HOW TO HIRE A MARKETING AGENCY
Welcome to the GrayHawk DJC podcast. Today, we talk with Robert McClarin, a customer engagement expert, to discuss tips on how companies can find good agency help. We hope you enjoy the podcast.
David: Hey, Robert. How’s it going?
Robert: Going well, David. How are you?
David: Thank you so much for doing this.
Robert: Happy to be here.
David: I gotta thank you a second time because for everyone who’s listening, Robert is my former boss…
Robert: That’s right.
David: And when I first came up to Dallas from Austin, my wife and I were unemployed and she got a job before me, and a week later I interviewed with you.
David: And you hired me. So you started all of this. So I want to thank you.
Robert: That was your first job in the biz?
David: Yeah, in Dallas.
David: So we were in Austin and, you know, we’re both unemployed. We got laid off and we’re, like, all our friends are leaving town. We kind of had nothing. And so because our parents were up here, we just packed up and moved up here. And for about a year and a half, I was living on, well, let’s say a year, on unemployment. And you were the first guy that hired me in Dallas. So this kick started everything. So thank you.
Robert: Yeah. We had other candidates who had more experience.
David: Oh, really?
David: How could you deny this?
Robert: Yeah. But that’s exactly right.
David: But, okay. So let me ask you. What happened?
Robert: What happened was, I loved your energy in the interview. Because I remember it very clearly. Your resume, your credentials at the time, it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good but I liked the work that you had done and the work that you were doing.
Robert: It was, some of the things that you were doing were very interesting and I just loved your energy and your optimism. You interviewed well. I thought there was good chemistry and I’m like, “I like this guy”. “This guy’s smart”. “Yeah, he’s going to do good work for us”. And we did. We did good work, yeah.
David: I mean, we became ping pong buddies.
Robert: Yeah, absolutely.
David: Every Thursday downstairs in the break room. You know, that was awesome.
David: Yeah, so once again, thank you. But how about we start with this. Tell us a little about yourself.
Robert: All right.
David: Where you’re from. Your work experience. How you got into this. You are a customer engagement expert.
David: That’s a long title. But we’ll get into that.
David: But tell us about yourself and that’s how we’ll start.
Robert: All right. We’ll stick to the career stuff. You don’t want to hear that I was the only child in the nursery and…
David: Yeah I would. Go all the way back.
Robert: Yeah, all the way back? So I was the only child in the nursery in Star Lake, New York and the doctor went to my dad and said, “How much you got in your pocket”? My dad pulled out like 55 bucks and he goes, “I’ll take that that”. That’s how much it costs to birth me. And so, yeah, that’s not what we’re here for. So I was born in New York.
David: I never knew that.
Robert: Star Lake, New York, yep. Born in Star Lake, New York.
David: Where is that?
Robert: Upstate New York, Adirondack Mountains area. Dad was an elementary school principal. Mom was a psychologist teacher.
Robert: So I have a lot of education in my background, very well-rounded parents. I think that has a lot of bearing on the business that I’m in because the business of customer engagement and loyalty is about psychology and my mom has been invaluable when it comes to talking about what motivates people and getting into their heads about why they do the things they do and what are they are motivated by and are they just acting on raw emotion or just routine. And so that’s been helpful. And my father was a smart man, very talented showman. He would do productions and plays. He played the trumpet, played baseball, was an outstanding baseball player, and I think, you know, being able to embrace being on camera, right, or being in front of people and being able to sell what it is that you’re doing, again, has been invaluable. To know that you have the composure to put together a story and tell that story and convince people about the right actions that they should be taking. And so, you know, I eventually found my way to Arizona. My dad was just in love with the southwest and he wanted to move out there. He got a job out there as an elementary school principal. And I was interested in computers at the time.
Robert: And Arizona State had a good computer program and they were in town so I went to Arizona State and did computer engineering for a while. And I did okay but I wasn’t loving it. I didn’t love it. It was interesting and I could do it, but I didn’t love it. And so my mom, psychologist that she is, said, “Go down to the career center and do some testing”. She gave me the names of tests that you could take to help you understand what you’re good at or what you’d be most interested in. So I went down and I took the test. They called me back a little bit later and they said, “Listen, you scored high for three things – hair stylist, flight attendant, and advertising executive”. And I said, “You’re gonna have to explain that to me”. “That is all over the board”. And really what it came down to was, creativity. So in high fashion hair styling, there’s a lot of creativity that goes into it. Not so much in being a flight attendant but certainly and a lot of creativity in advertising. The other is science. And so there’s a lot of science in hair styling and there’s a lot of science that goes into advertising. But there’s also this need to serve that’s important. If you’re going to be hair stylist and certainly if you’re going to be a flight attendant and certainly if you’re going to be in advertising, you have to understand that you are serving the client and you need to be able to draw some energy from that enthusiasm. That has to fuel you. And I do feel that I get a rush out of solving problems for people. And so of the three, I said, “Let’s pursue that advertising thing”. “That sounds like a good thing to pursue”. So I switched over into the advertising and marketing world at Arizona State. I loved every single class, whether it was the statistics class or analytics or strategic marketing or advertising 101. It was just fantastic. I eventually graduated and began looking for a job. A roommate of mine had a contact in New York. She worked for a company called NW Ayer and she got me an interview. It was all about who you knew because I had sent out resumes all over the place, including places in Australia, England, South America, France, everywhere, the top agencies. I went and pulled the red book on agencies and sent resumes. I created this really interesting resume. It was a resume, but in addition to the resume, there was an advertisement. An advertisement that I put together for myself, almost like a direct response marketing piece. And it had a response envelope and a response card with it. So I sent that out and I got a lot of nice letters back, which I still have today in my, you know, in my folder. Whenever I’m feeling a little bit down, I pull that out. I got some very nice letters from people who said, “Listen, if you can get a visa and come over here, let’s talk, okay?” But most of the companies are saying, you know, we’ve got hundreds of people that are applying for entry level jobs and so it wasn’t until my roommate hooked me up with somebody in New York City that they said, we’ll interview you but you got to fly here. And my parents said, “We’ll pay for it”. So I flew out and they interviewed me and they said call us from the airport. And I said, “Okay”. And so I called him from the airport and they offered me the job. And they said, “We can’t relocate you, but we’ll hire you” and I said, “That’s okay, I’ll relocate myself”. And so my dad packed up everything in his car and drove me out and relocated me to a family friend that lived out on Long Island, which was nice. My mom was from Long Island. As I said, I was born in in New York. Dad was from Buffalo. And so we knew some people on Long Island. That’s where my mom had grown up. So I was able to live with them and I went to work on Madison Avenue for one of the top 10 agencies in the world, NW Ayer.
Robert: Who created the taglines, and I might get these wrong, “I’ll walk a mile” for Camel, “Be all you can be” for the army, “Diamond is a girl’s best friend”. I mean, this was a sizable notable agency and it was just a fantastic experience.
David: What was your title?
Robert: So my title was Traffic Manager.
Robert: Which meant, I was responsible for circulating materials around to the copywriters, art directors, client service, and the proofreaders for everyone to read them and approve them so that they could go to production. It was one step up above the administrative pool. So it was one level higher.
David: And this was a paid gig, right?
Robert: Paid gig, yep. I had my own office, yeah.
David: As a traffic person?
Robert: As a traffic manager. Had my own office. The agency eventually moved over to Hell’s Kitchen on 49th and 9th into the One Worldwide Plaza, which is a very iconic building. It’s got a copper and glass pyramid to the top of it. Polygram Records was in there and it was one block from my single bedroom apartment.
David: And how long did it take before you moved out of your friend’s place?
Robert: It took me, uh, three months. She actually kicked me out. I was staying with Jessica. She’s like, “Robert, you need to go”. “It’s time to go, all right”. “Time to go”. So, yep, I had to find a place in the city. It was a great job. Like I said, my own office. Everything that I produced, every report that I produced, went through the secretary pool. I had a typewriter but that was for purchase orders only. Nobody had a computer at the time. We’re talking 1989 and for my status report every week, I would mark it up in pencil and take it down to the secretarial pool and they had IBM’s or something and they could pull up the last time they typed it for me and make edits. But it would go back and forth back from the typing pool and me in order to get the status report right. And then, we could print it. They’d print out a copy for me and then I’d have to make copies for everybody else. We worked nine to five with an hour for lunch. So I mean you were working a seven hour day, and yet, the people that work there were just professionals. They produced some of the most outstanding work that I’ve ever seen in a short amount of time. And I would say many of them did not want to be art directors or copywriters. They were there because they wanted to be something else. They were working on a novel or they were working on painting or they were working on a show. It was like a part-time gig for them as opposed to advertising agencies in the Midwest or the South where it’s the peoples’ professions. In New York, it wasn’t really their profession. They had other dreams and aspirations and this was something that they were doing until they could make it big. Which I always found fascinating.
David: But you were there as a…this is your profession?
Robert: Yes. I wanted to go into advertising and so that was my profession and traffic manager was the place to start. And I eventually moved up to account service and I worked on the Citibank business. It was like a flagship account. Everybody on it was professional. You never felt out of control. We always had enough time. Yes, there were times we were scrambling to get things done but it was just a wonderful experience. We were on the 30th floor. What a wonderful view every morning and it was just fantastic working in New York.
David: So how long were you there?
Robert: I was there for about four years. Prior to moving to New York, I had dated a woman in Phoenix and we stayed in touch. I eventually realized that I couldn’t live without her. So I said, “You need to come out to New York City and check this place out”. And she did and we got married. After a while, we started talking about where wanted to raise a family. Is New York the place that we’re going to raise a family? And it really was not. It was not the place that we wanted to be. So we moved to Kansas City. I got a job in advertising in Kansas City. She was from Kansas, my wife Mary. And I loved working in Kansas City. Again, on the agency side. And I worked for a great agency there, Kuhn and Wittenborn. They were ex-hallmark guys that had picked up some graphics business and then advertising business and did work with mutual fund companies and sports organizations and such.
David: And so far just agency work?
Robert: So far just agency work. And then, my next jump was to digital marketing and database marketing because as I said, you know, I started in computer engineering. I saw that computers were becoming a big part of the advertising process. So I ran into some really smart people from a company called Epsilon. They were visiting my client, American Century Mutual Funds. Now, at the time, they were talking about the database marketing, the computers, the algorithms, analytics and statistics. And I wanted to be part of that.
David: What year was this?
Robert: So that was 1997.
Robert: Right, and so I actually got a job at Epsilon and moved down to Texas and that’s when I moved down here and stayed in the database marketing, CRM, loyalty space for a while. My first job was for a home security company called Protection One which is where you and I met.
Robert: That was my first client side job. Prior to that, I was at agencies.
David: And being on the client side is very different?
Robert: It’s very different. For example, we had a lot of in-house services. We tried to do a lot of things in-house, right? We had our own team and that has its own pros and cons as I’m sure you’ll remember. And, we eventually started hiring agencies and there was some tension there, right? And, you know, it provides a different perspective being on the client side. So I stayed in the home security business for a while and then made the jump to 7-Eleven to help them build their loyalty program. It was interesting to get involved in that kind of digital marketing and social media marketing. I really just had that passion for loyalty and database marketing. So it was great getting over to 7-Eleven and helping them visualize what a program could look like, working with all of the smart people there. I ended up working with the agency that provided the loyalty program. That agency is Brierley. I enjoyed that so much, I said, “I want to do more of this”. So I switched from the client side and went back to the agency side and I have been at Brierley ever since.
David: Oh, wow. Okay, so having all of this experience, you have knowledge on both the client side and agency side. If you put your client hat on, if you’re looking to hire an agency, what tips and advice would you start with? So I come to you for the first time and I’m like, “Look, I work at a company and we’re looking to hire an agency.” “What should I do”? “How do I go about that process”?
Robert: So the first thing I’d probably ask you is, why do you think you need to hire an agency? What is it you’re looking for from an agency that you don’t think you can handle in-house? So typically, it’s we don’t have the resources or the talent in-house.
Robert: Generally, that’s where clients start. It’s, like, we know we want to do digital advertising but we don’t have anybody in-house that does that. Let me go find an agency, right? And so, then my next question would be, “What do you know about digital advertising”? And if you say, “Well, I know nothing about digital advertising”. Okay, all right, and then I would probably ask you more questions, like, what are you hoping to get out of it? Like realistically, what are your business objectives from this agency?
David: So give us an example of what a business objective would be?
Robert: Yup. So we’re trying to drive an additional $20,000 in revenue. Okay, and then I’d want to understand why do you think you can drive an additional $20,000? Did you read that stat in a magazine or are you just hoping that it can do that for you or did some other agency tell you that it could do that for you?
David: Right. How many clients do you think know all this information?
Robert: So it’s a spectrum, right? There’s a lot of clients who don’t have any clue about any of that information including what they’re trying to gain by hiring an agency. They just think they need help. Oftentimes, they see somebody else doing it and figure it must be worth doing. And that’s not necessarily wrong but you should spend more time educating yourself about what it is that you’re getting and evaluate all the possible channels. Maybe you don’t need a digital advertising agency. Maybe you need a general marketing agency that can help you with, generally, how you should be going to market. Do you want to go to market the same way that everybody else in your industry is or do you want to go to market in a different way?
Robert: So maybe, you only need a strategic consultant to come in and help you evaluate the best path forward. If they’re intent on hiring an agency, the first thing I tell them is there’s no guarantees unless you are purchasing a guaranteed service. There are pay-per-acquisition, pay-per-lead types of services. For many clients, you should probably start with that.
David: Okay, can you give us an example?
Robert: So let’s say you’ve got an app and no one’s using the app but you want people to download it. There are companies who, you pay them five dollars, and they will get people to download your app.
Robert: Now are they the best people for you? Maybe not, but if you can retain 20 of them and if the financials make sense, even though you’re paying five dollars for four of them, and if it costs a hundred dollars to bring somebody on board, does that make sense? Maybe that’s too much. What about 50 bucks? So you figure out what’s my conversion rate, and then, what does it cost me to actually pay for the people that downloaded the app? But there are companies that will guarantee that and that’s okay. That’s a good place to start because oftentimes what clients will do is, they’ll go hire an agency and then they’ll argue with them after they’ve hired them. They start doing some reading and they start talking to some of their employees who have a little bit of knowledge or might have done this before and, all of a sudden, these employees come out of the woodwork and they have ideas. Now they’re challenging the agency. Hiring an agency should be no different than hiring an employee. I can’t imagine that people want to hire employees and then want to argue with them or hope that their employee will fail. The reason you hire an agency is because you’re looking for an expert, someone who has the knowledge and experience that you lack and, if that’s true, you shouldn’t go into it looking to challenge them at every turn. You shouldn’t go into it looking to catch them at every turn. You shouldn’t start off with a lack of trust.
Robert: You should extend the trust. You should listen to what they’re saying but, at the same time, put some guardrails on it. You have to set a budget that you’re comfortable with. You have to partner with the agency. Listen to the recommendations because if you’re constantly redirecting them, then it’s not their recommendation. It’s your recommendation. And, if you want to be in charge, don’t hire an agency. Go hire people that know how to do this work and just have them be employees for you because if you feel like you’ve got a better way of doing it or you want to learn it or you want to be in charge of it, I wouldn’t hire an agency.
David: How involved should you be then? Just to make sure that everything is going right and expectations are being met.
Robert: So you need to actively manage the agency if you want to ensure that there’s not going to be any missteps. Unless, you just don’t have the time and you are setting aside a budget that you’re comfortable investing because it’s an investment and investments don’t always pay off. So if you feel comfortable investing this money, then you can step back and let the agency do what they do and ask them for regular updates. You don’t have to manage them so hard. Now if this money is money that you just can’t lose, then you should either go hire employees and do it yourself because, then, it’s on you to be actively be involved in managing the agency. Some clients like to be part of the process. Other clients don’t like to be part of the process and we’ll talk more about that when we get into agencies.
Robert: And you really should be rooting for your agency. You want your agency to win. If your agency does a great job, then it’s going to work out for you. They’re going to get you the eyeballs that you need and the sales that you need, the revenue, and the profitability and all that follows. Too many times, I’ve seen clients redirect the agency. They’ll say, “I appreciate the recommendation but we want to go do this”. Okay, I don’t know why you’re hiring an agency then. I know it’s because you feel like you need an extra set of hands to do X, but that shouldn’t be why you’re hiring an agency. You’re hiring an agency because you want somebody who has more experience than you, that’s smarter than you, and who is working on lots of clients that can bring expertise from lots of different industries. You want an agency that isn’t willing to say yes to you.
Robert: Your employees are all your yes men. You want an agency that is going to fight with you, that’s going to give you counter ideas, that’s going to cause friction. There needs to be healthy friction. They want to provide you with a point of view that might make you feel uncomfortable because that’s what, oftentimes, clients need to get out of their rut and differentiate themselves from the competition. Most people, when they hire an agency, they don’t want friction because friction means bad chemistry. They want to find somebody who just agrees with them and is polite. But you do not want an agency that’s overly agreeable. Unfortunately, a lot of them are nowadays which is a shame.
David: So it seems like, a lot of the issues come from the fact that the client doesn’t understand who they are.
Robert: Absolutely, oh yeah. But that is the kind of dilemma that the clients get into because not only do they not know who they are, but they don’t know what not to know for a particular endeavor.
David: How does a client get over that hump then?
Robert: So there’s three ways. They can self-educate, hire employees who know, or they can lean on the agency. You want to hire an agency who’s going to be tough on you and say things like, “What differentiates you from your competition”? “Because, right now, you look the same”. “You sound the same”. “You’re doing the same things”. “You’re advertising in the same places”. “What differentiates you”? And, you know, owners of companies, people that are hiring agencies, they really need to think about that because that’s where greatness comes from. If you can find that point of differentiation, and it doesn’t have to be huge, you can make great things happen. It can be as simple as, we believe we have better people. Okay, great. Then we need to build a campaign around your people. We need to focus on your people. We need to show why your people are better than the competition and why that’s a benefit to the people that are purchasing your product. But you got to have something and it’s okay not to know. But look to the agency to lead you or again go out and hire a strategic consultant to come in and work with you.
Robert: For example, if you’re getting questions and the agency, for whatever reason, isn’t able to help you because their specialty is digital advertising and not necessarily strategic positioning, it’s okay to go hire somebody else. Go hire a strategic consultant to come in and ask them to go and listen to the agency. Tell the consultant, these are the questions that we’re getting. We’re not sure what the benefits of our product are. We know what the features of our product are but we don’t necessarily know what the benefits are. So you can lean into the agency and say, “Help me with this.” “Let’s have a session all about who we are as a company so that we can then say, fine, we all agree to this and that should help you with your advertising”. “Okay, great”. “Let’s do a two day session”. Or, you know, take the time to educate yourself. There are plenty of books out there on finding your differentiated position in the marketplace and what that means.
David: So let’s say you know, as a company, you need help but you haven’t done all of the soul searching and figured out exactly what type of help you need. But you know you do and you find an agency and they push back and they ask you all these questions.
David: But now that’s going to add extra cost. So coming in as the company, you didn’t realize that you had to now pay extra to have another session to figure out exactly what you hired the agency to do in the first place.
David: I think, a lot of times, that’s the shock that comes on the client side. It’s like, okay, we’re doing the right thing but can you give us something because we didn’t know, not to know, to think about this.
David: And so, now you get another bill.
Robert: Right. Yeah.
David: And that’s not within the budget you first agreed upon. But now, they’re saying we have to do this next step to figure out what it is we have to do. And that seems like…that’s the shock that hits the clients a lot of times.
Robert: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. Clients get into it and they realize there’s so many things that they weren’t doing as a business. But think of it this way. Can an agency replicate somebody else’s ads for you? Sure they can. Can they adapt an existing approach or campaign? Can they just do the basics for you and will you be happy with that? A lot of clients would be. Clients will think, just give me an ad that works like everyone else. Just have some guy in a suit sit down and talk about how wonderful our company is. And there are agencies out there that’ll do that. But that’s not what you want. There’s nothing authentic in that approach because everybody has seen that ad a thousand times. It’s not going to trigger an association with your brand. So yes, you’re absolutely right. Clients get into it and go, “Oh that’s something else and we didn’t know that something else”. And, you know, part of the agency interview process should be asking the agency what they expect from us. What is it you’re going to be expecting? What is it that you want us to bring to the table? What do we need to help you with in order for you to do a great job? And so, I think you’ve got to be able to ask the questions. What are you going to be counting on me for?
David: So what do you think about hiring someone to help you find an agency? I know we did that at Protection One. Is that a good thing to do and spend that extra money?
Robert: If you don’t know what you’re getting into and you don’t know who the players are, you oftentimes don’t have the time to do the research. So it’s absolutely advisable to hire somebody who’s familiar with the space, who can point you to the agencies that are a good fit for you. The ones that are going to be in your price range. The ones that are going to be in your service range. So, yeah, I’m seeing a lot of instances where people are hiring, even for loyalty programs and loyalty agencies, people saying, “Let me hire somebody who knows the space, who can help me figure out who I should include, and who I should stay away from”. They kind of know the industry. They know the ins and outs and that’s a perfect person to say, “listen, you know what we should expect from this relationship”. “We’ve never had an agency like this before”. “What are they going to be expecting from us”? “What do we need to bring to the table”? “What are the answers that they’re going to want to get from us”?
Robert: And that person can help and sometimes, if they’re skilled enough, they can help you work on some of that material and get it refined so that when the agency shows up, you’ve got some brand guidelines. You understand what your voice is. You understand who you want to be and who you want to emulate. You know what your value proposition is and what space you occupy among your competition. So, yeah, hiring somebody’s is absolutely a good thing to do.
David: So in your experience, do you think if you ask the agency what they expect from us, do they answer honestly or do they want to just make the sale and deal with stuff after the fact?
Robert: I know what you’re saying. But they will be forthcoming because I don’t think that question would exclude them from consideration. If I, as the agency, said to you, well, my expectation is that you know who your competition is, you know what your market share is, you know what makes you different than everybody else, you know what your best products are, you understand what your cost of goods are compared to profitability, you understand maybe a little bit about your target audience, who it is you’re trying to go after and why. Those are the things that we’re going to need. I don’t think any of those answers would rule me out as an agency, right? I can’t imagine a business owner saying, “Wow, they’re going to want to know a lot of stuff”. “I don’t want to hire them”, you know? If you’re that type of person where you say, “I don’t have time for all of that”. “I just want an ad”. Then just go hire some freelancers or an employee and just do it in-house. So, basically, on the client side, know who you are first. Know who you are and why you’re doing this. Why are you doing this and what you expect? Get all of your ducks in in order and, remember, it’s a relationship. You want to root for the agency. But it’s also okay for you to say, and you should say, “Hey, I don’t feel like it’s going real well”. It’s a relationship. One of the most important things a client can do is be open and honest with the agency at all times. Too often, clients will harbor ill feelings and never say a word and then out of the blue say, “Yeah, we decided to fire you, we’re going a different direction”. It’s like, we’re breaking up. But what happened? You didn’t say a word about anything and now you’re just dropping me on the curb.
David: How long have you usually waited before having that conversation?
Robert: Honestly, if things don’t go right on day one, I’m going to say something like, “Hey, I don’t feel like that was a good session and here’s why”. You want to make sure that you’re having adult one-to-one communication. Meaning, if for whatever reason, the agency comes in and it’s not going well, what you should not do as the client is pick up the phone and call everybody’s boss and complain. Mom and dad don’t need to get involved in this and that. It’s cowardly to do it that way. That is so old school and outdated. You want to have a conversation with the people that you’re having a relationship with, the people in the room, the people that you need to work with. As soon as you involve other people in a relationship conversation, you weaken the relationship, you weaken your position, and you now weaken the status and trust that you had with that person. You will gain so much more trust and valuable information if you just sit down with the person that you’re matched up with from the agency and say, “I didn’t feel like that went very well, today, and here are the reasons why”. “I’m interested in your perspective”. It’s okay to talk about it because you’re both aiming for a successful relationships and for the relationship to work. They’ve got to go through that forming and norming phase. So it’s going to take a little time to understand what each of you likes, how you operate, and how to keep the lines of communication open.
David: So now that’s the client side. Let’s flip over to the other side.
Robert: All right.
David: So based on your experience, what do you think motivates the agency? Maybe it’s just me, but I always felt like there was a little bit of an adversarial thing going on during the interview phase of speaking to agencies.
David: They always seem to come in here and tell us they’re the best at what they do. They always give the same schpeel and, maybe it differs a little bit because of the personalities of the people giving the pitches but I always felt it was the same and a little confrontational. Maybe it was me. But could you, because I’ve never been on the agency side, let us know what motivates them. And I know you can say general things like, they want to make the sale, they want to get you as a client, but what other things can you tell us that will shed more light on what motivates the agency?
Robert: So, sure, they want to get the sale. But it’s not necessarily because they want to just make money. It’s also because they want to do good work and they want to work on something that’s interesting.
David: Do you think most agencies think that way?
Robert: I think most agencies think that way.
Robert: Other than maybe the CEO or president or the financial guy or the sales guy, right? He’s motivated by money and the commission he’s going to make off the sales. You know, your account service people, your client service people, they have that passion to serve. They want to help you solve problems. That’s what motivates them. If they can solve a problem for you, and it’s successful, they’re walking on clouds for the rest of the month. The rest of the agency, they just want the opportunity to do good work. They want to show you and the world that they’re talented. So it’s typically less about the money because they’re certainly not getting paid very well.
Robert: Compared to the client side, they just aren’t unless you’re part of that executive team. The executive team’s making good money. Most everybody else…they’re there because they want to be and have the need to serve. They want to do good work. They want to solve problems and they want to make the client happy. Honestly, the majority of people at agencies, that’s what they want.
David: So what are some of the traps? Why do agency people get themselves in certain situations where they’re not jiving with a client?
Robert: So one of the reasons that they get sideways with clients is because they take on work that they shouldn’t be taking on. They say yes to a piece of business and they go in and pitch a piece of business that they shouldn’t. For example, let’s say an agency that specializes in SEO and SEM goes and wins a client that does digital advertising because the agency is interested in expanding. But, they haven’t really done anything to prepare themselves to do the digital advertising other than the fact they have the desire to do it. They haven’t hired anybody new. They just have some people who are interested in it and they think it might be a good additional profit line. You’re not giving yourself a chance, as an agency, to service that client the way they should be serviced.
David: Is that a disconnect between the sales team and the account services team?
Robert: It’s usually a disconnect between the executive team wanting to do something and not having the staff or the talent to execute. They’ll find somebody in the agency that is willing to make a go of it but they haven’t gone through the process to get the right talent. A lot of agencies do a little smoke and mirrors act. They haven’t done this before but let’s go and see if we can sell some people and bring them on board. And I understand the dilemma. It’s hard to go pay a lot of money for an expert if you don’t have the book of businesses to support it, right?
Robert: You want to build the book of business first and then go find the talent. So that’s one way in which agencies get themselves sideways. Sometimes they dig themselves out of it. They overcompensate. They over deliver. But, oftentimes, the client ends up being confused as to why they can’t do the job. Why they’re not having the success that they normally had with other projects. And so, it’s that extension of services that can get agencies into trouble. Another way is when you have an agency who’s at full max capacity and they go and win another piece of business. Now they got a problem. I can’t go hire anyone because if I go hire someone, I’ve only got about 10 percent for them to work on or most of their time, they’re going to be sitting around doing nothing. I’m not sure if I can win more new business. I’m going to try and run this with who we have on staff. And most of those employees would probably tell you that they are already busy, busier than they should be to ensure that the client is getting good service. So now you’ve added another piece of business on top of that.
David: So if you’re the client or interviewing someone on the agency side, what kind of questions can you ask to see if this is the case?
Robert: So if you’re the client, one of the things that clients should be asking in an interview process is who am I going to be working with and can I meet them? Can they be part of the pitch presentation? Can they come to the meeting? Say, I’d like to meet the team, the whole team from top to bottom, lowest level to highest level. I just want to see what the team is.
David: Okay. But say you’ve seen them. They show you the team. But then, six months later, they’ll switch it. They’ll switch it, right?
Robert: Yeah. They’ll switch it as soon as they get the business. But as a client, you can ask to put in your contract the list of people you will be working with. You can ask for that from the agency but they might not agree to it. You can say, “I want to put the names of the people that you identified for me and I want the hour allocation percentages”. How much time is each person going to be spending on my account? You can ask the team if they are 100 percent allocated to you today. Now that’s putting an employee on the spot and I’m sure they’re going to be looking over at their executive team or, if they’re prepped, they’ll say nope, I have room on my plate in order to take on this piece of business. But you can ask the questions. You should also ask them, “What other clients are you working on”?
David: What about asking the agency to give you a certain time frame, like giving notice a week before a different team takes over your account?
Robert: Yeah, that should be in the contract. Any personnel changes on the account should be communicated to the client. Now you also have to be fair to the agency. For example, we work in a right to work state here in Texas. Most agencies only get two weeks notice from their employees. So they may not always have time to tell you if any employee leaves suddenly. But the first phone call should be to the client. After HR has been notified that a client services person is leaving, they should be on the phone to the client saying, “Hey, just want to let you know so and so has submitted their resignation, we’ve done everything we can to retain them but they found a great opportunity and they are leaving”. They should also know who’s going to backfill their position. Agencies get themselves into a bind all the time because they don’t tell the client until it’s too late, like, two days before somebody’s leaving. Agencies need to remember that it’s a relationship and those lines of communication need to be open and honest. The client needs to know. So you’re absolutely right. The client needs to be told and you can put it in the contract that you be told as soon as possible, as soon as the agency knows.
David: What about putting in the contract that whoever takes over has to have the same amount of work experience because I’ve seen it where the new team may not be on the same level as the folks that originally serviced your account.
Robert: Absolutely, yeah. Agencies do that to give everybody an opportunity to grow and learn. So they will oftentimes move junior people onto accounts because those are good people to move. I have a junior person supporting over here and I feel like they’ve done a good job. Let me promote them and move them over to this other account. You can also put it in the contract that you have the right to interview or that you would like to interview any new people added to your account. And if you have a good relationship with the agency, they should let you do that. They should say, “Yeah, we’ll be happy to put you in touch with the person that we’re thinking about”. “This who we’re thinking about bringing over but let’s schedule a lunch and you guys can go to lunch to talk and see if that’s a good fit”. If the agency is good, they will match up whoever services the client with someone who is on the same level as the person on the client side. I wouldn’t match a junior level agency person with a manager level person on the client side. That’s not a fair situation. But the day-to-day contact on the client side should absolutely have the ability to meet that new person at lunch and then report to the agency, “You know, I just didn’t feel like the chemistry was there or I didn’t feel like their experience was there”. For example, when I interviewed for an agency, I went to a lunch with the person at the agency who was hiring me and also the client that I would be working with.
David: Oh. Okay.
Robert: So I’ve been in that situation and if you’ve got a good long-term relationship with the agency, the agency should be willing to do that for you.
David: Anything else on what an agency can do to cultivate relationships?
Robert: Yes. So they need to match up correctly, and agencies struggle with this all the time. Sometimes it’s referred to as strawberry patching. It means keeping in touch with, having a relationship with. So who is the highest ranking person on the client side that you feel you should have a relationship with? Is it the Chief Marketing Officer? Who at the agency then matches up with that person? Now that CMO may not be in every meeting. They may not even be in any meetings but you still might want to have a matching with them, meaning regular contact with them. Who’s the negative VP on the client side? Who’s going to match up with that VP? Who’s going to match up with the director, manager, etc. And what agencies think they can pull off is, let’s say you have an account supervisor who is matching up on a daily basis with the director. They may tell that account supervisor, we also need you to have a relationship with the VP and the CMO. It’s like, no, there’s no way that that’s going to happen. It’s ugly but that VP is not going to want to talk to the account supervisor. That account supervisor is the day-to-day contact with the director. I’m sorry, but that’s not the person I want to talk to. I want to talk to that person’s boss and the CMO is not going to want to talk to that account supervisor. It’s just not going to happen. Sometimes I’ve seen it where you can bring in a VP and the VP can run the account and will cheat down to match up with the director. The bottom line is, you got to match up and you have to have those open lines of communication and you have to have regular communication, because you will be blindsided when you don’t. The VP is the one who’s going to say, “Hey, I’m hearing that things are rough, have you heard that from my staff”? No we haven’t. I appreciate you mentioning that to me. Can you let your staff know that they should have an open and honest conversation with my staff? I’ll let my staff know to ask, hey, how are things going? We should not try to solve it at the VP level but we should at least let each other know, hey, we think it’s going well. Yes, okay, everybody’s good. And then the VP is providing future thoughts and ideas and recommendations. You know, you guys could use a little additional help in this area of digital marketing. We do have somebody and I’d love to bring them over and present to your team. Are you guys open to that? You just have to match up at each of those levels. Otherwise, you’re not going to have the kind of relationship that you want. The agencies that match up well have great relationships.
David: So it seems like everything we’ve talked about is two things. Number one, know who you are and that’s for both the client and the agency and then, number two, have really good communication and personal skills.
Robert: Right. Yes. Really good communication and personal skills. You need to read the client. What kind of client is this? A lot of agencies want to work with clients who are collaborative and when they get a client who really wants the magic, they don’t want to be collaborative. I just want the magic. They completely miss it and that creates a chemistry problem. And agencies need to have an opinion. The reason that you’re being hired is because you’re an expert in your area. Have an opinion. It should be less about, well, here’s three things we’re thinking about. What do you think is a good idea? Agencies need to have an opinion. Here are three things we thought about we like all of them for you and your brand for the following reasons. But of the three, this is the one that we think is the best.
David: Are they afraid to be wrong?
Robert: I mean, they are afraid to be wrong and they also want to collaborate with the client so the client feels like they’re part of the process. Because they feel like that builds the relationship. If the client just wants the magic, they need to give them an opinion. Here are three ideas. This is why we like them and this is the level of effort for each but here’s the one that we really like. This is the one. This is the best one for you because of the following reasons.
David: So of the situations you’ve seen, are the mishaps mostly because of this bad interpersonal relationship or have you seen more instances where the work is just bad?
Robert: So that’s a good point. The work can be bad and that usually comes from a couple of different places. One is the failure of the agency to organize internally because they’re overstaffed or understaffed. They’re handling more clients than they realistically should be. So once again, the whole they don’t know themselves or they’re not efficient with themselves issue. A second issue can be the leadership. In many instances, they want to stretch the capabilities of their current staff because they want to take on more business and grow. But it’s hard for agencies to grow because you have to grow in a big way so that you can hire people that’ll be fully utilized. You don’t want underutilized people. The issues come when you have too much work for too few staff or you’re trying to be something that you’re not. We’ve talked about that when you’re trying to be something that you’re not, you oftentimes will do some poor work. Also, when you have too much work on too few employees, those employees don’t communicate internally. They aren’t organized. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a conversation with one team, say a strategy team, and the strategy team is throwing out all these ideas and you love it. And then, you go to another meeting with say the technology team and the technology team says, “Oh we can’t do”. But your strategy team said we could do that. So you ask the strategy team, why did you say you could do that? Then they Say, well, we said it because it’s a good idea. Well, it is a good idea but your agency can’t do it. So that would be a telltale signs that something’s not right at the agency.
David: Any other signs to let you know that things aren’t right at the agency?
Robert: Well, we talked about the turnover. If there’s turnover and more turnover than that’s a sign. If you’re not getting your phone calls and emails responded to in a timely fashion, that’s another telltale sign. There should be some understanding between you and the agency about how long it’s going to take for them to get back to you. If you’re trying to schedule meetings but the agency keeps pushing things off, “Hey, we need another week, we can’t meet Tuesday, can we meet on Thursday”? When they do that more than three, four times, that’s a telltale sign. Also, look for mistakes. Now on the flip side, when mistakes start cropping up and your agency comes to you and says, “Hey, we need to make you aware of a mistake”. “We had a problem”. “This is what we’re doing to fix it”. The client should help create a safe environment. You have to create a safe environment because if there’s not a safe environment, your agency is not going to let you know that mistakes were made. If they get punished every single time they mention that a mistake was made, then they’re going stop telling you that mistakes were made. And, they’re going hide it from you. You do not want that as a client, right? Now if that’s how you run your business, then you’re going to have problems with agencies. Agencies are in the business of taking risks, unless as we talked about, you’re buying a guaranteed service from an agency that does this over and over again and it’s a thing they know how to do. Agencies are in the business of taking risks, and when you have people taking risks, it needs to be a safe environment. You want to fail because you want to find those wonderful successes and sometimes you have to fail three times before you can have that great success. So if you don’t create a safe environment, agencies are not going to tell you about the problems and they’re just going to lie to you.
Robert: And you don’t want that as a client. Whenever I’ve worked with agencies, I’ve said, “Listen, I just want the truth”. “I don’t want you to sugarcoat it”. “I don’t want you to hide it from me”. “I promise you I am not going to punish you but we are going to work through it together”. “It’s a good chance that we’re both culpable”. “But we will both own the problem”. “We will solve it together”. You have to create that trustful environment. So if you see an agency with mistakes or excuses, yeah, something’s going on. Those are telltale signs that you need to sit down with your day to day contact and have a talk and say, “Listen, it’s not feeling good”. “What’s going on”? “What’s going on and how do we fix this”?
David: All Right, well, that was a lot of good information. I think we’ll end on that. Having a good relationship and communication, those are really good pieces of advice and I hope you can come back. We’ll do another one.
Robert: Love to. Yeah, anything for you David. I appreciate it.
David: Thank you very much, Robert.
For more information about Robert McClarin, go to: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertmcclarin/