manual labor at a markup, when it may be more cost-effectively managed in-house. I believe agencies were put on this planet to provide companies with subject matter expertise that is not easily or cost-effectively replicated internally. As subject matter experts, we hope to be challenged by our clients to continually deliver creative ideas, strategies, tactics and insights. When you’re not challenging your agency, you’re not likely challenging yourself, which means you’re likely missing marketing opportunities. Approached with respect, an agency will jump at the opportunity to “up its game” in which case everyone wins. We agency folks also appreciate a level of flexibility and understanding as well. We are human (news flash) so we can make mistakes and we just ask for the opportunity to make it right and to have the faith and trust the same mistake will not happen again. Tip: Flexibility can be a positive; remain open to creative ideas and solutions, from your agency partner, to challenges old and new.
Follow the six steps above and your company will see meaningful improvement in your relationship with your agency, as well as the results you are able to achieve together. Remember that partnership is worth more than getting the best price on copy paper.