Top 5 Marketing & Advertising Agency “tactics” To Look Out For

I’ve always worked agency side but I’ve always been on the client’s side.

That’s a snappy introduction but it’s true and sometimes it’s gotten me into a spot of bother but most of the time it’s worked out best for everyone.

Apologies for any typos or sinful errors of grammar. This is very much a test to see if anyone is out there and interested.

Why Are You Writing This?
This isn’t about naming names or saying the whole sector engages in these tactics or anything like that. However, businesses should know these tactics exist and be on the look out for them. If they’re used on big brands with huge budgets, that’s one thing. You can reasonably argue “They should have hired talent to manage agencies and protect against such tactics.” Perhaps. However, many small to medium sized businesses don’t have that benefit. Indeed, one can imagine tremendous suffering if a small business has some harsh luck and gets burned. I’ve spoken to many small businesses who’ve experienced nothing but “Cowboys in Suits”.

Hopefully, this information gets shared and it helps some people. I’m not writing this for any reason other than that. This isn’t about me, and I’ve deliberately made the copy pretty dry and matter of fact for the most part.

Wow. If that hasn’t gotten you excited, I don’t know what will. In no particular order, let’s review the Top 5 “unprincipled” Tactics Advertising and Marketing Agencies Use On Clients and Potential Clients.

1. Big Hitters Pitch Then Vanish

This scam happens in the pitch process and targeted at big brands. The heavyweights are above pitching to smaller clients. The experienced heavyweights or veterans of a large agency show up, dressed to the nines to the pitch and speak with great authority. Some lower ranked and often much younger members may appear at the pitch, and may even have a small speaking role. The client is treated to a very expensive lunch, often accompanied by a fair amount of alcohol. The fake rapport building kicks in about now. While not explicitly stated, it is very much positioned that the impressive people that pitched to the client — would be involved in a significant way. When the agency officially wins the client to their roster, Team Heavyweight seem to vanish one by one (likely at other pitches) and the younger Team B are given ‘their time to shine’. Team B may actually be very good, but this isn’t what the client bought into. Even worse, Team B may be diluted with staff who are less experienced (and cheaper). This is unfair to the younger and less experienced employees as massive pressure is put on them to perform. It’s unfair to the client because they bought into a team that is now made up of people they’ve never even met. Worst of all, they are locked into a contract — sometimes for years. The work won’t be of the quality pitched, mistakes will be made, and only when crisis time hits, do the heavyweights reappear to save the day. “We’ve been monitoring the campaign throughout” they might say. I’ll let you into a little secret. In this imaginary scenario, I suspect they we’re very likely not telling the truth.

2. Insignificant Changes Shield

This is a common scam used when an agency providing SEO services doesn’t seem to be improving a clients rankings at all. Nine months have gone by and things are, well, pretty much the same. There may be a few little improvements, which are given more time than they deserve when the agency presents to the client. The real reason for the lack of real results is that the agency don’t know how to do effective link building, or may even use tactics that are prohibited by Google. The agency will point out that on page 32 of their SEO Audit, 3 alt tags haven’t been implemented. It doesn’t stop there as some of the description tags haven’t been implemented. Basically the agency finds as many little things as possible that haven’t been implemented and this is why there is no improvement. “32 recommendations are still yet to go live. We’re helpless.” In reality, those 32 changes would make a negligible difference to rankings. The agency points to Google’s guidelines and win the argument by inane technicality.

3. The Filibuster

My American friends have likely heard of the filibuster. I’m obsessed with American politics and I think it summarises this tactic well. I’ll post the Wikipedia definition for those who are encountering the term for the first time.

“A filibuster (from EModE, c. 1580: flibutor, “pirate” [1]) is a parliamentary procedure where debate over a proposed piece of legislation is extended, allowing one or more members to delay or entirely prevent a vote on the proposal. It is sometimes referred to as “talking out a bill” or “talking a bill to death”[2] and characterized as a form of obstruction in a legislature or other decision-making body.”

This is more relevant to technical marketing endeavours such as search engine optimisation. A client may begin to question (with good reason) why sales, traffic, links and any number of metrics is not going the right way. The client requests a call or meeting to get an explanation.

The agency contact, having far superior knowledge on technical SEO, just continually talks without stopping, using increasing amounts of jargon, while increasing their level of enthusiasm and confidence with every minute. They effectively block the client out from speaking.

Eventually, leading the client to believe they’re out of their element and would rather be doing anything than listening to the most boring speech they’ve ever heard. This can often be repeated until someone higher up starts asking questions, and these tactics stop working entirely.

This is similar to number 2, but a more honed version of it. It’s obfuscation and dishonesty at its worst.

4. The Stacked Account Team

In digital marketing at least, account teams often have a hierarchical structure like this:

  1. Head of Department (Most Expensive Per Hour)
  2. Account Director (2nd Most Expensive Per Hour)
  3. Account Manager (3rd Most Expensive Per Hour)
  4. Account Executives / Junior Executives (Least Expensive Per Hour)
  5. Interns (Not Usually Mentioned At All)

The Head of Department may not be listed as on the account team, but will usually review strategy and be available to ‘escalate’ any issues should talking to the account team not be successful.

The Account Director is usually the most expensive person on any account who is actively working on it.

This will vary depending on the clients needs but usually you need more account executives (doing all of the important ‘grunt work’) than you do account managers or account directors.

Agencies, like all businesses are about profitability. It’s a lot easier to make a profit from senior talent than it is junior talent. There is more room for margin.

I’ve seen really weird account teams where the ratio of junior (inexpensive per hour) to senior (more expensive per hour) is a little suspect. Take a look at the structure below:

Account Director * 3
Account Manager * 2
Junior Executive * 1

There may be good reason for this. Perhaps this account is more about strategy than execution or in a difficult niche that requires more senior talent to be successful. This isn’t a definite sign of wrong-doing but it would make me ask ‘Why?’ at the very least.

Yes, something as boring as account structure can also be abused to make an agency more profitable without any real benefit to the client.

Examine the boring elements of your agency relationship. You might find some interesting quirks that at you should at least ask about.

5. Hyping The Average As Amazing

It was hard to decide on what not to include as there are many other ‘tactics’ I could write about. In the interests of getting this particular article finished, I decided on this one.

It should be no surprise that advertising, marketing, PR and creative agencies are excellent promoters. It is their job and to be expected.

When reviewing the activity and results an agency has generated, always reflect on them after the presentation. It is easy to get swept away by fantastic presentations and the intoxicating lunches that may follow.

Share with colleagues and peers in the industry. You may find an inordinate amount of time was spent extolling the virtues of a retweet or coverage on a blog that very few people actually read. The devil is in the detail.

This is not to belittle small gains. Lots of small gains add up. However, if you’re spending a sizeable chunk every month, you should look at your monthly and quarterly reports in detail.

Often content marketing, SEO and other disciplines do take a long time to make a significant difference. I’m not saying you should expect dramatic, business changing wins in weeks or even months. However, watch out for exaggeration. This may not be malicious or deliberate. Often small results are something to be proud of, especially by junior team members who need recognition.

This is a difficult one. Over time, one should ask their agency “Just how far have we come from where we started?”

Again, this presentation should be judged after it’s presented. I’m not asking you to be cynical, but to review all presentations with a keen eye. Ask probing questions to ensure you’re not a victim of “the hype machine.”


As I said, the majority of agencies and the people that work for them are good, honest people. However, there are bad apples to be found in any industry.

It was difficult to decide on these 5 ‘tactics’. If there’s enough interest, I’ll keep firing these out until I run out.

Thank you for reading my rather depressing first LinkedIn Post.

Best Wishes,

Jon Buchan
Chief of Staff & Founder, BrilliantDeviant