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Sad but true, some marketing agencies try to sell services to clients based on what’s best and most important for the agency, not their client. When and how do you know that you’ve made the mistake of partnering with the wrong agency for the wrong reasons based on what seemed like a solid sales pitch?
Today’s guest is John Bertino, founder and CEO of The Agency Guy (TAG), a marketing consultancy that connects clients with agencies. John knows what it takes to create a successful client/agency relationship, and what businesses and marketers need to consider when shopping for an agency.
Some of the highlights of the show include:
Ben: Would you mind introducing yourself and just sharing what you do with our listeners?
John: Sure thing, Ben, and thanks for having me. My name is John Bertino, the founder and CEO of a company called The Agency Guy. We’re based out of Philadelphia these days, that’s our headquarters, but we did originally launch a company six years ago in San Diego and we currently have offices in both. We’ve got a unique marketing consultancy. Should I dig into that?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. By all means, I would love to hear all about it.
John: Okay, cool. Unique consultancy as I said, we’re a collective of five experienced digital marketing executives, every one of us with at least a decade or more of experience, either doing marketing or providing marketing services for clients, or working at agencies ourselves. We are backed by a collection of about 200 different carefully selected agencies and consultants.
What we do and what our model is, is to consult with brands of all sizes. We really do consult with brands that are small mom-and-pop all the way up to enterprise level. We’ve got some great testimonials on our site from the large clients. We consult with clients generally pro bono, meaning at no cost, in an effort to help essentially demystify some of the various marketing channels, and make sure brands are investing in the correct marketing strategies, the correct marketing channels, and ultimately, with the correct teams. In many ways, it’s almost like we’re an interim pro bono CMO for a week or a month as we help guide them through this process.
Ben: Just connecting clients with not just agencies but with the right agencies and the right talent.
John: That’s right and taking great care to make sure they’re putting the dollars in the right channels to begin with. We spend just as much time talking people into investing in certain channels as we do talking them out of investing in certain channels.
Ben: Sometimes that’s necessary too.
John: Yeah, if you’re a good consultant, you should absolutely be doing that.
Ben: Absolutely. I think this is an area that you’ve obviously got a lot of experience and I think you’re very well qualified to answer this next question. What are three of the top problems that you see with the traditional agency clients, marketing model, or marketing relationship?
John: First and foremost, the one big problem and the core problem we set out to solve is the fact there’s just too many marketing teams. The barriers to entry to call yourself an agency or consultant are incredibly low. They’re basically nonexistent if we’re honest about it. As a result of those low barriers to entry or non-existing barriers to entry, there’s just simply too many teams.
The landscape is extremely cluttered, and brands if they haven’t been burned already are probably set up to get burned and are frustrated. Those that have been through the wringer with this are extremely frustrated. That’s the biggest problem and the one we look to address, but a few of the side effects of this situation, if you will, is that to start a lot of agencies will give biased advice based on what they’re good at, and I think a lot of them don’t even actually realize this.
If you’re an agency that has a backbone and a specialization and say, I’m just choosing any marketing channel, say SEO, there’s an unfortunate tendency for that agency or consultant to try to solve a brand’s problems, or needs, or situation with SEO, because that’s what they know. Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, let’s say instead they’re more of a branding, a creative, focused agency, same situation there, whether they know it or not. A lot of them are prone to trying to solve a brand’s desire for more clients by saying you need better creative, your website is too weak, your brand messaging, we need to address that. Sometimes, that’s the case. Oftentimes, it’s not.
There’s this weird situation that happens where the advice and guidance the brands are getting are coming from a subjective source, and of course, our model is designed to be extremely objective. Those are the big issues that we’re navigating through. Something else though that comes to mind to your question about challenges and issues?
John: I found that with many of these small boutique teams that are trying to grow as fast as possible, and in that process sacrificing all kinds of things that are fundamentally a key to just operating a business, they’re more focused on cashing in on the trend, the desire for marketing services, the need for marketing services, because there is plenty, and they’re growing too fast, and a lot of them are hiring inexpensive workers to execute to keep prices low.
Let me put all that together. There’s this trend, people need marketing. They know digital marketing is hot. It just is, SEO, Pay-Per-Click, Web. Everybody needs it, everybody wants it. There’s this low barrier to entry, everybody’s offering to do it, and then the best people often are working the sales calls or the forward facing people that get on the call with you or the owner themselves. But then when the client comes through they get passed off to some entry level, lower level employee that can’t talk the talk, doesn’t really know what’s going on, and they became a client in the first place, and this lies on the clients themselves, because they were baited in by the low prices, but a lot of times that low pricing shows itself in the support you actually get from the agency itself.
Ben: Absolutely. It’s a lot of things, you get what you pay for.
John: 100%, and for some reason, I’m sure you’ve experienced this. For some reason, brands don’t think that that doesn’t apply when it comes to marketing, and they’re often trying to get to the lowest or cheapest solution to their marketing problems, and rarely if ever, is it the right way to go about it.
Ben: That’s interesting. Knowing that that is a common problem, and I would guess, but I’ll let you answer. Some that probably just comes from, like if I’m a marketing manager, I have limited resources and I’ve got stretched out as far as I can go, so that low dollar agency offered starts to look pretty good under those circumstances. How do you steer companies away from that? If someone is really thinking like, oh, well, this other agency told me they could do everything for $1000 a month. How do you get people out of that mindset and convey to them the hard truth that if they want quality and they want results, they’re going to have to pay for it?
John: It’s not easy, but I will say that this is less a problem with the marketing managers you put it on, because usually, they’re not always, that marketing manager knows better. They know what it takes. It’s more a problem when the owner of a company tasks themselves with sourcing the agency, and they’re trying to keep costs low, but they don’t really understand marketing. It’s more often a symptom of when it’s essentially not a true marketing professional, or one that’s inexperienced.
We do find a lot of situations where the person has been tasked with doing marketing in a company, and then hiring the marketing support. In companies that are $1 million, $2 million, $10 million a year, they still oftentimes will have one individual that’s responsible for just everything. In situations like that, a lot of times where that person doesn’t truly know what it takes to drive results with an inbound marketing strategy, SEO strategy, they’re less informed as they should be with the Pay-Per-Click strategy. That’s what the landscape looks like. Your question was, I believe, how do you help educate them?
John: My answer was it’s not easy. I think the first thing is taking the time to talk through in a transparent way about what goes into this, while making a point not to try to talk over people’s heads, or impress them with fancy marketing jargon, inbound this, omnichannel that, and I don’t even know. I used to try to use such a little jargon that it doesn’t even really come to me naturally, but a willingness to take the time and educate which is a recurring theme for us. It starts with that.
Ben: I love that advice. I think if we’re talking marketer to marketers, that jargon would make a lot more sense. But you say omnichannel to a normal person and it’s just like, oh, no idea what that is.
John: That’s right. You should segment by audience persona based on their position in the buyers’ journey. It doesn’t do a lot of good unless the person on the other end of the phone really follows you. I think for some–not everybody, but for some–the sales strategy is, hey, if I throw out big words that sound attractive, I’ll sound like I know what I’m talking about, doesn’t matter if they understand. In fact, maybe it’s better they don’t, and that’ll help me win this deal. What that ultimately does is it doesn’t set the right expectations because the person on the other end of the phone didn’t understand what the hell you were actually saying. If I could pick one thing that results in a successful client relationship, it’s setting the right expectations.
Ben: Setting expectations, obviously, it’s huge, because everything that you do from that point on starts with that. I think that leads into this next question well. If I’m an in house marketer, and I’m listening to this, and I may be someone who on some level would be tasked with hiring external marketing support, in some capacity. What would be some things that you would recommend that I do so that from the client side, I can help set mutually understood expectations? How can I communicate what my expectations are and how can I set reasonable expectations for what I think an agency can accomplish?
John: Essentially, is at the heart of your question, how can the client be a better client, or is it how essentially, what are some tips for choosing the right agency? Which direction should I go with that?
Ben: I would take it more in the direction of like, if I’m a client, how can I make sure that I’m a good client? If that relationship ends up not working out, how can I know that at least I did what I should have done within reasonable bounds, to set myself and the agency up for success?
John: The first thing I would say is be coachable. Be coachable. Try to take the ego out of it. Ego is such a dirty word I feel like in our society, but we all have it. If you look at the classic definition, if I could do a quick detour here. The classic definition of ego, which comes from Eastern philosophy, is less about a braggadocio, it’s more about a perception of ourselves that we cling to. We want to try to remove that tendency to cling to a perception of ourselves as the smartest guy in the room, or the agencies equal necessarily.
The agency is supposed to be your strategist, you’re hiring them for their expertise. If you think you made the right decision, try to put the ego aside–we’re talking about the client side now–and be receptive and coachable, be willing and ready to learn. That would be the first thing I would say. Probably part and parcel to that even before you hire the agency back to this recurring theme of being both coachable but also, I’m going to use the word to learn it, try to be educated up front. Don’t go into a complex purchase without having any knowledge or education on what it is you’re going to buy. I think we all know the pitfalls. In fact, I touched on them earlier of trying to get all of your knowledge from the salesperson you’re dealing with. You should go into the hiring process initially being privy, and self-aware, or educated to things such as the pros and cons of the different marketing channels, for example.
For example Paid Media versus SEO, versus inbound, versus branding. Try to be self-educated on what actually goes into those different marketing channels, the pros and cons of all of them, and they all have pros. This will help you have more realistic expectations–there’s that phrase again–as well as being able to better discern if you’re getting good advice and good recommendations from the agency or consultant trying to sell you their services.
Lastly, part and parcel to that whole idea of being educated, going through that process of being at least partially self-educated will help you set a more realistic budget. Not only should you have a realistic budget, you should have somewhat of a defined budget, and I see it all the time as someone that matchmakes agencies with brands that the buyer is often very guarded with what they have to spend. That doesn’t exactly set the expectation up for the best success.
I get it, you’re trying to be careful, you don’t want to show your cards, you’re trying to do the dance a little bit. But when the agency has no idea what you’re willing to invest, they’re gonna tend to basically give you the lowest price that they’re comfortable offering, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best price to get you the results you want. In fact, rarely are the two ever the same thing.
I think if you’re more honest about what results you want to accomplish, and then at least give the agency somewhat of a range for what you’re comfortable spending, will not only be able to better prepare a plan that’s customized to your expectations, you’ll be able to save you time, if they can’t achieve what it is you’re looking for, at the rate you’re looking to it.
Ben: Something that’s worth keeping in mind whether you work at an agency, or you’re shopping for an agency, is that tendency for agencies to lean into their own strengths, rather than trying to match their available services to the needs of a client.
What’s interesting about that, though, is that agencies oftentimes as John says, they’re not always aware that they’re falling into that trap themselves. It would be very cynical to believe that the majority of agencies out there are just out to get your money regardless of what actual value they can provide, and I don’t think that that’s the case, and I don’t think that John believes that that’s what agencies are trying to do, either.
With that said, it’s very important for you to be a smart marketer, a smart business operator, and just know what you’re looking for when you go looking for agencies, and also for agencies, whether for agency owners or those who work at an agency, to really know what your strengths actually are, and to be honest about that. You can set yourself and your clients up for success. In either case, I think maybe the simplest way to put it is it pays to know yourself.
Let’s say I’m that same in house marketer. I’ve done my due diligence, done my research. I know what I’m shopping for roughly. What would be the top three things that you would advise that I look for when I’m shopping around for an agency?
John: Good one. I love this question because you’re going to get different things from me than I think you would the cliche things. A quick Google search will turn up things which, I don’t disagree with, such as look at case studies, ask for references, what are their credentials, things like that, and I think those are all good ideas. Let me give you some next level stuff. If I could, that’s what I’m here for. I’m The Agency Guy.
John: The first and at risk of sounding redundant, but I’d say this is the number one thing is in addition to being coachable, you should look for an agency that’s willing to coach you. I would avoid an agency that’s too quick to say, yeah, we got this stuff that’s called SEO. It will move you up the rankings. We charge X dollars a month or whatever. Look, I appreciate the candor and directness, but if you have questions as the buyer, you should ask them and you should look for someone that’s willing to give you a clear, transparent, methodical answer, rather than someone that’s looking to talk over your head, or rather than someone gives you the short, snappy answer.
Look for someone that’s willing to provide guidance and insight, because it’s a good indication that that’s the way the agency functions, they want you to understand, they want to teach you, they want to work in tandem with you to make a successful partnership, so that’s the first.
Other stuff, which I think is a little less obvious, I always recommend the buyer to try to get the person on the phone during the sales process that they would actually be working with. I’ve made a reference to this earlier, these agencies even if they’re good, great, ethical, perfect teams they still tend to put their best talkers on the phone, and that’s almost all the time that’s not who you’re going to be working with.
We are staunch believers here at The Agency Guy that the personality of your agency matters, but a lot of ways the personality 90% or 75% of it actually comes back to who it is you’re working with. Regardless of the culture of an organization, regardless of the culture of the President, although those things do matter, the person you’re working with in a lot of ways is your impression of that agency to try to get them on the phone. Lastly, you asked for three things, so I’ll give you a third.
I would look out for agencies that call themselves full service. I know you mentioned this earlier, or I think you made reference to it. I want to give a few caveats here up front to be fair. First, there are a few teams that really do great full service work, but usually, they’re bigger. By bigger, we’ll define big as 35 people plus, even that would be pushing it to be a true full service, omnichannel agency, that’s small.
Agencies that are sub 35 employees, be careful if they say full service. Some of those teams when they say full service, they’re trying to be quick and snappy to say that we can find some way to solve all your needs, whether it’s through our partners or whatever, but right there, that’s not the same thing. It’s one thing to be full service, it’s another thing to have partners that help you execute certain things.
In general, a team that is small and says they’re full service is going to let you down in general. Here’s a pro tip for you on that point. If an agency tells you they’re full service, you’re having a hard time understanding what they’re really good at. A simple but effective hack is to go to their website and look at their navigation, and the top four most things that they feature in their navigation are actually the areas that they like to focus on and they do best. If they’ve got 10 service offerings, those last 3, 4, 5 are going to be the weakest areas.
Ben: That is so simple. That’s so telling about where their heads are at and what they consider their own priorities to be. I think that’s super smart, and to flip this around a little bit over to the agency side. For our agency listeners of the show, what would be three pieces of advice you would offer to them just for simple things that they can do to just improve the way that they manage client relationships and the way that they interface with their clients? What can they do to make sure that they are doing what they should be doing, to make sure the client is getting what they should be getting out of that relationship?
John: There are more than one ways to skin a cat, there’s more than one way to grow an agency. By no means are what I believe to be best practices, the best practices for everybody. Let’s just put that out there up front. I’m a believer in slow, controlled, methodical growth. Detail oriented and puts the customer first, but as crazy as it sounds, not every agency looks at it that way. They’d scoff at that, many feel that’s unrealistic and that’s fine for them.
For those that resonate with; slow, controlled, methodical growth that puts the customer first. Here’s what I would say one, set clear expectations. Did I say that yet?
Ben: Detecting a theme.
John: Yeah, but I can’t emphasize it enough. You will get less unhappy clients if your salespeople and your execution staff, your account executives, your project managers are very focused on setting clear, honest expectations, and taking the time to educate, all recurring themes. Here are three things I didn’t talk about yet. On that note, when you hire, it is my recommendation that you prioritize communication in the hiring process, because what I’ve seen quite a few times with agencies that are really good, really strong, really truly know what they’re doing is the people that actually interact with the accounts are not great communicators.
It’s somewhat lacking in the current generation, let’s say 22 to 32-ish, and I don’t want to pick on that age bracket, but it’s just a known fact that communication skills are not as strong in that age group, and nothing loses clients faster than someone that can’t clearly articulate the concepts, but also just not a good communicator. What I do see again, from really good agencies, is they hire people that are good subject matter experts, and that’s definitely an awesome thing, but they’ll still lose the clients because their staff just aren’t good communicators, so that would be number one.
Similarly, building upon that, it has been my experience representing some 200 different agencies and consultants. We’ve been doing this for six years, prior to that I was in marketing services for almost a decade. It has been my experience that teams that pay more and have more experienced staff perform better and keep clients than those that–we made reference to this earlier–that hire more entry level, lower employees to keep prices down.
It is almost one to one that when the prices are really low, the support staff is more junior. When the support staff is more junior, my experience is that the work suffers. The trend I see across agencies is those that hire more senior level staff, and they pay more to get them, they have happier clients.
Lastly, one more point would be this notion of full service agency. The flipside is I would say to agencies, generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to try to be full service or to position yourself as full service. Right there, I can hear the groans and the groans on the other end of the podcast, and people calling BS. That’s fine. You want to be full service, be full service, but the agencies I’ve seen that are growing the fastest in a controlled, methodical way and having the most success, are those that position themselves as niche and there’s two different ways to be niche, and you can be both.
That’s a niche in terms of offering you can be an SEO focus team when you start. We’re mostly talking about your early years. You can be a branding focused agency when you start, or you can be niched in terms of vertical. You can be specific to healthcare, you can be specific to software, you can be specific to real estate. Those agencies clean up because they’re clear on who they are and what they’re good at, and they have that specialization that helps them win deals.
Trust me, I’m the guy that connects brands with agencies that the agencies with the specialization in the industry that the client wants, win more often. Almost sounds obvious coming out of my mouth, and yet most agencies do the opposite of specialize. There would be my three tips for young agencies.
Ben: That about does it for all the questions I had prepared for you. I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show. Before I let you go, I just want to ask is there anything like one other thing pertinent to any area of this conversation that you feel is really important that you didn’t get an opportunity to get out there?
John: I would say that the process we have it tagged, the way we make sure that brands are getting the right agencies, is the process that we call four steps to worry free marketing. That starts with our ability to sit down with that brand, take the time to understand them, the resources they do or don’t have internally, meaning most of the manpower, things they’re able or unable to execute. Then creating essentially a high level custom strategy, which is to bring in a team that complements those resources they do or don’t have, is savvy in the areas where they need help. If they’re coachable, they’ll be willing for us to make recommendations on where we think they’re going to get the best bang for their buck, et cetera, so on and so forth.
The third step is we connect them with a vetted, proven partner that we know thrives in those areas, and ideally thrives in their industry. Fourth, we look to measure performance, we expect that agency to produce results, and we follow up on our side with both parties to make sure they do.
It’s our feeling that with this four step process of consulting, custom strategy, vetted agency partner performance that we’re setting most brands up for success. That’s our goal, and that’s our process, and we encourage everyone to reach out that would like a free consultation, so we have an opportunity to make sure they’re investing in the right track strategies with the right partners.
Ben: Thanks once again for coming on the show, and take care with everything that’s going on right now.
John: Will do. I appreciate you having me. If anyone needs more information, they can go to theagencyguy.com/coschedule.
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