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Your Agency Sucks

Yesterday, I spoke in Detroit at the headquarters of an international corporation that has dozens of subsidiaries. My presentation was an hour long and focused on how to look at analytics differently… seeking the information that they weren’t even aware existed nor how it impacted their online business. The presentation had some rave reviews and two hours afterwards, I still hadn’t left Detroit. I was sitting and chatting with Marketing leaders from several of the companies.

The common thread of the conversation was that they had no idea that the tools existed. The other common thread was that all of the companies had very large engagements with national and international agencies. They weren’t too happy about either.

Agency: The faculty of acting or of exerting power; the state of being in action; action; instrumentality.

I asked what kind of direction their agencies gave them. None. I asked if the agencies were present at the event. Nope. I asked the process by which they jumped into marketing trends with their agency. They had to ask for a quote. (Can you imagine holding a marketing summit and your own agency isn’t present?)

This isn’t a lone story. In fact, we work closely with a number of our clients’ agencies right now and it’s always about the same. We wind up being the trusted adviser to the company, and the agency states that they’ll put a quote together. They build the site, we fix the site. They sell them on a solution, we implement it correctly. They charge a fortune, we charge what the value of the engagement is to the company.

There’s a huge difference between an agency and a subcontractor. If you’re getting your brand developed and it’s a time-sensitive project where the company throws a branding guide in your hand… you’re not an agency, you’re a subcontractor. If you don’t communicate trends and opportunities to your customer… you’re not an agency, you’re a subcontractor. If your client is calling you asking about the latest tools or technologies… you’re not an agency, you’re a subcontractor.

The word agency comes from the word agentia, which comes from agens. This means “to do” or “to make” or “to act”. When you think of the word, it provides an image of a collective of people with authority that you delegate activity to that requires their expertise… they are an arm or extension of your business.

Subcontractors provide quotes. Subcontractors provide timelines. Subcontractors get paid regardless of risk. Agencies provide direction, provide strategy, provide focus, provide answers… and should have risk as well.

Our company does provide both. We do some subcontracting and we work as an agency to others. I hope to shed all subcontracting eventually, but projects sometimes keep the lights on so we take them. We don’t often enjoy them, though. When a project is contracted to us, the clients usually dictates the requirements and we don’t have the room in the engagement to exceed or adjust expectations for the benefit of the client.

As an agency, sometimes we argue with the client. Sometimes we even fire them. So many companies are used to hiring contractors that they forget what it’s like to have a coach, a leader and a partner telling you what you need to do. If you want to win, you get a coach. If you just want someone else to run the race for you… don’t expect to win. Agencies produce winners.

I believe the word agency is one of the most overused terms in the marketing industry. I wish more agencies simply called themselves shops. Logo shops, web site shops, social media shops, video shops. With a shop, you walk in, pay and walk out. Of course, a shop wouldn’t be able to command the same wages that an agency does… perhaps that’s the problem!

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