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4 Reasons You Got Burned By Your Last Marketing Agency (& 1 Reason You Were The Problem)

It’s a big decision to partner with a digital marketing agency: You’re delegating some (or all) of an important business function to presumed experts and you’re trusting that they will deliver better results than an internal resource.

When that relationship works - there’s nothing better:

  • You’ll have increased bandwidth to work on projects that are in your passion areas.

  • You’ll take comfort in knowing a task you might not enjoy is being expertly completed by someone who does.

  • You’ll find improved bottom line results - you’re making more money by partnering with a trusted vendor.

Yet if the relationship turns sour, there’s nothing worse: lost money, time, and trust in a potential channel that would otherwise be profitable.

There are four core reasons an agency relationship can go south:

  • Big promises for chump change.

  • The chemistry is off.

  • Expertise isn’t in the channel/task set you need.

  • You lose control over your assets.

Before partnering with an agency consider whether they’re a high risk for these signals.

  1. Big Promises For Chump Change

We all love a good deal, and just because a vendor is “expensive,” doesn’t inherently mean they’re experts.

However, it’s vital to have a sense of what market rates are for different business/marketing functions so you don’t get suckered into a cheap relationship that does more harm than good.

Sites like fiverr might offer SEO for $50-$250 per month. Most of these ads are focused on link building (which when done poorly, can tank a site and cause your brand to lose out on traffic and business).

Opting for the cheaper vendor can cause you to need more expensive rehabilitation in the long run

The other common mistake is opting into a deal where the agency is responsible for a certain amount of leads at a given price. This sort of partnership relies on the agency driving the leads under the price that they’re selling them for (which inherently means you’re paying a premium for your leads).

Here’re questions you should ask an agency before signing up for a cheap offering:

  • How many clients are you currently working with?

  • What timelines should I expect to achieve meaningful results?

  • What are realistic results I can expect from my investment?

By asking these questions, you’ll be able to not only get insights into benchmarks for your efforts, but also whether the vendor will be a partner. Unfortunately, most cheap vendors are only in it to scam brands out of 3-4 months of retainer before they move onto the next.

Takeaway: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  1. The Chemistry Is Off

I love my clients and will do everything in my power to see them succeed. I also am VERY selective on who I take on as a client because I need to believe in the client and my ability to make them money before agreeing to take them on.

When you choose an agency partner/vendor, you should be elated to work with them, and they should be just as excited to work with you.

If you’re looking for someone who will be “on-call” and the vendor is slow to respond during the sales process, there’s no reason to expect they’ll be more responsive once you become a client.

On a similar note, if you’re looking for someone who will be a true partner for your org and the vendor is a software, you will likely be disappointed (unless you opt for a premium version that includes a customer success manager within scope of the agreement).

Be honest with yourself about what you need out of your vendor (both hard and soft skills).

Here are the questions to ask to assess the chemistry of the relationship:

  • What communication cadence can I expect?

  • Are there any shared “outside work” interests (I always get along better with clients who are fellow Star Wars fans)?

  • Am I your main partner in this vertical?

Understanding how valued you are by your potential vendor will help set expectations for what will hopefully be a long and profitable relationship. If you don’t feel valued from the beginning, odds are you never will.

Takeaway: Listen to your gut.

  1. Expertise Isn’t In The Needed Channel/Task-Set

I am good at PPC. I’ve worked hard and logged the hours to gain mastery in pay per click (PPC) advertising. What I am not is a coder, financial analyst, or designer.

Agencies/vendors who claim to be experts in everything rarely are. You will either experience sub-par work or pay a premium because the vendor is outsourcing the work to a partner they trust.

If a vendor claims they are a trusted expert in a given area - look them up. A true expert will have at bare minimum a paper trail on LinkedIn outlining their career trajectory. If it’s a software, check review sites like G2Crowd and Trustpilot.

Agencies that focuses on both PPC and SEO can absolutely be legit (I belong to one).Ensuring you land with a trusted vendor instead of a greedy pretender depends on asking the following questions:

  • What strategy will you use to help my brand succeed, and how will the given channel help me?

  • Are there different pricing structures for your different services?

  • Who is doing the work?

By asking these questions you’ll get a sense of how comfortably a given service fits into the vendors mix.

Takeaway: Don’t force all business needs to fit under one vendor.

  1. You Lose Control Over Your Assets

A big red flag for a toxic vendor relationship is that you lose access/rights to your assets (analytics account, ads account, website, Google My Business, etc.).

This is common with softwares like Kenshoo and Marin, but can also come up in certain agency contracts (especially those that are “pay per lead”).

If you’re going to engage a firm/software, make sure you understand exactly what the terms are and how easy it will be to walk away from them if the relationship goes south.

These are the questions to ask:

  • How much visibility will I have into your work?

  • Who owns the account?

  • How much access do you need to complete your work?

Certain channels will require granting admin access to your vendor (especially if they are a web development or SEO vendor). However, under no circumstances should you lose access to your brand's assets.

Takeaway: Don’t allow yourself to be held hostage by a mediocre vendor.

A common reason the relationship between brand and vendor goes south is because the right questions weren’t asked at the start of the engagement to establish reasonable expectations.

If you’re not asking these questions, you’re part of the problem!

Most agencies are good actors and genuinely want what’s best for their clients. Establishing from the onset a healthy communication cadence, performance goals, and mechanics of the vendor agreement ensures there are no surprises.

Some agencies may choose not to partner with you, and that’s ok! You and your brand deserve a vendor who is excited by the problems you’re tasking them to solve, and enjoys working with you. 

Copyright 2022 © Hennessey DigitalNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 343

About this Author

Navah Hopkins Director of Paid Media Hennessey Communications

A veteran of the digital marketing industry, Navah began as an SEO in 2008, transitioning to PPC in 2012. She manages the strategy and execution of paid media, as well as leading a team of paid search and paid social champions.

Prior to joining Hennessey Digital as Director of Paid Media, she served as Services Innovation Strategist for WordStream, working across the international book of SMBs and the agencies who serve them. In this role, she identified accounts facing obstacles, helped customers overcome these obstacles,...