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When businesses hire agencies, they do so usually because their growth is not going in the right direction or it has slowed measurably.

Agencies and consultants are like dentists – brought in when something is wrong. Sure, you have the people (I’ve recently become one of these) who are very good at scheduling their regular cleanings and proactively floss and brush twice a day and switch out their toothbrush once a quarter, but those are the exception.

Most people go to see a dentist because they broke a tooth or they have a painful tooth. They also put it off because they know that the solution to feel better is a) going to physically hurt most likely because they need dental work done, b) they’ll have to take some time off work to get that work done, and c) it will likely be expensive.

The truth is that all of these things are true, and they only get worse the longer you put them off. (This is a prompt to go see your dentist if you haven’t recently).

But imagine you go to the dentist and they tell you that you need a root canal, but then the dentist walks out of the room.

No scheduling of a time to get it done, or telling you to go to the front desk to schedule it.

No letting you ask questions about price or time or what to expect.

They walk out of the room.

You’d be very unhappy, right? You’d probably also (rightfully) find a new dentist.

The same principles apply when working with an agency.

I’ve seen 1,600+ projects and over $16,000,000 in digital marketing work come through Credo in the last few years, and over that time I’ve seen many successful projects and unfortunately also some unsuccessful projects. As a consultant myself, I’ve had very successful and unfortunately also had unsuccessful projects.

They happen, but when we learn from the failures of others we can expedite our learning and see success more quickly.

Below are the five main things I see that sink a client/provider (agency/consultant) relationship the vast majority of the time. For each I am also going to talk about what the provider should do and what you the client should do to make sure that they don’t sink your project.

The five are:

  1. Lack of communication and expectation setting;
  2. Lack of alignment on goals
  3. Lack of clarity on responsibilities;
  4. Lack of access to make proper decisions;
  5. Lack of allocation of people to get the work done.

Lack of communication

When I worked at digital marketing agency Distilled, one of our internal mantras (that I have adopted in working with my own clients and customers today) was “Communication solves all problems.” I remember one time when Distilled founder Will Critchlow visited the New York City office and wrote this in big letters on the whiteboard in our office. Point taken.

Lack of communication about deadlines and deliverables is one of the most common killers of consulting and marketing services projects. If your agency or consultant does not communicate with you about what they are doing, why, and when you can expect work to be in your inbox then you will be left wondering and anxious about if you are going to get your money’s worth.

If your marketing provider has not set your expectations about how often and how to communicate with them, you should ask. Never assume or hope that they will do it well. If they have not communicated how communication with them works, then you can be assured that they will not communicate well.

Hope is not a strategy. Ask the question.

Lack of alignment on goals

There are two ways to measure an engagement with a marketing provider:

  • On their output
  • On their results

If you are engaging with a consultant or agency for an audit of your website or your marketing channel(s), then you are paying for a document and recommendations. You are not paying for project management or results, and should not expect them to report on results (though they should help you understand prioritization and potential impact of the changes they are recommending).

If you are engaging ongoing with a consultant or agency, either on strategy or for them to execute on certain channels for you (such as creating content/building links/managing your paid spend), then you should expect them to report on results.

To know what results they should report on, you and the marketing provider should come to alignment/agreement on what matters to your business and what they should report on. “Links built” doesn’t really matter if your traffic and revenue are not increasing, but this can be a leading KPI (if you’re paying them to build links to your site) mapping to revenue.

Ultimately, you and the marketing provider should agree on the metrics that matter to your business (and to your boss, if they’re the ones with budgetary control) so that you can measure how effective an agency or consultant is being for your business.

Lack of alignment on metrics, goals, and timeline to achieve those will always eventually kill a marketing project.

Lack of clarity on responsibilities

Before you sign a contract with a marketing provider, you should be clear on what you specifically need the provider to do for you.

If you have a team in place internally and need a strategy set for them to execute on, then the provider will deliver you the strategy based on research for your team to do.

But if you don’t have a team and don’t plan to hire one, then a strategy alone won’t get you anywhere. You may actually need the agency to execute on the work for you, which can be a different skillset from the strategy they are creating for you.

I have seen too many businesses hire “an SEO consultant” or similar only to also expect them to create the content and make the technical fixes. They are then frustrated when the consultant/agency tells them that this is not part of the project.

If you need additional hands on deck (such as creating content or managing your PPC campaigns), then you needĀ servicesĀ and that should be expressly clear in the proposal and contract.

Lack of clarity on what the agency will do and what they will still rely on you the client to do as the inhouse marketer will only lead to disappointment.

Lack of data access

Finally, if a consultant/agency does not have full access to your data then they will not be as effective for you as they otherwise could be.

At the beginning of almost any marketing project, the consultant/agency should ask you for access to the platforms they need to get data from, such as:

  • Google Analytics
  • Google Search Console
  • Google AdWords
  • Bing Ads
  • Facebook Ads Manager
  • Any optimization software you have
  • Any previous audits you’ve had done

Lack of full access to the data they need will result in them waiting on you to retrieve data for them. This slows down any project measurably and will result in a longer period of time before you see the desired results.


What about you? What other factors have you seen sink marketing engagements?

Sound off in the comments below!

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1 thought on “What makes an agency engagement fail? These 5 things.”

  1. Dear John,
    You are 100% correct; Communication solves all problems.
    For a minute I would like you to consider a triangle having 3 angles, one of which is labeled ” C ” for Communication. Another is labeled ” A ” for Affinity and the last angle is labeled ” R ” for Reality.
    You fully understand the importance of Communication so i don’t need to define it further. Just a few words will allow me to define Affinity & Reality.
    Affinity ; is less than love for someone or something but it runs on those same emotions. For our purposes let’s say that it is the way you feel about someone or something .
    Reality; Is just that. That which is real to you. Your reality about a given situation might not be that of someone else. This can be due to a lack of correct information, how do you get that information ? You get it by asking the correct questions, those questions which are real to you, in that way you are employing another of the angles of our triangle ” Communication. So where does, and what the heck has ” Affinity ” have to do in all that. You are unhappy that your reality on a given situation is not that of someone else, this could lead to misunderstandings and even exaggerate further, leading to decreased and even lesser Affinity between you and that other person. The solution lies in your communicating your reality and by doing so receiving further information that will allow you both to have the same reality about the given situation.
    This weird little triangle comprised of ” A ” Affinity, ” R ” Reality and ” C ” Communication when fully understood, can provide the basis of full comprehension of any and almost all situations in and outside our working environment.

    Your post is brilliant and i thank you for it, and the opportunity it has given to me to use my triangle to set a few things straight between you Dear John, Credo and myself. Thank you.

Comments are closed.

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