I’ve worked for digital agencies for nearly 7 years. During this time, I’ve encountered many potential sticking points and spoken with countless other people in digital agency roles who’ve found themselves tackling the same problems.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a post looking at 6 core areas of digital marketing agency life; with a focus on some of the issues you may face within those areas and how you can go about successfully resolving them:
- Expectations Not Matching the Contract
- Lack of Budget
- Things Moving Too Slowly & Processes Lacking Efficiency
- Internal Burnout
- Clients Not Understanding the Value
- Neglecting Internal Marketing
Whilst the climate in digital right now is very disrupted; hopefully these tips can either provide some immediate benefit, or help you to make improvements for when we come out the other side.
Expectations Not Matching the Contract
The initial assessment, pitch and proposal process for securing new work can make or break the success of each future client relationship. It’s so important to get things right from the off, otherwise you risk being left with a client that holds mismatched expectations and a team unable to deliver the results being asked of them.
1. Audit Thoroughly
Before you pitch for new work or send out new contracts to sign, don’t neglect your initial audit process. You’ll never have a better time to:
- Understand the potential client’s positioning in their industry
- Explore opportunities for them to exploit
- Gauge the areas of marketing they would benefit the most from
- Discuss initial ideas and concerns from your team
- Create accurate pricing structure options
Armed with this knowledge, you can work with your sales and marketing teams to ensure the proposals you create are accurate, detailed and positioned around pricing points that can be justified and explained to the client.
Longer term, if the client comes on board, your team will then be left to manage an account where they’re able to realistically deliver against client expectations. With everyone on the same page, you’ll improve internal and external relationships and prevent a whole manner of issues occurring further down the line.
2. Deliver Clear Pitches & Proposals
The pitch and proposal stages will set the precedent for any future client relationships you forge. It’s vital to treat these early dealings with the utmost importance. Whilst you want to encourage input from both parties here, you should also be thinking very carefully about what you commit to. This will help you manage expectations in terms of results and communication.
Here are some things to consider in your initial discussions internally and with clients:
- Explain to clients that more complex design and development work will either take up hefty chunks of their budget, or require separate billing
- Be up front with clients about how involved specific work is, but also explain why it’s vital. For example, an amazing content piece with unique research, data viz, outreach etc.
- Involve different departments of the agency to ensure promises can be delivered upon
- Be honest and realistic about any goals you set, both internally and externally
- Let clients know exactly how many hours their fee will get them
- Explain to clients that calls, meetings and correspondence will need to be accounted for as part of the fee they agree to. This may encourage them to invest more and they’ll appreciate your honesty
Above all else, honesty and transparency will stand you in good stead here and prevent the likelihood of things coming back to bite you. If everyone is on the same page in terms of deadlines, time required for work, what everything costs and what can be expected, you’ll fare far better.
Whilst you might consider some of these points to be counterproductive to pitching for new business, they’ll make for a far more harmonious relationship long-term. Your team will also thank you for enabling them to work under more realistic conditions.
Investing in a tool such as Proposify can be a great way to build engaging proposals that enable you to clearly communicate key campaign information and pricing structures.
3. Get the Pricing Right
Pricing your services at a level that’s competitive, realistic and profitable is not easy, but it will help all parties if you can get as close to being right here as possible.
For your staff, you need to ensure that the demands you’re placing upon them are achievable within the budget you’ve secured for them. If you don’t give them enough time to achieve the results you want, you can’t complain when they aren’t able to deliver.
Equally, you need to be upfront with your clients here too. Ask them what they want to achieve, conduct assessment to determine whether you think their aims are realistic and pitch them a fee that reflects these facts.
Offering two different price points, with accompanying targets, can help them see what they’d get with their additional budget.
Don’t be afraid to price your services at a higher level if you know that you can deliver better results for the client. Similarly, it’s okay to start on a lower contract and build the value, then go back for more budget if you and your client are happy with how things are progressing.
Some things you can do to help your cause here include:
- Communicating closely with your teams, to understand what budget they would ideally need to hit each client’s targets
- Being honest with clients about what their fee gets them and showing confidence that you can justify the fee you pitch for
- Creating case studies around different services to show you can justify the investment and persuade them to choose you
- Not being afraid to turn down potential clients that don’t align with your way of working
4. Create Educational Documentation
Whilst digital marketing can seem very accessible to those working within the industry, it can be easy to forget just how little people outside of the bubble know about its value, the many different associated services and what it actually costs to achieve true success.
During the process of securing new work, you only have limited time to persuade people of your value. Even with a couple of meetings, calls and emails, you may find that you’re struggling to get all your points across.
This is where it can be great to have a stack of useful company documentation that you’ve created around your services. Example documentation could be things like:
- Case studies around specific types of services or campaigns
- Educational content around search engine algorithms and how they work
- Explanation of how specific marketing techniques generate results
- Onboarding documentation detailing how clients can expect their accounts to grow over time
This documentation can help in a number of ways:
- You’ll educate your clients, so that they better understand what they’re paying for and what they can expect for their money
- In turn, this will ensure that when the team works with new clients, they’re not left using the monthly budgets as much to make the same points and educate from scratch each time
- You’ll be able to use these documents over and over again. Over time, you’ll build and expand your library to the point where you’re absolutely bossing new client accounts from scratch and building better relationships in the process
Lack of Budget
Poorly-priced accounts and one-off commissions are going to bring pain for your team and the clients you work with. There needs to be a strong mutual understanding across the board; regarding what can be achieved for the accepted price and what needs to happen if more spend is required.
5. Reassess Budget Focus
Not every contract will allow for you to do everything you want to. For example:
- Content: You might not be able to go as big on content ideas as you’d like to
- PPC: The budget might not allow for incredibly granular build-outs and you may only have time to focus on a more streamlined account structure
- Email: You might know how valuable email automation could be but not have the budget to try it.
If you start looking at your budgets over longer periods however (such as 6 months), some of those things that don’t seem realistic within a month may become more achievable. For each account you work upon, try making a to-do-list for the next 6-12 months of:
- Essential monthly account maintenance tasks
- Meetings and catch-ups
- Essential incremental improvements
- Key things the client needs
What time do you have left? If it’s a few hours each month, what does that add up to in 3 months? Or 6 months? Could that time be combined towards a larger, more ambitious task, such as a link building campaign?
If it could, consider putting this into play amongst your other work and explain to the client why you’re doing it; as well as the value it will have.
Ultimately, even if you’re not happy with the budget you have, you need to deliver the most value you can with it. That can only be judged on an account-to-account basis, but without results you’ll never get a higher fee to work with for that client.
6. Offer Optional Add-Ons & Don’t Be Afraid to Pitch for More Money
After a few months of client account growth, you may find that your client’s expectations have increased and they’re demanding a higher rate of improvement. Or, your team may have identified new ways to drive even better results, but they don’t have enough budget to get there.
Whatever the case, account evolution is a natural part of business growth and you should have a plan in place to ensure you’re encouraging additional spend where it can be justified. There are a few ways you can make this process more seamless:
- Consider putting in place a fee structure from the start where both parties are happy with increasing budgets as you hit new revenue levels. This can work particularly well for Ads accounts, where spend increases over time
- Offer ‘bolt-on’ options to services such as content marketing, that allow clients to easily pay for one-off projects such as survey studies, paid promotion and investment into products for content creation
- Hold periodic review meetings, where you and the client talk through new investment opportunities to drive additional growth
- Offer varied, detailed pricing structures in your proposals to encourage clients to opt for more spend after set targets are hit, where it can be justified
- Commit to rigorous analysis and detail to evidence where additional spend could benefit the client
If you can justify asking for more budget, thanks to identification of new growth potential, don’t be afraid to go for it. Clients can always say no, but at least you can be proactive and present new options to them.
Things Moving Too Slowly & Processes Lacking Efficiency
When you’re juggling tens or hundreds of marketing accounts and one-off commissions on a monthly basis, structure is so important to progression. Without it, projects will stall, delays will cause frustrations and both your team and the clients you work with will begin to feel the strain.
7. Implement Shared Processes
Speed can be a real help when it comes to efficient working conditions. If you want something to move more quickly, you have to invest time in the processes required to enable that to happen.
If your team or clients are complaining about things taking too much time; audit your existing processes, identify areas for improvements and roll out changes like these:
- Shared software/tools: Introducing a shared system with clients doesn’t need to be complicated. With a simple shared Google Drive folder and documents, you can send work back and forth with the client and introduce shared calendars via Google Sheets. Alternatively, if you want something a little more slick, Trello is a great option for introducing a sign-off board structure system
- Internal calendars: Managing client strategy using calendar/board systems is a great way to improve efficiency amongst the team. A project management tool such as Asana will allow you to create tasks, assign them, add sub tasks, tag task types, add deadlines and much more within each client account
- Meetings: Keep meetings to a concise structure and make sure they’re targeted at generating clear outcomes. After meetings, consider producing meeting notes and sharing them with the client so everyone knows the key items that need actioning before you next speak. This will help improve accountability and drive growth
8. Remove Unnecessary Levels of Sign-Off & Build Trust
As an agency, you need to tick a core set of boxes on almost every project:
- Deliver lasting, measurable results
- Build an amicable, mutually-beneficial relationship with clients
- Ensure the clients you work with understand the work you’re doing and the value it’s delivering
- Ensure you’re working to satisfy the client’s targets, as well as the targets you think are the most important
Achieving all those points can be tricky; and to do so is truly a fine balancing act. Yes, you want your clients involved in the process and the work you’re doing. Here’s the key though – it can’t be so much so that you never end up pushing the work through.
If you spend too much time justifying work and waiting for 10 people to sign everything off, you won’t be able to hit the key point, which is to deliver results.
You can’t be afraid to be forceful with clients, you just need to be tactful in how you do it. Some of the techniques you can try to get to a point where you’re delivering great work efficiently, but keeping clients informed could be:
- Educating clients in areas they don’t understand, so that they understand why you’re doing the work and feel more comfortable leaving you to it (this could be done through training, meetings or documentation)
- Explaining to the client that you can’t deliver the results without them allowing you to do the work they’ve hired you for
- Reporting very clearly on all the work you do at the end of each month and explaining the value
- Being firm from the outset on the way you work and impressing that it’s not practical for every single task to need sign-off
- Creating case studies to show clients where your approach has been proven
- Outlining a very clear sign-off process at the start of the campaign with the client, for the areas they want to be involved in. This is a good time to try and minimise those areas and encourage them to trust your approach. For the sign-off process, try and get it down to one person on each side (client and agency) and introduce shared tools such as Trello or Google Drive to help move things along
Above all else, it’s about building trust. Your clients need to feel comfortable leaving you to manage strategy; whilst you need enough freedom to be able to deliver them the results they’re paying you for. It has to work both ways or the account will fail.
9. Embrace Clear, Cross-Department Communication
A successful digital marketing operation requires the digital marketing department to be aligned with dev and design teams.
For example, if a PM and their dev team are launching a site (particularly if it’s for a future marketing client), a specific member of the marketing team should be consulted first, to ensure any vital upfront SEO points are covered.
Or, if a quote is being put together for a copywriting contract, a specific member of the content team should be consulted to ensure that the quote equates to the time required; ensuring the contract is as profitable as it should be.
Without synonymous working between sales, marketing, design and development, you’ll be left with projects that are billed inaccurately, clunky site launches and tension between departments. These will all combine to create an inefficient agency and that’s no good to anyone.
Introduce the following tips to feel the benefits:
- Have a clear internal structure for all agency areas (new campaigns, website launches etc.), that outlines who to go to across different departments for specific queries
- Run training sessions between departments, to increase knowledge and encourage understanding
- Run internal surveys, to help you identify problem points
- Hold feedback sessions and meetings with management, where each team manager can voice concerns and raise issues from their team. Find resolutions to those issues together
10. Streamline the Management Structure
A clear, effective management structure can help improve processes and drive growth more quickly in so many ways:
- Team members know who to go to to resolve specific queries
- Top-level management know exactly who is responsible for different areas/departments and who to speak to when they need input
- Internal meetings can become more efficient, since department heads can report on behalf of their teams in top-level management meetings and run separate meetings with the involvement of their own team
- Tasks can be delegated to people with the strongest knowledge of specific areas
- Other departments know who to go to as a voice of authority on specific queries
The benefits are endless and they will all combine to make your agency run more efficiently. The key is to ensure you introduce the management structure at the right time, which will naturally be as the agency grows. Some departments may grow faster than others and the structure may need to be introduced gradually, rather than all at once.
Once you put people into management roles, it’s vital to work with them to adapt their roles and create breathing space. Otherwise, they won’t be able to action real change and enable the agency to effectively evolve.
Allowing them to delegate client accounts to specific team members and spend more time on vital infrastructure such as improving processes, educating clients, running training, assessing proposals and leading their team will all help combine to make for a faster, more efficient agency environment that ultimately generates better results.
Most people who have worked for a digital agency will tell you that the rapid-fire pace and pressure to deliver results across so many accounts can be pretty relentless. From experience, that’s part of the draw of the role, but it also has to be balanced to avoid you completely burning out.
11. Embrace Home/Flexible Working
Home working can do wonders for the mind and the environment. No commuting stresses, major reductions in pollution when done on a big scale, peace to work in your own space; the benefits are many and they are significant.
Whilst some companies operating in the digital industry have offered remote working options for a while, many are still lagging behind. If you’ve employed a team you trust, why do they need to be stuck in a loud and noisy office every day to do their work?
With so many collaborative tech tools, they can still interact with the team easily and effectively. You can then get them in for core office days or meetings as needed. Equally, flexible working can help staff juggle busy personal lives and work a day that suits their schedule.
The agency where I work (Evoluted) currently offers flexible working days with core hours; as well as one day of remote working a week. Those alone have made a real difference to my working week.
I can say with absolute certainty that for myself and the team, those steps have helped to reduce burnout; particularly the days where I’m working remotely.
12. Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late to Hire
Balancing existing contracts and timing the integration of new accounts is no mean feat. Since so much of digital marketing work operates around a monthly retainer, your recruitment has to be on point.
Knowing when to hire to ensure that new and existing work is taken care of (but not at the expense of staff being left without enough work) is a vital and necessary part of successful agency growth.
Whilst you never want to be in a position where staff don’t have their time filled, you also don’t want your team to completely burn out because they’re juggling way too much work. That will create an untold amount of issues, including:
- Burnout for your team, as they’re crushed under the workload
- Declining results for clients, as you struggle to fulfil allocations and budgets
- Lessening quality of delivery, as the team struggle to operate to their best level
Whilst it might involve a small element of risk, hiring ahead of time really is the smartest strategy here. If you can time new hires so that they arrive close, but not too close, to new contracts coming on board, your team will really feel the benefit.
Besides, there are so many things you can do at the point of a new hire with any spare time you have. Tasks like the following can all help add internal and external value, so you really won’t be losing out:
- Dedicate more time to your internal marketing: Audit your site from a technical and content standpoint, increase your blog output, produce guest placements for industry sites etc.
- Improve processes: Work with management to improve processes and investigate tools
- Create materials for clients: Create educational documentation for clients around core marketing areas, create an onboarding process for new accounts, improve your pitch and proposal structure etc.
- Run internal training: Ask department heads to run training sessions in areas the team feel less comfortable in
- Get a new perspective on accounts: Ask new arrivals to put a fresh set of eyes on your accounts
- Build your databases: Expand your outreach lists with potential new contacts, build a library of sites to target for guest placements etc.
These are just a few of the many ways you can fill time if you’re worried about hiring too early. Some of these tasks can be completed by new hires and others can be fulfilled amongst the existing team as you integrate the new team member. The larger your team grows, the more tasks there will be and the easier this process will become.
If, at the end, you have a less stressed team, this will only benefit you and your clients in the long run.
Clients Not Understanding the Value
If the clients you work with don’t understand the value of your work, it’s your job to help them to do so. If you don’t, you ultimately risk them taking their business elsewhere. Don’t let good results be an excuse for complacency either, as you might find your celebrations aren’t felt by the client, because they don’t properly understand the value you’re delivering.
13. Double Down On Your Reporting Efforts
Whilst reporting might not be your favourite time of the month, it’s an absolutely imperative part of your job. You simply have to be using this time to strengthen your relationships with clients:
- Invest in a great reporting platform – Test multiple options to ensure you find the most engaging option within your budget
- Include how, what, when and why – You need to be using your reports to outline the work you’ve done, why you selected that work, how and when you did it the work and the results the work has delivered
- Be honest – Had a bad month? Be honest and explain why. Had a great month? Be positive but not overly so. The key is to be consistent and transparent in your explanation
- Follow up your reports with calls – Encourage clients to engage with your reports and ask questions. Is there anything they want that you haven’t already included? Do they need terms explaining?
I put together this blog for reporting software provider DashThis, which can hopefully offer further useful pointers on this subject.
14. Offer Training Sessions
Don’t be afraid to offer your clients training in some of the areas you manage for them. It’s not like you’ll be telling them how to do the work or be risking losing them from them moving to do it themselves.
Instead, you’ll be looking to educate them on the fundamentals of different disciplines, such as algorithm ranking factors or link building methodology, so that when you do that work and report upon it, they better understand what it is you’re doing and the value the work holds.
Whilst there’s upfront time that’s required to design and build these training courses, they can be used repeatedly, as long as you keep them fresh and updated. By delivering the training, you’ll also be:
- Positioning your agency as a thought-leader
- Showing clients you are about going the extra mile
- Helping your team’s cause by ensuring their clients are less likely to challenge them on work they’ve been educated around
- Giving yourself assets you could potentially run with for new client wins. For example, you could run a webinar or event around an industry discipline, with just enough information to draw interest and spark new conversations
Neglecting Internal Marketing
One of the most common phrases in the world of agency marketing surely has to be: “We always neglect our own marketing.” It’s rare that this can’t be fixed with a few simple changes though. Whilst client work will almost always take precedence, there are ways to keep your own marketing ticking along too. In the long run, this will only help to bring you more business.
15. Create An Internal Process As If It Were For A Client
One tip I’d impress above all else with your internal marketing is to treat it like it’s a client account. Assign a project manager to be responsible for the work and do everything else you would do for a typical account; such as:
- Producing a monthly report and sharing it with the team
- Holding regular strategy meetings
- Setting incremental goal targets
- Assigning deadlines to tasks via a dedicated project in your favourite project management software
All these factors will help you to treat your marketing more seriously and I can say from experience that they will increase your output (and its quality) significantly.
In terms of freeing up time for this, a great point to review the time you’re willing to dedicate can be as you hire a new member of staff. At this point, you’ll typically have some spare hours amongst the team and this is a great time to ring-fence that time for internal marketing activity.
If it means you hire again sooner next time, so be it. You’ll definitely feel the pay-off if you commit to it long term.
Allow the dedicated project manager for your internal marketing extra time to allocate work, report, push the team to achieve targets and identify opportunities for growth. Then, for each new area you target, allow a smaller bank of time for specific team members amongst their usual allocations.
Each time you hire, you can then look to increase that amount slightly. Providing you track your work and focus in the right areas, it’s something you’ll definitely want to increase over time.
16. Don’t Focus On Low-Quality Churn
If you’re going to take your marketing seriously, make sure you go all-in. There’s no point churning out endless, low-quality blog posts or sending out boring emails that offer zero value to your company.
Instead, you need a clear vision of where you’re at, what you want to achieve and how you intend to get there. As mentioned above, a clearly-designed process and account structure will improve your cause immeasurably here.
In terms of where you want to focus your energy, it really depends on what services you offer and the time you’re willing to dedicate to your own marketing activity. Some of the areas to think about, as you would with any client anyway, could be:
- Email automation that improves audience engagement and drives potential new business
- Amazing link building campaigns that enable your agency to show off its knowledge and drive great coverage. This can also help you evidence link building value to clients
- Committing to a truly epic blog, that goes way beyond simply providing company updates. Mix in epic tutorials, industry insight and guest placements; to drive organic traffic, build your brand and secure high-value backlinks. I’m particularly pleased with what we’ve already achieved here within our blog at Evoluted
- Introduce a targeted paid strategy that sees you focusing on highly-targeted and structured PPC campaigns designed around niche services and awareness
- Consider securing speaker opportunities for your team and running events
- Work with local businesses to provide training and insight to the local business community
- Conduct regular audits of your site and make incremental technical improvements
These are just some of the many things you can be doing. Once you start taking your internal marketing seriously, the opportunities suddenly become endless.
That’s it for this post. Whilst this is by no means a conclusive list of digital marketing agency problem points and how to resolve them, it will hopefully have given you food for thought for your own team/agency. My key takeaways are:
- Be honest and transparent in your delivery
- Show authority with clients and don’t be afraid to be firm, whilst remaining tactful
- Invest in internal marketing
- Don’t neglect internal processes and structure
- Encourage open and useful communication across your business
- Invest in making your pitching and onboarding process as good as it can possibly be
- Don’t neglect the health of your team
- Always be looking to educate and add value
- Work towards goals and strive for improvement, but ensure the demands being placed upon your team are realistically aligned with budgets
If you think I’ve missed anything, you’ve found these tips useful or if you work in-house and fancy discussing the problem points your role brings vs an agency one, hit me up on Twitter!