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Marketing agencies have a bad reputation (but we can fix it)

Sturgis, Michigan is less than five miles from the Indiana border and boasts a population of around 11,000 positively delightful people.

Image credit / Wikimedia

In the early 1800s, Judge John Sturgis settled in the area of what would later become the city bearing his family name. According to legend, however, the judge is not the one being honored – instead, it was Sturgis’ wife.

During a dinner in 1830, Mrs. Sturgis baked wheat biscuits for then-Michigan Governor Lewis Cass, who joined them as he was passing through on his way back to Detroit. Apparently, the biscuits were a hit. So much so that, decades later, Cass remembered those mighty biscuits and “insisted” on the name of Sturgis when the settlement was officially registered as a city in 1896.

I wonder how many other historic moments were so heavily influenced by a baked good. Did pies have anything to do with the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Were there dainty little tea cakes at the Treaty of Versailles? I have questions!

Generations later – just as Mrs. Sturgis undoubtedly predicted while whipping up those biscuits over a 150 years ago (she was so wise) – I made an important phone call from a coworking space I was renting in downtown Sturgis …

“I need to quit my job.”

This is what I told my husband, Matt, over the phone three years ago.

My next step, however, wasn’t to go work for yet another agency. I had no interest in that or, quite frankly, being someone else’s employee. (Trust me, I’ve spared all of you business owners out there a lot of pain; I’m a terrible employee.) Instead, even though it made me want to puke a little bit, I knew it was time to build something of my own.

I was going to build my own marketing services business – what would later become BS+Co. Not in somewhere exciting like New York or Los Angeles, mind you … but in biscuit-born Sturgis. (And then, later on, Knoxville.)

But i swore I would never call my company an “agency”

There was a simple reason for that. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:

Agencies hurt people.

By the time I had decided to strike out on my own, I wasn’t just fed up with what had happened at the agency I was leaving in that moment. I also had scores of other experiences from working at different agencies prior to that, that left me feeling … well, angry.

👉 Related: BS+Co. is celebrating 3 years, and this is only the beginning

Up to that point, I had witnessed that, even with well-intentioned, wonderful people at the helm, someone always ends up hurt or screwed over (or both) in a traditional agency ecosystem.

It almost always happens the same way, too:

  1. An agency makes a promise (or many promises) during the sales process – of resources, of services they’ve never provided, etc.

  2. Their would-be client then signs on the dotted line.

  3. At some point, the narrative changes. Suddenly it’s, “Nevermind, we can’t do that” to the client, OR “We told them we can do this, now it’s your problem to figure it out” to those responsible for delivering the services internally.

  4. Sometimes there’s an additional “B-plot” when an agency knows they screwed up, but everyone is instructed to “manage” the situation without admitting fault or apologizing.

  5. As a result, the clients, the agency service delivery team or both parties end up unhappy, with only unmet expectations and broken trust to show for their efforts and investment.

That’s why the word “agency” had become synonymous for me with “lying” or “cheating” (at worst), and “unmet expectations” or “complete waste of time/money/resources” (at best).

Of course, time has this annoying little habit of making me realize that even my most “This will never change!” opinions can be softened around the edges.

I’ve come to realize that my relationship with the word “agency” was similar to the one I used to have with “growth.” I’ve accepted my personal experiences within agencies colored my interpretation of the word so negatively, but there’s nothing wrong with the word or anyone who embraces it authentically.

Today, although I think of us more as a marketing and business strategy firm (because we’re more business-minded in our approach), I do happily consider us to be part of this agency world, and it’s now a world I care deeply about it.

Which is why I now must direct your attention to the big, fat, dumb elephant in the room we need to address.

By and large, the “traditional agency experience” sucks

“I don’t believe anything my current agency is telling me.”

“I missed my targets because I spent more time trying to do the agency’s job rather than my own.”

“Our last agency relationship was painful.”

“I really believe the person we dealt with at our last agency cared about us, and they were genuinely trying their best … but their hands were tied.”

“The people we worked with were really nice, but they had absolutely no authority to help us or change any of the things we knew were broken.”

These are actual quotes from current BS+Co. companies when they’ve talked to me about their previous agency relationships. But that last quote … that’s one I hear a lot, and it feels like a punch in the gut every single time.

I used to be that person with no authority who desperately wanted to do right by my clients, and I couldn’t. Too often, I was caught between what leadership wanted us to do or prioritize internally, and the practicality of simply delivering what we promised to our clients.

Most of the time, those two goalposts could not have been further apart; they were not even in the same realm of existence.

And that began to reflect on me. I knew all of my companies, every single client I have ever worked with has never doubted my genuine enthusiasm for who they are and what they were doing. But at some point, I was going to be considered just as bad as everyone else if I stayed.

Now, is it at all surprising that companies are abandoning marketing agencies and bringing more work in-house than ever before? It shouldn’t be.

How did the marketing agency industry become so toxic?

In the past 10 years, technology and SaaS marketing solutions have leveled the playing field for starting an agency drastically. Before that, you needed tens of thousands of dollars and a sound business plan (backed up by real strategic expertise) to get your agency off the ground.

Now, if you have $5,000 and enough charisma, you too can be the founder of your own inbound marketing agency.

This sounds fantastic, right? In a lot of ways, it is. Driven creatives and entrepreneurs who possess legitimate business acumen, genuine leadership skills and a real vision can get their foot in the door much easier.

But not everyone trying to get through the door has legitimate business acumen, genuine leadership skills or a real vision. Many of them don’t. And, let’s not kid ourselves, not everyone who runs an agency is doing so because of a deep, burning passion within their souls to serve others. There are some people who just want to make money, without a lot of thought behind the “service” they’re really providing.

I have no doubt there are other factors at play here, but this has become an increasingly crowded space in recent years with conditions that now allow more bad apples to sneak in. We have to acknowledge and reckon with that, and its implications.

To be clear, I’m not pushing this conversation as hard as I am today from a place of:

“I have this whole agency thing all figured out, and everything has gone perfectly for us, and we're great and you suck!”

I’ve had to do the ugly, hard, introspective work on myself and my own business, too.

I’ve hired the wrong people; and then I needed to fire them. I’ve had to learn through lots of trial and error how to scale our services, and how to be an ethos-driven company that actually keeps its promises (so we don’t become the very thing we swore we’d never be). And, as I’ve talked about at length before, keeping your promises as a leader and a company is really fucking hard.

I don't have any desire to proclaim that I have the seven steps checklist to being a better agency. What I can say and what I will say is that I am committed to turning over every rock, questioning everything and embracing the discomfort that comes with admitting, “We’re not doing this right.”

And if you’re an agency leader, you need to do the same.

While I love hearing “Wow, you’re not like other agencies,” or “For the first time, I feel like I can breathe a sigh of relief,” as many times as we do from people who come to us from other agencies, I truly dream of a day when no one says that to me anymore.

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

In the short term, being different from traditional agencies is great for us – we just need to be who we are and that drives business for us. But agencies (us included) will become obsolete if we keep fucking it up, if we keep screwing over our clients and our employees.

Something has to give, and it’s our responsibility to make that happen.

This starts by asking ourselves tough questions

If you’ve gotten this far, I’m going to guess you’re not in that group of agency owners who really just don’t give a shit about the people they call their clients or their employees.

(If that is you, sorry. I can’t help you.)

Instead, I’m going to assume that, if you’re here with me right now, you got into this industry to create something genuinely good. I’m also going to assume you believe in your team, and that each individual person (hopefully) is there to work together to build that “good” thing right along with you.

Somewhere along the way, however, something went wrong.

Now, you’re in pain because either your clients or your staff (or both) are in pain. And our only way out of this mess is to, collectively, challenge what we’re doing right now.

As agency leaders, we need to ask ourselves:

  1. What are my clients saying about me we’re not around?

  2. What negative feedback are we getting right now and why?

  3. When have we said, “Oh, they just don’t get it,” about a client problem because we weren’t ready to admit a situation was our fault?

  4. When have we tried to skirt around a problem or a fuckup that we knew was our fault, but we didn’t want to admit liability or fault, so we didn’t have to give money back to a client?

  5. Are we truly empowering our people to deliver on our promises to our clients?

  6. Do our employees trust us to keep our word and to have their backs?

  7. Are we a part of the problem?

I know it’s a horrible cliche, but truly, the first step to fixing this mess with our industry is to admit we have a problem – lots of problems, actually. And then, with unflinching honesty, we need to take ownership of those problems and fix them.

Yes, this outsourced marketing model can (and does) work

There are people out there who believe this dysfunction in our industry is a sign the outsourced marketing agency model doesn’t work and never will. Unless companies break ties with agencies and bring everything in-house, they’ll always be frustrated by the lack of authenticity and results in their marketing.

I don’t believe that.

I don’t believe understanding the heart and soul of a company can only be accomplished in-house. (Because, if that’s something you don’t know how to communicate right now in a way that makes sense to someone outside of your company, your customers will never get it either, no matter how big your in-house team is.)

Of course, we work with lots of companies with different distributions of what activities – strategy, content, campaigns, PPC, etc. – are in-house vs. outsourced, and that’s exactly how it should be. No two companies are entirely alike.

But there are no real or imaginary boundaries between us (agencies) and the companies we serve that are preventing us from being as valuable as someone who is in-house. And, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t always need to be in the same room to understand each other and to work closely together to achieve incredible results and create real magic.

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That’s why one of the things we focus on at BS+Co. (almost to the point of obsession) is the utilization of our strategists or anyone who owns a company relationship.

When it comes to our companies, we work our asses off to understand them, to ask the question that makes everybody in the room uncomfortable, to spend time with their CEOs, to spend time with their sales team and their product team.

We make it our mission to become fluent in every single company we work with. (Which is why we often have a wait list for our services.)

Sure, there are definitely agencies out there who don’t invest the time and energy required to purposefully embed themselves with their clients. But if you have a passion for understanding why other companies exist, you don't need very long to figure it out for each of the ones that you serve. And if you do, you're just looking for ways to bill.

The problem with agencies isn’t the people (really, for most of you out there, it’s not you)

It’s bad business practices.

It’s willfully turning a blind eye to gaps in your processes or strategies … or crossing your fingers that problems with those processes and strategies will somehow solve themselves with time.

It’s knowingly selling beyond your competency or your capacity because you believe you can “make it work” or that someone smart on your team will “figure it out” now that they absolutely have to.

It’s telling yourself that you’re “maximizing the productivity of your people,” but really you’re pushing them to the brink with a workload that will never enable them to do their job well (or at least without burning out). That way, you can take on more work without increasing headcount.

It’s believing that you have to say “Yes!” to every opportunity that walks through your door, that you have to be right for everyone.

Honestly, it’s the same shit that breaks any company, regardless of industry, no matter what product or service you sell.

But as someone who is standing along side you as an agency owner, I also know how hard it is to admit to yourself that the thing you love and built with so much care is, in some part, not working anymore, if it ever was. (Can we talk about how the easy solution and the right solution are rarely, if ever, the same thing when making business decisions? It’s infuriating.)

That’s what we signed up for, though. This work is and always will be messy, but I also promise you that it will be worth it. More than that, as hokey as it sounds, I sincerely believe with every fiber of my being that we can do this together.

I believe in you and in us.