I've worked with a number of agencies over the past few years. Large, national agencies with hundreds of employees down to an owner/operator. I think anyone of them can provide exceptional service and support. There are agencies out there that do well to create brand and marketing strategies that compliment what the business objectives are. They help at all levels of implementation and make a smooth, easy process. Then there are those agencies that are glorified buyers - meaning their only benefit is to make pretty graphics and negotiate with vendors that are really providing the service. Which kind of agency represents you?
Undoubtedly, even agencies that act as buyers are providing a valuable service. However, I think an agency should do much more for your business than create a pretty website and buy media for you. If your agency is the type that helps you buy media and keep salespeople from calling you... you might - just maybe - want to reevaluate that relationship.
Though this is pretty easy to see and understand the premise, I think this model and what it advocates gets lost on many decision makers. If you poll decision makers, the majority will say they want thought-leadership from their partners. Companies make big bucks on how to cultivate thought-leadership. White papers are written on the topic - like this one from Forbes.
Yet too often, I see agencies and service providers fail in this regard. What does failing look like? To me, it's being stuck on the left side of the scale above. The agency you hired will contract rates with various service providers (TV, newspapers, digital content etc.) to get you "the lowest price possible." In the past, this was a real benefit. Agencies could get better rates by bullying the provider into a lower rate. What many agencies won't tell a business owner is that most large media corporations have standardized many of their pricing selections to eliminate the whole price debate with agencies. On top of this, the 15% discount given to agencies in past years has also evaporated.
Bottom line: If you're working with an agency to get lower rates... you could probably make like Geico and save 15% or more on your advertising by calling the media company directly.
The second thing that many (failing) agencies lay their hat on is keeping the salespeople at bay. With an agency on retainer, you now can funnel any sales calls directly to "your guys" and they'll do all the talking. This works. Sort of. You still receive calls from salespeople, right? When you pass the salesperson along to the agency, don't they still tend to come back anyway to try to cut the agency out? Furthermore, and more importantly, agencies tend to shoot down any idea that's not their own or that eats into the fees they are charging. If a start up company has developed a new platform to manage reviews, and your agency is charging you a pretty penny for that service, do you really think they are going to willingly lose that portion of your business?
Salespeople are the nature of the business. Hate to say it. However, if you did engage in a conversation with some of them, you might find their product(s) could provide a better return on investment than what you are currently getting. If you funnel all of the calls to your agency to make your life easier, and your agency does not follow the trusted advisor approach, you could be wasting marketing dollars.
A trusted agency/media advisor should be one that does the following:
Teaches you - educates you on what your marketing is doing in relation to your business objectives is crucial. Otherwise, how can you evaluate its effectiveness? Go beyond clicks and CTR. How do the clicks from your digital campaign translates to new users on your site? How many new visitors have translated to conversions? Where in the buy funnel are they stopping, and is your website the cause of this? These are all items (plus a million more) that an agency should help you understand.
Challenges you - Why would you want a "yes!" man/woman? They should be the experts, and should challenge you on your thoughts about marketing. If that agency capitulates to your desires after you say, "Well I don't use ___(paid-ads, maps, Facebook, you fill-in the blank), so my customers don't" - you have a problem. Advertising is about how to connect your customers to your business, not make you feel special. The way your customers connect - the customer journey - most likely is very different from the way you connect with businesses.
Creates ideas - One of the biggest benefits of an agency should be the creative elements they provide. Fast, innovative, and cohesive - that's what your campaign should be about - something that an agency does best when placing ads across many channels. They should consider the customer journey and create a marketing plan that touches on all aspects of that journey so you convert more potential customers.
To wrap up, take the time to audit what your agency does. Ask the questions, and don't fear the answers. Switching agencies might be daunting, but isn't your business operating at peak performance worth the time and pain?