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What makes a great digital marketing and analytics shop
There are many great digital agencies out there that can function as an extension of your team and help you achieve your goals. Here's a bit of what to look for in finding one...
There has been a bunch in the news lately about McKinsey, a global consulting goliath who classically do business with other very large corporations. They aren’t exactly know for ‘innovation’ but for helping companies follow beaten paths and processes, do Office Space style “the Bobs” layoffs, create fancy over the top presentations for corporate boardrooms, etc. Of course, this might all be fine for large company CPG widgets but didn’t work out so well for building a new media startup CNN+ as many have noted, myself included.
While consultants and agencies get a bad rep sometimes, most of them are quietly doing the hard things that keep big companies moving and help startups get the airplane off the ground. There are of course many qualified marketing and analytics shops (of all sizes) that can help your brand elevate its digital success. I’ve spent time on both sides of the table and have great respect for shops with talent, process and drive that are apolitical and have essentially 0 bureaucracy (their model of work, done correctly, simply does not have time for such nonsense). But what separates the good from the great agencies?
It goes beyond having leadership that understands the importance of being data-driven. That’s just part of it. And it certainly goes beyond winning awards. While those are wonderful and certainly may be a qualifying factor, (there are better ones now anyway) they are likely removed from the day-to-day process of working on client programs, managing the meat and potatoes aspects of marketing and analytics that drive a businesses. Actions and the right approach always beat a pedigree.
So what should you look for in a tier-1 shop? Just a few ideas follow to help you get started…
They report results as part of a process
Your consulting team should deliver reports at agreed upon frequency to provide regular, anticipated updates on progress, avoiding fire drills from the agency to client (or vice versa) asking about the results from last month or last quarter. Savvy agencies are experienced enough to include the scope and frequency of their reports in agreements so all parties know what to expect throughout programs.
Agencies with strong skills delivering results reports and insights are by far the best positioned to help their clients win. Bonus points if they also have a forecast line and help guide future months, doesn’t have to be perfect, but shows they have targets. This can be mutually agreed upon. Great shops keep you informed at every step of program activity tied to (unexaggerated, audited) results using clean data.
They remove the silos and encourage sharing insights
During my tenure as a consultant, I regularly came across other shops that were working with the same client I was, but on a different piece of the business or perhaps different channels. On more than one occasion, they would be reticent to pass our team the data and insights we needed to make educated decisions, usually because of insecurity or irrational fear. This is the sign of an agency that is more concerned with politics and relationships than results. Buyer beware.
But as long as everyone is under NDA and roles are scoped clearly, agencies need to be collaborative - with their clients and with other shops. This frequently means sharing relevant insights and analytics access across functions so everyone can do their job. After all, if the client loses, the agencies lose, too (all of them - everyone is on the same team here).
Great agencies are collaborative by default and very accustomed to working with other partners that are part of a client team. They are by nature trusting and respectful. This doesn’t mean giving away proprietary processes or anything like that, but it does mean enabling success and being open with dashboards, reports, insights etc. The client to some extent may have to be the enabler here, but great agencies should have no problem working together.
They conduct measurement planning at the start of the client engagement
No client is going to have their digital measurement perfectly configured when you walk in the door your first day as a consultant. Even if they were close, there is always room for improvement on the sophisticated side of the measurement spectrum.
No matter the level of sophistication, measurement planning is a requisite. If you’re new to measurement planning, check out this brief primer which should help you get started, or you can watch a presentation I gave a few years ago which is still relevant: the core parts of people, process and platform should always remain the same even if tools and tactics change.
They educate the client team to continually up-level the work they do
Tier 1 digital shops don’t just keep their knowledge under lock and key. Their clients are trusted long-term partners. Having structured education opportunities for your clients is not only an excellent way to improve the working relationship, but as your clients gets savvier, it’s an opportunity to move them up the value chain of your agency’s services to more complex, strategic and ultimately more rewarding work.
Great agencies also invest time and effort to educate their own team members and provide them a career path with continued growth. To help both sides of the table while at Google, we created online analytics courses that are useful to both agencies and brands as we deeply believed in the importance of ongoing education.
They don’t misrepresent who the team will be comprised of during client pitches
Great agencies staff their teams appropriately, with both senior agency leaders and practice area specialists. They don’t go into client pitches purely with senior execs who will never be heard from again, but with the actual team that will be working on the program day-to-day. This ‘bait and switch’ is classic with some of the larger shops, and one of the reasons I nearly always prefer small/mid-sized agencies is this is never how they operate: you get to meet your real team, the people you’ll actually be working with, during the pitch meeting.
Additionally, in agencies I would personally consider great, people at all levels are “doers” and spend time shepherding programs, attending client meetings, and providing leadership expertise to ensure programs are functioning at their peak. No one is above chipping in, and while of course there are titles and managers vs specific tacticians, great shops have team members who are agile and willing to drop everything to help a client or team in immediate need.
They are consultative - occasionally beyond scope
Truly great shops, while of course managing programs to specific scope, getting projects done on time and helping you achieve metrics goals go a step further. Their team members are trained to be consultative and advise you, the client. This could be on existing programs or even something else that you might be missing (added as an agenda item to talk about briefly during a weekly call, or just a 1-off email). As an agency account manager your goal is to help the client succeed at all costs, and you have a different, outside perspective than the client without their biases.
So if you see opportunity everyone else is missing, it is worth pointing this out in an appropriate manner. Done right, and enough times, this is something that will help you grow your scope of work with the client as they will see your shop is comprised of a team that is actively paying attention. Your client will start to see you are more than just help with <x project> but as a true business partner. Of course, if you are a junior consultant it may be premature of you to just decide to start doing this, but at the same time your shop might not ever tell you to. I did this on more than one occasion and without permission of more senior folk at agencies I worked at, and it only led to positive outcomes. So you might consider taking such initiative yourself if you really believe in something (but this can be risky if you are still new to our sector, so please don’t hold me accountable if it gets you into trouble, you’ll know when you’re ready).
They should have case studies specific to your needs
You are hiring a shop because you have a specific pain point: a project you need completed in a timely manner but lack the staff for, ongoing help with a program you can’t take in-house at the moment, filling a gap in your team’s skills because technical/design resources are unavailable, etc. You need people who have “been there, done that” for both the tactical execution and in some cases (but certainly not all) also specific industry experience itself. So, they should be able to share clear case studies in work done with others as a reason for you to hire them and proof point. This is far more important than any RFP process, in fact if you are a competent marketing leader you shouldn’t need to waste anyone’s time with that dog & pony show, you should be able to find and source a team that can help you immediately.
They do more to give back to our industry
This one is a “nice to have,” but I think the best agencies are part of the wider discussion happening in the world. They are active on social media, attend industry conferences, participate on podcasts, etc. I talked about how this is real work in a recent post, and consulting shops better understand it. This sort of participation can only lead to positive things, including new business and attracting talent, so the benefits for the agency are here too. It’s a win-win.
Of course, this is just a short list, and it’s slightly biased as at this point I mostly hire agencies who are involved in performance/acquisition-oriented programs. Your specific needs may vary (for example, if you have a design project you need done that might be less metrics-driven than a need to increase user growth by XX%). But do your diligence and spend as much time as necessary to find teams you trust. The great thing is, you only need to do this once - I find that I continually go back to the shops I know have delivered for me in the past. Not only due to relationships and ability to work together efficiently, they’ve proven themselves.
Also, if you ever need agency recommendations for something, just ping me on Twitter and I will try and point you in the right direction (pending your needs).