I’ve had the unique opportunity of working in several agencies over the years, from the extremely small to one of the largest agencies in Canada. I’ve also had the opportunity to work freelance and client-side, and understand what it’s like to deal directly with a variety of agencies. I believe this makes me an expert on marketing lies, fibs, truths, and promises.
I’ve noticed some trends over the years, and while there’s a myriad of things marketers like to complain about because we’re big insecure nerds, there are a few points that I think are especially important for clients to understand. So enough with the preamble, I’m not trying to do an SEO trick here.
I’ll start with this one because it’s the shortest and most technical: some of the biggest agencies in the world are routinely skimming money off their clients’ campaign budgets in addition to whatever fee or percentage they agreed upon.
They do this not only because they can, but these agency titans are locked in a race to the bottom in terms of payments and need to keep the lights on in increasingly creative ways. Some agencies use a “kickback” model where they inflate their costs to give a rebate back to the client in a shell-game to hide money for tax purposes, while others will resort to outright theft to keep their rates as competitive as possible and outbid their competition. This is the quagmire of all agencies: you can’t be the only honest person in a city of liars.
This is usually done with larger clients, where there are hundreds of campaigns running simultaneously and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars at work, meaning budgets are increasingly hard to track. Ultimately, as long as the campaigns are working and benchmarks are being met, these things tend to fly under the radar. And in a way, that’s true. One could say it’s a larger-scale version of someone working for half an hour and billing for the full hour. The real danger is that as campaigns and agencies scale up or merge, this creative accounting gets ever more creative and, in a move that is a true epidemic in the startup world, we are all just creating an illusion of movement.
Or maybe nobody wants to live in a city of liars.
Poaching Clients with Marketing Lies
What happens is this: let’s say you’re a marketing agency and you have a client, perhaps one you’ve had for years. Typically, this is a client you execute digital campaigns for, something where the budget is allocated frequently and not one-off branding or app project.
Another agency – typically smaller, but not always – comes along and offers to handle these campaigns better and cheaper. They can’t do this right away, of course; they don’t know what the client is spending, and why would the client just give that information away? Additionally, they don’t know how the campaigns are built, and knows the campaigns aren’t failingd, but who doesn’t want things to be done better?
What the scrappy new agency offers is a free audit. All they need for this audit is to be granted access – not even admin access, just access to the accounts to see what’s going on – and from there they’ll draft a report indicating that the campaigns can be run better, make more money, run more efficiently, etc. Most importantly, they will charge less, and they just seem hungrier. They might even claim that they’ll put a dedicated person on your account. This never, ever happens by the way.
The larger point here is none of these promises are likely true. This puts you in the position to have to call them liars or argue that you can do better, which begs the question: why weren’t you doing better before? And you can’t do anything untoward to the campaigns because that would be sabotaging the relationship. You would never do anything to be malicious to your client. You are in the position to maintain a relationship you’ve built over years and likely taken the client from 0 to 10, and realistically all the new agency has to do is make more glittering promises and, at worst, maintain the status quo for as long as possible.
Clients fall for this every single day, and it’s the same reason marriages fall apart. What nobody ever asks is “what if the person I’m considering leaving my partner for is actually insane, and that’s why they’re doing this?”
I’ve seen them come running back after 3 or sometimes 6 months saying they had a bad experience, but that’s 6 months of realizing they’re not picking up the phone, they’re not working well with the internal teams, and the whole process has dented more than a few peoples’ reputations. Most importantly, the trust is gone.
In the world of marketing, there’s an ocean of liars both locally and abroad that try and survive this way. “Worked with hundreds of clients” sounds impressive until you think about it for 5 seconds.
The Myth of the Marketing Guru
This was originally going to be 2 points, but this pairs very well with “hiding results with jargon.” The cool think about this is you don’t even need to deal with marketers or agencies directly to notice it, just check LinkedIn or any of the 20,000 marketing sites we use to pass the exact same information back and forth to each other.
Marketing is an extraordinarily complex and wide-reaching part of the larger business ecosystem, but the main problem in my opinion is that so many people just read marketing blogs, or only read marketing books. These books and sites – like the early days of SEO where people were churning out contributor posts for larger sites – are written mainly to raise the influencer profile of those whom write them, and more often than not they’re just regurgitated information they read somewhere else. And I should know: I once worked on an entire series of recipe infographics, and there’s only so many recipes that can exist in the world.
What we end up with is the “marketing guru,” or the “brand ninja,” or some other iteration that makes it difficult for their parents to explain to their friends what they do. On the top end this is just an amusing phenomenon, logging into LinkedIn and seeing the exact same “What’s the marketing trends for 2021? CONTENT. And AUDIENCES. And it looks like VIDEO is still popular” articles over and over again.
On the low end, people make predictions that lose people money. I saw this firsthand during the early days of Covid 19 where everyone was scrambling to find answers for what clients can do next, and the worst of us just settled on talking about self-care and mental health. This is because most marketers just read their blogs and marketing books instead of expanding their aperture to include psychology, history, political theory, brand storytelling, and even philosophy. We talk about truth but nobody knows what truth means, we talk about individual consumers but have precious little information on how groups behave despite having access to the data, we still have people talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs despite it being one of the most reductive and incorrect examples of how human beings function.
The point of this is to say that good marketing is holistic, and if you meet a strategist who does not have a flare for branding, they have no idea what they are talking about. If you meet a content marketers who can’t run promotional campaigns, they don’t have a full understand of what works and why. If they have campaign experience and no vision, you can just wait another couple years for AI to fill in that gap. If you meet any “creative” who does not have personal creative pursuits, they are just a “creative type,” which is also why there’s so many bad movies on Netflix.
I suppose what inspired me to write this is in the wake of the quarantine and one of the most disruptive and destructive economic downturns in the history of the Western world, the ones who understand are the ones asking these bigger questions.
Everything is so broken now because it was broken before, and on my end I’m seeing some very large houses of cards collapsing. I’m also seeing a lot of marketers thinking working from home is going to save the world. I don’t see anyone asking the big questions, like that early one we saw here in Canada: how can we make businesses, employees, and brands essential?