Why clients can’t dictate agency processes

I’ve worked with at least 8 different agencies as an external consultant, both inside the agency and on the client side too. In that time I’ve noticed some things that stuck out as bad ideas.

Some pride themselves on tailoring everything to the client’s needs. Others market themselves as the client’s “in-house marketing team.”

That sounds great to the client—and saying it is just good marketing, to an extent—but it creates a fundamental problem: it puts the agency’s ability to achieve excellence at the mercy of non-experts without the same kind of fresh viewpoint.

Spoiler alert: people hire agencies for a reason, but it shouldn’t be to take instructions.



External Partners Provide External Perspectives

Every marketing team needs to get approval on projects, whether that’s from a client company or a direct supervisor. But you need to strike a balance between appealing to that client and handing off too much creative power.

Landing on the wrong side of that fence creates pretty clear-cut problems:

  • Compromised creative and half-developed marketing funnels
  • Unnecessary approval steps for preliminary work
  • Too many small revisions
  • Excessive meetings and touchpoints

Falling into those traps costs a ton of extra time, and you’d be kidding yourself if you think you’re going to get paid for all of it. It also puts a strain on the business relationship because the agency may feel that it can’t achieve promised results promised without full creative license.

Case in point: when I was a part of a team growing a new Internet media brand to over a half-million followers on Facebook, we kept an eye on engagement every few hours to decide which videos should receive the funds to boost their reach.

It was a straightforward, data-driven approach that let the numbers speak themselves… but the client didn’t want to do that.

In fact, the client absolutely refused this approach.

Each and every video the client made was one of its precious babies, and that team wanted to promote all of them. But content doesn’t work that way. Digital advertising doesn’t work that way. There are always clear winners and losers.

The idea is to put the advertising money behind the winners to maximize the traffic (and thus advertising revenue) on all of the resources you put into making that content. It’s not unlike investing: you don’t know exactly which assets are going to generate the best return until you see them all in action for a while.

The client made that executive decision based on an emotional attachment to the team’s content, and it severely stunted the channel’s growth for at least two years. That company ran on angel investment for a long time operating like this, if you can believe it.



Viral Content and a Seasoned CEO Proved it

The client’s decision was even more bewildering because, together, we had already produced a bona fide viral hit that clearly demonstrated a core lesson about digital content: certain stories far, far outperform others.

That viral video was what gave the company its initial boost in followers, in fact.

It even had a written post to accompany it with an average time on page of nearly 5 minutes (originally written by yours truly). That’s an insane amount of engagement for any digital media brand, we came to learn.

We saw a clear pattern emerge in which we gained far more exposure by focusing our ad budget on those breakaway winners. It was an unquestionable margin, too—the viral hit earned over 70 million views compared to the usual 6,000 – 20,000 that most videos earned (after partner promotions).

No-brainer, right?

We weren’t the only ones who thought so, either. Through some luck and a minor miracle, I managed to get the attention of Gary Manning, the CEO of Diplythe fastest-growing website on the entire Internet in 2014. We had to opportunity to pick his brain on viral content over lunch at Waterloo’s very own Bauer Kitchen.

Gary told us the same thing we’d already learned on our own. His recipe was no different from ours:

  • Produce content.
  • Analyze the content.
  • Put advertising dollars and partnership capital behind the winners.

The CEO of one of the most successful digital content companies in the world just told us that no amount of intuition could replace the data-driven approach that our agency had already developed. The client nodded along in that meeting but refused to let us pursue that approach afterward.

Fun fact: Diply operates in London, Ontario, my hometown!



The Client’s Resistance Stunted Its Own Growth

Despite being supported by the CEO of one of the most successful content websites in the world, we still encountered client resistance when we tried to implement that approach in our Facebook advertising.

Growth stagnated from there, hitting a plateau after about 450,000 followers on Facebook. Still a lot, but not enough.

The client’s investors were expecting to hit 1,000,000 by the end of the calendar year, and this almost certainly applied pressure to the client to find a silver bullet. We can all empathize with that kind of pressure, but the client could have been talked into the more successful path if it hadn’t wielded so much power over the agency’s operations.

Our team was boxed into an unsuccessful strategy. The project and the business relationship deteriorated from there.

Our own agency let the client dictate when, where, and how we spent the ad budget instead of making firm recommendations on our own. They were already making the videos, so there wasn’t much else for the team to contribute (after ’round-the-clock community management).

That was a huge red flag, but not the only one.

This particular client had direct access to junior and mid-level employees executing on ground-level tactics over just about every channel. I was expected to make myself personally available over all of these channels:

  • Slack
  • Skype
  • Email
  • Cell phone
  • Video chat

That’s just way too much.

The over-exposure to the client actually created more silos than it eliminated, disintegrating the normal communication barriers account managers provide to let agency employees focus on their billable hours and creative work. The client communicated to me but not other team members, our team leaders, or even my boss.

This also turned myself and other members of the team into button-pushers for the client, eroding professional the trust, respect, and  boundaries that come with being “experts.” We had been the profit center and had been turned into a cost center.

The agency let the client represent himself in court, so to speak, and both parties ended up paying for it heavily.



The Solution? Respectful Boundaries

In the end, we helped grow the client’s Facebook presence by a factor of 10 while we worked together, but the impact could have been so much bigger. It also caused a lot of strain on the business relationship, ultimately contributing toward a split between the client and the agency.

Imagine what could have been accomplished with the momentum gained from strategically allocating that ad spend on Facebook.

That’s why agencies need to guard their right to plan and execute on their vision. Mutually agreed-upon goals are key for all client-agency relationships, but agencies need to stick to their established systems and creative processes in order to deliver high-quality material.

Agencies and consultants should be hired based on the value they deliver. This makes it all the more important that they stand their ground when it comes to creating and implementing the processes that generate followers—and revenue.

Agencies without agency are just virtual assistants, and that’s a travesty.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

Andrew is a content designer, UX writer, and content strategist with SEO chops. He has worked in UX and marketing for companies like Shopify and Meta, but he also runs the Webb Content consulting brand.

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