Your Digital Agency sucks, and it’s probably your fault (kind of)

Having spent the last couple of years working across a number of agencies (digital and creative) I have come to the conclusion that your digital agency probably sucks, and it’s likely your own doing. Hear me out and maybe we can begin to change some bad habits.

“To make more money you need to make the hamster wheel bigger. To get to ‘bigger’ and maintain it, everyone including you needs to run furiously faster.” — Jules Ehrhardt, ustwo

This is the agency model, a perpetual cycle of growth maintained by the scrambling and otherwise panicked movement of junior and mid-weight staff. It is a model that flourished in the early days when clients didn’t understand what the internet was and why social media might just be important in the future.

There are two forces at work contributing to the decline of effectiveness in digital. One is the hamster wheel and the other is best summed up by this quote from astronaut John Glenn.

“As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind — every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.”

Over the years I have been involved in countless pitches and strategies in the digital space and one thing has become abundantly clear. We suck at articulating what we do. The carry over effect of this is that innumerable clients are seeking the lowest cost agency possible. Digital is being treated as a necessary add-on instead of a solution. Gotta have that sweet Instagram page right?

But that’s okay, it just means our hamsters will have to run a little faster and work a little longer. What this actually means is turning everything into a template. Including strategic solutions as well as operations and staffing. Now this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, however when the by-product is quality we need to stop and think about how we want to operate.

To put it another way, clients are asking agencies to build them a three story house but only giving enough money to build a one story unit and then asking whether the third story balcony will be ready in time for Summer cocktail parties. Stop kidding yourself, you cannot spend $3,000 a month and expect to be the next powerhouse in your industry. There is no magic wand and don’t believe anyone that purports to have one.

Then there is us.

I’m the short one.

It has become abundantly clear that digital agencies around the world are promising results that a client’s budgets simply can not allow for. And we aren’t being honest about it. In order to keep the hamster wheel growing we are over-reaching and then finding nuanced ways to imply it was the clients fault. It’s everyone’s fault, but in this instance it is our responsibility to say no your budget does not allow for a three-story house. And besides, you probably only need a two-story unit (pool optional of course).

How do we fix this never-ending cycle of bad work and unhappy clients you ask?

The reality is that it’s a big problem with even bigger implications, but some things are crystal clear and I have listed them below.

For Clients

Understand where you are in the history of your business. This means having clearly defined goals that your staff are aligned with.

Be aware that a good agency will provide a solution that fits the problem, remember there is no magic wand.

Stop comparing yourself to the cream of the crop to brands that have been in the digital space for longer than you, spending significantly more time and money.

Understand the value of a digital agency. If you think of it as a necessary evil then sure the lowest bidder might be a good option. If not, value the money you spend and its ROI.

For Agencies

If you can’t deliver to a clients ambitions due to budget/technical restraints then say so. Make it really, really clear.

Stop presuming the work you did for one client will translate to a different one because they share an industry. If your solution isn’t unique each time you are letting yourself and the client down.

Say no. If you are being asked to do work that will have no value other than burning through budget, tell the client no, you are the experts after all.

Saying your digital agency sucks was probably a bit harsh (read: probably) but there are problems across the industry that need to be addressed from both sides. If not we are doomed to a never-ending hamster wheel of forking out money and not delivering.

If you want to be in touch you can contact me at chrismcmlou@gmail.com