Are you frustrated being on an in-house marketing team working with external agencies? And vice versa? Client and agency relationships can turn sour for several different reasons, such as unreasonable expectations, misaligned objectives, overselling capabilities, or poor communication of needs.
Today’s guest is Tyler Elliston, founder of Right Side Up. Tyler talks about how his company is structured to set up client relationships for mutual success using basic philosophical and strategic approaches. Actual measures and practical guidance can prevent and avoid problems from starting in the first place.
“Ultimately, our goal is to help them build a best-in-class organization that consists of full-time people, agencies (not us - Right Side Up), whatever sort of makes sense for their business. So, we try to take a more kind of holistic approach to their success.”
“We really invest in individual talent. We really believe that great marketing comes from great marketers.”
“I felt like I had relatively little control over the talent I was working with.”
“In a lot of cases, the problem is not the person. A lot of times, the problem is the structure that the person is in.”
How One Agency is Fixing Client Relationships (And How Yours Can Too) With @tylerelliston From @RightSideUpCo
Ben: Hey, Tyler. How’s it going this afternoon?
Tyler: Doing pretty well.
Ben: Awesome. Glad to hear it. It’s a bit of a long while trying to get this call wind up, but I’m glad where we’re able to connect now.
Tyler: Likewise. I’m glad to be here.
Ben: My understanding is that you decided to start your own agency because you felt the agencies that you have been working with at past jobs when you were an in-house marketer failed you. Where exactly do you feel that those agencies went wrong?
Tyler: A good question. Certainly didn’t all fail me and certainly, in a lot of ways, frankly I was a hard client as well. But it is true that, in the broadest sense, there were many times as a founder and as an in-house marketing leader that I did not find what I was looking for.
I found myself about six years ago freelancing and enjoying it, and thinking I want to start another company and I had thought it would be more on the products side. As I started imagining how I could do something a little bit different on the services side, it admittedly got me really excited thinking about, I don’t want to do the sort of agency as it’s traditionally considered. I really want to change the model, do something a little bit different.
Ben: For your agency at Right Side Up, what does different look like? If you could summarize briefly—as I imagine, that might be a big question—what does different look like to you for an agency?
Tyler: Part of it is the pricing model. We typically charge hourly even when we’re managing paid media budgets. I’m just not on a percent spend, so part of this pricing. Part of it is general support of in-house staffing. A lot of our clients want to build in-house teams and we help them do that. We sit on interview panels, build their job descriptions.
Ultimately, our goal is to help them build a best-in-class organization. They consist of full-time people. Agency’s not us (Right Side Up), whatever sort of makes sense for their business. We try to take a more holistic approach to their success.
The last thing I would highlight, kind of on the short list is we really invest in individual talent. We really believe that great marketing comes from great marketers. We have prospective clients interview the person that will be doing the work before they ever sign an agreement. That’s the kind of thing that is fairly hard to find from a traditional agency.
Ben: Certainly. Kind of rewinding back a bit to your experience as an in-house marketer, and keeping in mind that you’ve acknowledged that you may have been a difficult client. I imagine you maybe have a different perspective on it now that you’re on the agency side, which is certainly understandable. But at the time when you were dealing with headaches or what you perceived to be headaches with those agencies, how did you approach dealing with those, or compensating for that, or just walking around what you felt were difficulties in that relationship?
Tyler: This is where I would say I was not a great client because in some cases I would treat agencies more like a transactional vendor, which is not what I was looking for and it’s not what they’re typically looking for. I would aggressively ask for a new account manager. There was a time when I had a really good account manager. I really want to hire the person full-time. I was looking through the agreement and seeing if there’s a no poaching clause, like trying to find a way to hire that person.
Sometimes, it was trying to hire. Sometimes, it’s just trying to get a new account rep. Sometimes, it just changes the way I deal with the point person. The big problems that I kept running into that I was trying to solve through one of these solutions one was that I feel like I have really little control over that talent I was working with.
I would sign an agreement—often the 6- or 12-month commitment—and I was committing without knowing who is going to be doing the work. Then you get on a kick-off call to get you started, get another somebody, it’s like, you’ve been doing this for six months and you joined three months ago. Somebody with that talent, lack of control, and then someone who was just structural.
A lot of agencies are very good at applying a playbook. A lot of my experiences were really early-stage. I didn’t need a playbook. I needed creativity. I needed someone that really could understand the business more fundamentally than what you can get on a kick-off call. I found that pretty hard to get from an agency, much less somebody would tell me, you don’t have product/market fit. You don’t need to be trying to scale Facebook advertising. People like your product enough. Maybe you shouldn’t hire us yet. That kind of owner mentality shared with me is very hard to find.
Ben: Certainly. It sounds like it hinges on two things. It’s hard to find agencies that aren’t just going to run a script with you. If you come to them, they have a preset suite of services that they’ll provide and offer you the best, to try to get you to buy the thing that best serves them. That kind of covers both points of those envisioning in my head there, but yeah I certainly agree. That’s unfortunately quite common when what you were really looking for is someone who’s not going to try to come to you with the prescribed solution right away. They’re going to work with you to figure out what your situation is like, what’s really your best path forward, whatever that might be.
Tyler: Yes, and certainly, there are a couple times that kind of stick out when I was looking for external support. One was I was the founder and raised venture capital, and it’s really a situation I alluded to a moment ago. We really did not have product/market fit. I thought we had a marketing problem.
I would go to agency after agency, consultant after consultant, saying what do I need to do? What do I need to do? Everybody that I talked to was more than willing to just say, oh this is what I can do for you. This is what I can do for you. This is what I can do for you. But none of it made sense for me.
That was one scenario. The later scenario was an early-stage VP of Marketing where we did have a degree of product/market fit but we were starting to spend our first $15,000–$20,000 a month and trying to make that profitable. That’s where you need the best practices but you need them applied in a really nuanced way to a unique business and unique space.
Certainly, there are great people and agencies that can do this. One that I recall, particularly fondly, again in Diego at 3Q, doing a paid search. He was great. He is strategic and can think outside the rigid playbook. But that’s hard to find and it’s hard to predictably find when it’s often hard to know who you’re going to be working with up front.
Ben: Certainly. The answer to my next question, I feel, might in some ways just be a rephrasing of a lot of points you’ve already touched on, but I’m going to throw it out there. At what point did you decide to launch Right Side Up? Going back to the prelaunch to one you launched, what were some of the things specifically that you vowed that you were going to do differently? What were some of those things that you drew a line in the sand and decided this is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re not going to do?
Tyler: I didn’t decide to start Right Side Up until I committed that I wanted to start another company. I was freelancing to fund product development. As I mentioned I started coming before but that was just a different stage of life. I had kids at the time. I remember looking back at that first experience and recalling that it took a year from conceiving the idea to raising money and having some kind of salary.
When I look at them, my gosh I need some cash flow, so if I’m going to do this… It was really the first time I’ve been on the services side as a marketer. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it because I just had these negative connotations. The more I did it and enjoyed it, and I was thinking about starting a company, albeit a different kind, it was a gradual process where I started thinking, could I start a business on the services side that’s bigger than just me? If so, how can that be authentic to my experiences today?
To answer your question really directly about the lines in the sand, I basically made a list of my past frustrations and said we’re going to do the opposite. We don’t ever want a client to feel bait-and-switched by who they get, so we’re going to have them interview the person who will be happy to work before they sign an agreement.
I didn’t like that I couldn’t poach people, so we’re going to have a pro-poaching clause in all of our agreements, which is kind of crazy. No long-term contracts, seven-day termination on all agreements. You just kind of go down the list. It’s like, all right, I was frustrated about that, I was frustrated about that. Let’s just do the opposite.
The biggest probably is just radical transparency and candor, like telling a company we’re not the best fit for you. We’d love to work with you but you actually do need a traditional agency for this, or I don’t think you need any external provider here. I think you need an FTE. You’re not going to get what you’re looking for. That kind of honesty is really refreshing. It’s refreshing to them, it’s refreshing to us. We feel like we have integrity and we’re not doing work, signing up for things we don’t believe we can knock out of the park.
We just found that even if we don’t get to work with the company at that moment, it gets so much good will. It kind of goes back to that perspective that I was looking for when I was a founder. I needed somebody to tell me you’re wasting your money. You don’t have product/market fit. As hard as that is for us to deliver that message to founders now, we absolutely do. Even those things a little bit they tend to appreciate it.
Ben: If some of this conversation is feeling a little too familiar in ways that might be uncomfortable, then take some solace in knowing that you’re not the only one who has either: (a) be on the receiving end of some unfortunate treatment in an agency-client relationship, and (b) you’re not the first person to ask how those relationships be made to work a bit better.
One simple tip that can alleviate a lot of frustration is to set more reasonable expectations, both for yourself and for your external stakeholders that you’re working with, whether that means waiting until Monday to send a project request, or simply being upfront with the prospective client about what you can or cannot do. This is where it really sounds like a lot of problems start. Unfortunately, it can also be where a lot of solutions begin as well. Now, back to Tyler.
I imagined it’s very true. That’s got to be very liberating to not be in a position where clients come to you and your mission is just to do whatever it takes to just get them to sign a deal and take as much money as you can until they burn out and churn, and then the cycle repeats.
If you say that that’s off the table, you’re really going to try to do things the way that you believe is the right way to do them, in some cases that might mean leaving money on the table. That there’s probably some challenges with that, too. What were some of the biggest challenges that you may have faced when you were starting the agency and how did you solve those?
Tyler: Starting any company is just hard. In our case, certainly in the early days doing it alone is hard. Recruiting early team members is hard. Building early credibility in the marketplace with potential customers is very hard. Building systems and structures so that you can prepare to scale is really hard. The list goes on and on.
The ones that have probably been the hardest have been maintaining just a really high bar, just really high standards for the people that we hire for all of our client work. Of course, we’re not going to back 1000%, but that is really challenging as you move from an individual to a small team, where an individual still has a lot of oversight, to increasingly a larger team where there’s minimal oversight, to a large team where there’s no oversight. There are systems in place to make sure everything runs smoothly.
That’s definitely been a hard one as we’ve been building the plane as we’re flying it. We want to work with as many companies as possible, but truthfully, if we work with every company that comes to us that we could, it would probably break, and we would probably have to sacrifice quality in a way that we wouldn’t want to.
I guess quickly on how I dealt with it, the biggest thing I can say is just hiring great people that can help solve those problems. I undervalued that even at the beginning of this company, just how important it was because there just comes a point in time where you reach even moderate scale where you just can’t do everything yourself, and if you can’t share responsibilities and trust, honestly it’s going to be done really well, it just kind of breaks down. I know it’s kind of a cliché and a simplistic answer, but it really is true.
Ben: It may be true that that sounds like a simple answer, but it’s extremely difficult to get right. There’s definitely more demand than supply for talent at that level, I would say. I don’t think that that’s overly simplistic by any means, and if it’s a cliché, it’s a cliché for a reason. You really cannot do anything else until you get that right. I 100% hear what you’re saying there.
For anyone who’s had an agency right now, is listening to this, and is maybe feeling some degree of anxiety, that maybe they are doing some of these things that you are actively telling them that you wouldn’t do yourself—at least not anymore—how would you recommend somebody in that position start to take steps to as an agency marketer to better serve their clients in a way that is maybe better suited toward putting the client first rather than the agency?
Tyler: Totally, and I think one word of encouragement for such people. In a lot of cases the problem is not the person. A lot of times the problem is the structure that the person is in, and the structure just is not quite aligned with a client’s desires or interests. In those situations, it’s not the individual’s fault. It’s just a hard situation to be in.
The way that I would encourage anybody that finds himself in that situation to drive customer satisfaction, is to really—to the extent that they can—apply an owner’s mentality to the client’s business. Even if you’re on five clients at once, for those 10 hours a week or 8 hours a week that you’re on that one client, treat it as if it were your own. Ask the hard questions that maybe you don’t have to know the answer to do your job, but if you were the owner of that business you would certainly ask.
I’m running Facebook ads. Are these view through conversions actually incremental? If we didn’t run this ad, will we still see the same number of conversions? That’s intellectual curiosity and drive to make sure that $1 in turns into $2 coming out. I think that as a core is what most clients want. It’s one of the hardest things when your hands are in a really rigid structure, and there’s multiple account owners. It’s hard to really deliver that mindset. That would be the most valuable thing I could offer.
Ben: Absolutely. That’s clear and actionable enough, certainly for listeners to be able to do something with that advice. On the flip side of that, for an in-house marketer who might also be listening to this and might also be maybe hearing or seeing a little bit too much of themselves they feel in regards to some of the things that you had mentioned earlier about just being a difficult client for an agency to work with, what could in-house marketers maybe do just to maybe recalibrate their expectations a bit, or to just not be difficult to the point where they might actually be the one sabotaging that relationship just through their own attitude?
Tyler: A few things, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with having high standards and applying them. Where it becomes (I’ll say) difficult as a client is one, misaligned expectations upfront. Truthfully, my expectations of going to an agency and having them tell me you don’t have product/market fit, I would have loved that. But a lot of the agencies that I was going to don’t claim to be able to do that. That’s not part of their services.
Part of it is just being really clear with what your expectations are and making sure that they’re actually signing up to deliver on them. If I had said that to some of the agencies that I approached, they probably would have told me and I probably would not have been disappointed because it would have been cleared up. So definitely communication expectations.
The other is to really treat an agency partner like a capable marketer, and challenge them to be that, expect them to be that. Along with that, give them the chance to be that. A lot of companies, sometimes it’s because they’ve had bad experiences, but they just view agencies as very transactional partners that you can just sort of abuse. If I send you something on a Friday night, Saturday morning get on a call.
We strive—I say we as Right Side Up, even though we’re a bit of a different model—to exceed people’s expectations, even when they’re really high, like responding to email over the weekend. But a client that says, on Friday night we need to get on a call first thing tomorrow, and with no regard that there might be an issue there, or without appreciation communicated upfront, that’s just tough. Anybody that falls in that bucket, I would advise them to treat them like your employee.
Ben: I think it’s a good start. Treat people like people.
Tyler: Yes, thank you. Yes, exactly.
Ben: For sure. Well, Tyler, this has been awesome. You’ve been able to provide a lot of unique first-hand insight to both sides of this conversation. I really appreciate it and I’m sure our audience will as well. If people want to find you or to find Right Side Up online, where should they go? What’s the best place to track you down?
Tyler: rightsideup.com is our website. Certainly, anybody should feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Message me there. I would say our website and LinkedIn would be great.
Ben: Very cool. That does it for all the questions I had for you. Thanks again for your time and for sharing your insight with us.
Tyler: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.
Ben was the Inbound Marketing Director at CoSchedule. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.