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Yes, a healthy marketing agency relationship is possible

When you’re evaluating a marketing agency or firm as a potential partner, you’re often dealing with a lot of personal stressors bubbling just underneath the surface. 

  • “I feel overwhelmed because building successful marketing campaigns requires a lot of execution, and there are so many moving pieces.”

  • “I feel confused because while I know the goal of what I’m working toward, I’m not 100% sure how to get there.”

  • “I feel frustrated because I’ve trusted other agencies in the past, and it hasn’t always worked out.”

That last one … goodness, that speaks directly to my soul, let me tell you.

Prior to joining BS+Co. to oversee our services team as our VP of operations, I spent most of my career as an in-house marketing leader, which meant I worked with a lot of agencies. 

On the one hand, I can definitely recall a few specific agency relationships I had that were very positive. They delivered on their promises, they were there by my side as a true strategic partner, etc. On the other hand, other experiences have shown me that, sadly, this isn’t always the case.

Partnering with an agency requires a leap of faith.

Because, when something goes wrong with an agency, you’re the one ultimately on the hook

This fact used to keep me up at night sometimes. When I was the marketing leader at previous companies, there would be times I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle just to get the bare minimum done with certain agencies. But even when missteps were their fault, I was still the one internally responsible for stuff not getting done. 

When you are the one who owns the agency relationship within your company, you own the triumphs, as well as the failures. 

So, to those of you right now who see the need for an agency to fill the gaps in expertise and bandwidth you may have, I can absolutely understand why you may have a few trust issues. 

👉 Related: Marketing agencies have a bad reputation (and we can fix it)

As a business leader, you’re supposed to feel safe and supported when you’re working with an agency. You’re supposed to feel as if you have a partner you can trust – not only to get their work done on time but also to roll up their sleeves alongside you as a genuine colleague. Most of all, you’re supposed to feel as if you have a true extension of your team. (This is what we call an “in-house outsourced team” at BS+Co.)

As you and I know from first-hand experience, this is sadly not always the case.

Of course, the health of your agency relationship also depends on you

Having had experience on “both sides of the aisle,” so to speak, this is one piece of the puzzle I believe some (not all, mind you) marketing leaders and business stakeholders accidentally miss  – you’re an equal party in every agency relationship you’re a part of, and you’re equally responsible in how much you empower it to be successful. 

The good news is that much of that can happen before you commit yourself to an agency of record.

For example, not every agency or marketing firm is the right fit for your company; we certainly aren’t. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Sometimes, however, in their attempts to woo you into their portfolio, a well-meaning agency may bend over backward to win your business. They may say “yes” to things when they really should be saying “no.” 

Let’s say you’re looking for an outsourced marketing partner that is devoted 100% to pure execution on your orders, with no strategic input or pushback. That’s totally fine, sometimes that’s what you need – but organizations like ours will not be the right fit for you, in those cases.

👉 Related: Keeping your promises as a company (and a leader) should be hard

But you need to lead with that information. When you’re open and upfront with these kinds of needs, it’ll make it easier for you (or them) to walk away from bad fits before you sign on the dotted line. Before hearts are broken. 

Tips for those early calls with prospective agencies

In addition to bringing your own level of self-awareness around your needs to the conversation, here are a few other ways you can evaluate whether or not an agency is the right fit for you:

  • Pay close attention to the types of questions an agency is asking you during those initial sales conversations. Are they smart, business-focused questions about your goals, strategies, and impediments, or do they seem more interested in determining ways they can establish their own worth?

  • Related to that, take note if they don’t proactively ask or talk about your revenue numbers or KPIs. If they’re focused almost entirely on themselves and their KPIs, that can be a sign they’re going to be more focused on proving their value rather than being a true strategic partner in moving your business forward.

  • Does the sales process feel strikingly similar to the ones you’ve experienced in the past, where the relationship didn’t end well? If so, politely mention that and ask how they will prove to be different. Your mistrust here should be understood, accepted, and met with empathy, so don’t feel nervous about bringing this up.

  • Be mindful of how overproduced and polished the sales presentations are. Great presentations aren’t always an absolute red flag, but be wary of those agencies that seem to view the creation of great presentations as the real deliverable, rather than execution and results.

Finally, watch out for agencies with egos. Again, this is not true of all agencies, but you will run into those that struggle to not paint themselves as anything than the absolute best. When you look at agencies that get it right, they all share one thing in common – they understand that actions speak louder than words. 

But what happens after you’ve signed on with an agency?

Similar to romantic relationships, you might experience a honeymoon period with your new agency. When things are fresh and new and exciting, things are great! But, as time goes on (and you get more settled in), you may find yourself in situations where you’re not sure what’s wrong if anything. Or, if something is wrong, who is to blame?

If you find yourself chafing around the edges in an agency relationship, here are questions you can consider:

  • Is my agency proactive, in that they are often having to chase me down? Or is it the other way around with me always having to manage them?

  • Are they bringing me unique, creative, innovative ideas for accomplishing my goals, or am I being met mostly with cookie-cutter solutions?

  • Are they being a consistent voice of accountability? 

That last one is very important, and let me explain why.

Being willing to listen and trust your agency is incredibly important

I remember sitting on sales call after sales call with agencies trying to win my business, and every time I heard the cliched line of “Your success is our success,” I would cringe. But the reason why it’s such a cliche is that, well, it’s true. At least for us and others like us.

👉 Related: As thought leaders, why do we choose conformity if we want to stand out?

While we can’t speak to how other agencies work, I can say that at BS+Co., we have no other desire in this world other than to do the right by our companies – to do good work, and continue working with them forever. The only way we're going to continue working with them forever is if we do good work that's right for their business goals. That means we speak up, and we challenge and hold others accountable as necessary. 

But the best leaders who have seen the most growth and success when they’ve worked with us are those who listen and are willing to be open about their challenges (and weaknesses) and be challenged. We’re able to say things to them like:

“Listen, I hear you absolutely. But understanding your goals and how you’ve laid this out for me, I believe very strongly that what I’m suggesting is the right thing to do. Are you willing to try this with us?”

Healthy partnerships aren’t categorized as such because everyone is in lockstep agreement all the time. They’re healthy because everyone is open and honest with each other while maintaining laser-focus on a shared goal and vision of what could be. 

Years ago, I worked for a CEO who told me:

“I hire people who are really strong in the areas that are my weaknesses.”

... it’s something I’ve never forgotten.

And if you’re someone who is looking for a marketing partner that is a true partner (and not a group of wildly talented order-takers), I encourage you to embrace a similar mindset. If you’re not hiring for your weaknesses, you should be. 

I know, trust like that doesn’t come easily

And when you’ve been burned badly by agencies in the past, you can really struggle to see past those experiences. In fact, in some cases, you may be wondering if it was you or something that you did wrong that set everything in motion.

If that speaks in any way to you, know that you deserve better – you deserve to have your load lightened and to be able to work without stress or worry. Moreover, know that better is possible. There are agencies out there that will keep their promises to you. 

Will it require work and self-awareness on your part? Of course. But it will be worth it. It’s your pathway to an agency relationship that embodies a true equal exchange of value, where no one feels slighted or taken advantage of.