Agency mistakes; 3 years of utter bull (a long rant, beware)

We took on over 30 client projects in our first year of running a digital agency. We were smashing it. Fast forward to two three years later and well, I’m writing this. This isn’t a coming-of-age-post about the NEW US – we can cover that another time, in other ways. This is the confession. The embarrassing bit. The shame. This is no ‘It has been a journey of ups and downs’. No ‘This is how we’re different’. This is the cold, hard stare at the pile.

The pile of pure, and utter, bullshit.

Oh, and wasn’t there just so much of it? We made every possible mistake that one could make about agencies and marketing. We agency-ed to the max. Everything gross about agencies and outsourcing, we did it. And we’re faced with the reality of this every day, unfortunately and ironically and painfully. Because everyone else is doing it too. Yawn.

So instead of keeping these things a source of uncontrollable and slightly crazed laughter in the office, we’ve decided to share what can (and did) go wrong.

And we’ll keep adding, because there’s no end to the crap. Please add yours too.

Here goes.

‘We’re a full service agency’

Sorry, you’re a what now? A full service. You fully service clients. You’re basically a marketing department for all your clients. Right. OK. Definitely possible.

We were convinced that in order to do a great job for our clients we would need to own every last part of their marketing – from strategy to execution to measuring. We’d run ALL the channels, create ALL the collateral, run ALL the campaigns.

We really believed that this was the only way and did everything possible to wrestle yet more elements of communications plans, strategies and execution, from the hands of the clients and into our own area. If we were running all the things, we could make sure it was all done properly.

Ultimately, attempting to be a full service agency was the worst thing we could do. Shock, horror: you can’t possibly know a business so completely that you can run their marketing for them after only a three-hour Get To Know You meeting. It’s also very hard to be a specialist in so many different areas, especially if the agency is under ten people. You can be good, but you can’t be great. We hosted client report meetings monthly, listing off the activity we’d churned out (and there was reams and reams of it) and we could highlight the results we’d achieved (there were some) but we were missing – our clients were missing – so much.

Digital marketing for small businesses is a lot of discovery, learning and testing of assumptions. It’s a journey. We were convinced that we could own that journey entirely and show only snapshots at calm and peaceful pit-stops along the way.

The reality is that outsourcing the entire thing could work, if the expectations were set and the experience is a shared one. But it doesn’t work to have marketing activity and business goals separated by a huge wall where only success metrics and shiny reports can pass through. Collaborating with a team of people to help will only work if they have the freedom, flexibility and confidence to show you what’s working, what’s NOT working and everything in between.

We didn’t understand this. So those early full service clients could see the keenness and the desperation to prove it all works better if you know what you’re doing. But they could smell the sweat, too. And they left.

’24/7 social media management’

Now this is a bizarre one. A client once asked me if we could be their social ‘nose to the ground’, i.e. make sure we were looking at their Twitter account all the time, day and night, Christmas, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. Well yes, of course. Let me just organise my entire business to work on shifts and we’ll take it in turns (there were three of us at the time) to watch your accounts from dawn until dusk. Not only was an attempt at this pretty tough on our work/life balances, it also wasn’t really want the client wanted.

Lesson #3,789,006: Before saying yes to the client’s strategy, work out what they’re really asking for.

So much of what we do requires a bit of education, especially in social media where you’re always only ten clicks from a guru-blog-ninja with some ‘tricks’ to winning at everything. We could have done with doing away with the jargon much sooner and really, really digging into what the purposes of activity meant to the businesses we were working for.

Now for the most important thing. Understand expectations of the client (and where those expectations come from), challenge the assumptions they’re making and help to set objectives based on realistic industry contexts, benchmarks and experience. KPIs should be about business outcomes and have business contexts, and luckily, we’ve learnt to spot a vanity metric a mile off (hint, they’re usually ridiculously huge, unbelievable, and garishly unimportant to anyone).

‘You need to be on all the channels’

You don’t need to be on all the channels. No explanation needed.

‘You don’t need an in-house team’

In-house teams are the enemy! They suck the hope out of us! We dreaded them. Because in-house teams mean less work for us! Immediately, this is uncomfortable. Immediately, this makes your job as the outsourcer to reap scorn on the things that the in-house folks are doing. You end up pitting your work against theirs in a race to your next invoice.

This might work well in a world where you can run different marketing channels or campaigns as if they exist in different atmospheres and serve entirely different audiences. But it doesn’t if you’re not a huge brand. SMEs can’t afford to have marketing efforts facing in different directions. They need everyone collaborating: multi-channel, multi-skilled collaboration. Filling gaps, sharing ideas, marketing, branding and content all in happy harmony.

‘Using an agency is a long term solution’

It’s like a relationship. You start getting comfy and soon you stop with the nice underwear and get the slippers on.

Creative stuff often has a sell-by date and clients need an exit plan. Again, in-house is best. Our relationships will work better if we’re the side support and your team is the main event. This idea used to make us seethe with anger. We are the best! We are the main act! No one can be more important! Come and see our amazing creativity and the flashing lights!

‘Strategy will take 16 weeks’

OMG, who has time to wait 16 weeks for a marketing strategy before anything gets going? And who wants to go through a 40-page document full of ‘We will make this happen’ and ‘this will spark interest in this’. Those poor trees. Speaking of which…

‘Here’s a 40-page document detailing our approach’

Not really sure what we were thinking there.

‘I can onboard you tomorrow’

I had a holiday booked with my long-lost sister, but don’t worry about that at all, I’d much rather make sure we can start your project before you have time to change your mind.

‘We have tried and tested methodologies’

Errr, no. We sort of… a bit… pulled it out our arse. Social media hadn’t been around that long. What we should have said was: ‘Social media is really cool and can do a load of amazing things if you’re willing to stick with it. We’re experimenting with loads of stuff, so if you’re up for that, come on in.’

‘We’re good at everything’

OK, so… we didn’t say that, but we implied it.

‘You can trust us to run your business for you’

In other words: ‘Use only me and my team to get your users!’ ‘Rely on this one way to get your entire business off the ground!’ If i knew how to get users for you, it would be my business.

Oh and dearest startups (you get your own section, because I KNOW you deserve it!)

And on similar lines… ‘Startups are our favourite thing, we love it when there’s no traction at all, bring it on. And no budget? YAY! But the future? This is going to be huge! Let me pack my bags now and move into your house and promise you the world and take care of the babysitting and walk the dog, all for free, because I know you’re going places and I want to be part of it. I know you’ll pay me back one day, when you’ve sold it to Microsoft or whatever.’

And to finish, the one line that got us shutting down for a day and rethinking our entire reason for being. This one is from the client. I hadn’t heard from them for a few weeks so, getting that anxious feeling, I rang up to ask how they had enjoyed our content marketing campaign.

And the reply: ‘We’re working on the stuff that gets us sales’.

What do you mean? These 3 million social media posts and four blogs a week aren’t your ticket to the big time, overnight? What about community and brand and creating conversations and relationships and… and… and… ???

Truth is, if you can’t demonstrate the connection between what you’re doing and the business goal, it is as useful to a client as sending out paper aeroplanes with their logo on it. We dedicated ourselves to activity, like tweeting and posting and running ads and setting up new creative series ideas like they were going out of fashion. We measured our return, and the client’s investment, on the sheer amount of stuff we produced and vanity metrics so shiny they’d blind you.

Our clients, because they weren’t doing marketing just for funzies, weren’t. Turns out, they wanted to make more sales. (Go figure.)

So we could talk about community and get excited about engagement online for hours, but we might as well have been speaking in tongues. But instead of rethinking our approach to try to work out the value of our work, we just shut up. And kept going.

And now, over two years and 38 lost clients later, I can see why.

The activity churn approach was of course the result of being led by strategies that didn’t ask the right questions from the start. Expectations being set by knowledge sought from Wikipedia and lack of ability and evidence to illustrate why we wanted to run campaigns.

The strategies we implemented in order to feed the reports that focused on success and vanity metrics rather than real business goals. The activity we ran so we could pitch against in-house teams or instead of in-house teams so that we’d keep our client forever and ever. The trees we wasted printing out pointless spreadsheets and lists and creative routes numbered one to 50. The nights we slept in the office. The lack of process. The lack of listening. The lack of confidence to challenge.

Today, we’re pleased to say that our current agency is as bullshit free as possible, but we’ve always got more to learn. Do you have a piece of crap we need to eliminate from our world? Please help and let us know!

As for us, we’re working on the next chapter. Less tiring vanity projects and more digital skills in the context they deserve – we’ve got a big mission we can’t wait to tell you about :)

Jointly argued over and written by Liya, Steph and Daria x

originally on LinkedIn