I’d say that it’s the norm, rather than the exception, that start-up SaaS companies rely on agencies to help them execute on some aspect of their strategy as they seek initial traction, begin to grow, and scale their business. This is perhaps more true in marketing than within any other part of an organization. A familiar pattern for me has been relying on relatively low cost agencies, often those that are willing to be put on a monthly retainer where I’ve essentially purchased a limited number of their hours each month, during the early stages of start-up. This limits overhead associated with adding full-time employees and often provides you with access to more experienced talent than you could afford to hire in house – albeit in a limited capacity. As the company begins to grow and generates revenue (or investment dollars) the internal, in-house team begins to be built out. Then at later stages, when a market begins to get increasingly competitive and the company is maturing, new relationships with larger, more established agencies begin to form.
Regardless of whether you’ve followed this pattern or not, it’s usually the responsibility of the head of marketing – albeit a CMO, VP, or Director – to select agencies where appropriate and ultimately work with them to make the relationship successful. And to state the obvious, not all “agencies” are created equal – although a startling a number of them want you to believe that they are “full service” agencies. In my experience, regardless of how they pitch themselves, most agencies have a small number of core competencies on which they can truly deliver significant value. I’ve hired agencies at one point or another for each of the following; search engine optimization, content creation, paid search management, conversion optimization, graphic design, web development, mobile design, and product & brand positioning – but I’ve never hired a single agency to manage all of those areas. Regardless of your need, here are some tips I’ve learned along the way to help you get the most out of your agency relationships.
Tip #1: Loop them in on your strategy. As in, your high level business strategy.
One mistake that I’ve seen all too often is marketers will loop their agency partners into some aspect of their marketing strategy, but not their all encompassing, highest level strategy as a business. You absolutely must think of your agency relationships as a core part of your team – not an extension of your team, not some outside expertise when you need it, but as a day-to-day, starting player on your roster. Open up your corporate playbook to your agency partners (they are more than happy to sign a non-disclosure agreement), and don’t just assume they know what you’re trying to accomplish as a business. Sticking with the sports analogy, you wouldn’t bring a supremely talented free agent onto your football team but not share your playbook with them. If you did that, when the ball was snapped the odds of them running to the right spot and helping you score would be slim to none.
Tip #2: Give them specific KPIs, and share your systems of record.
This is likely the most important item on this list, and pertains not just to your agency relationships but also to your internal employees. Ultimately this is about accountability – how can you hold an agency accountable unless you tell them, specifically, how their success will be measured? As the leader of a marketing organization it’s almost always worth the time to talk to you agency partner about your personal KPIs and how your own success is measured. Maybe it’s marketing qualified leads generated. Maybe it’s revenue. Your agency partners need to know this! Beyond that, spell out specifically for your agency partners which KPIs you are expecting them to influence and how that ties back to both your personal goals and the goals of the company. With a SEO agency, maybe you want to see free trials sign-ups from organic search traffic increase. Show the agency where you are getting that data from – maybe it’s Google Analytics or your CRM – and share with them specifically which report you are looking at. With a Pay-per-click agency maybe you want them to target a customer acquisition cost (CAC) of $1000 to help you keep a healthy Lifetime Value (LTV) to CAC ratio. The more specific you can be, the better.
Tip #3: Define an “owner” for each agency relationship.
For each agency relationship that you have, clearly identify an “owner” of that relationship. It’s that individual’s responsibility to make the relationship successful – not the agency’s job to make that individual successful. And not every agency relationship needs to be owned by the head of marketing; for example, I’m a big fan of having whoever is in charge of content strategy own the relationship with a SEO agency. And ownership should mean ownership – nothing can be more disruptive to an agency relationship than when a CEO or another higher level employee swoops in and redirects an agency’s attention.
Tip #4: Be respectful of your time asks.
Everybody wants to be made to feel special. But the fact of the matter is, unless you’re an enormous brand almost every team that you work with within an agency is likely servicing somewhere between 3 and 8 other clients at the same time that they are servicing you (this is a great question to ask when interviewing agencies). Consider that a reality, and have the wherewithal to recognize that this is how agencies are able to operate profitably. Next time you call your Account Director and ask them to do 10 hours of emergency work for you on Friday at 5:00pm, recognize that it’s not just their weekend that you’re cutting into – they may also have just received similar requests from other clients. The best advice I can lend here is to be honest with yourself when you’re negotiating how much time you’ll need from your agency partner on a month-to-month basis. If you have a major product release in a couple of months that will require a lot of additional time from them, give them a heads up. Ultimately this shows that you are respectful of their time, which will buy you some good will with your agency partner - and will likely result in them bending over backwards for you in those few moments where you may truly need them to go the extra mile on your behalf.
Tip #5: Introduce all of your agency partners.
This one is as straightforward as it gets – if you have multiple agency partners, introduce them all to one another. Better yet, they should all be present in your strategy meetings. Ultimately your partners, regardless of responsibilities, should be sharing information and learning from one another. While many agencies likely offer similar services, you should not be concerned with the agencies you work with trying to steal your business away from one another. If that’s the case it’s a pretty strong indication that you’ve hired the wrong agencies – it’s your job to foster a team environment and make it clear how everyone is expected to contribute.
Tip #6: Don’t expect agency partners to become product experts.
In my experience, particularly with relatively complex software products, you should never expect that your agency partners to become product experts. Almost every time I’ve seen an agency tasked with building out significant product focused content, the results have been lackluster. As mentioned before, agencies have other clients – they simply aren’t going to be able to become true product experts on 2, 3, 5 products at a time. That aside, they don’t have the benefit of living inside your office walls where they can pick up on conversations your sales team is having with prospects about your product, and actually hear your design and development teams engaged in product focused conversations. This challenge is best overcome by pairing your agency up with a true product expert, thus giving them someone to lean on for product expertise and allowing them to focus their energies on the creative process, positioning, or whatever it is that you’ve tasked them with. That said, my own opinion has developed into “product marketing is best done in-house.” If you’re not going to go that route, I think your best bet is to let your product team flesh out the 90% of the work to be done, the guts of the project, and simply let your agency partner apply some finishing polish.
Tip #7: Discuss billing each and every month.
There are countless different ways that you can structure your billing with your agency partners – pay-per-use programs, project based fees, monthly retainers, etc. Regardless of your arrangement, I think it’s simply good practice to discuss billing with your agency partner on a monthly basis. What work was completed? How much were you charged? Were both in line with expectations?
Doing this is not a matter of babysitting. It’s not a matter of trying to squeeze every ounce of efficiency that you can out of your agency partner. Simply setting the expectation that these conversations will be happening regularly signals to your agency partners that you care about your dollars being spent cost effectively. Marketers own marketing budgets, and they are expected to deliver results with the dollars they are spending. This aside, it’s simply good financial management. Your CEO, or whoever it is that you report to, will always rest assured knowing you’re managing your project’s finances appropriately – nobody ever gets fired for delivering good work under budget!
I love working with agencies - they have always been a critical component to my success in the start-ups at which I’ve worked. Agencies have the benefit and perspective that comes from working on campaigns for multiple clients across a number of different verticals - it’s your job to tap into that expertise and ensure that you are being successful together. Follow the 7 tips we’ve discussed above, and you’ll be well on your way!