Ahh yes, the relationship between client and marketing agency. It’s a tender thing. It can be great, doomed from the start, or degrade over time. If you have not done your due diligence in the search or asked the right questions, you’ll probably find some red flags that make you question how the relationship is going.
We see it every day. Nearly everyone we work with tells us horror stories about prior agency partners. We try to take these stories to heart and learn from them, which is why some of our clients have stuck around for a decade.
That’s not the norm. According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), the average client-agency relationship lasts less than three years. The number itself, and that it comes from the agency side, should tell you something.
When that happens, it’s time to cut the cord. You don’t want to spend any more time than necessary with an agency that doesn’t actually help you grow your business. So let’s get to it: what factors should you consider in verifying your suspicions that it’s time to move on from your current partner?
These six signs signify it’s time to leave your marketing agency and find a new partner instead.
1. A Pricing-Service Disconnect
We all fall victim sometimes to prices that are just too good to be true. That’s as natural as it can be devastating. If you chose your partner based on price alone, you’ll probably start to see signs that explain just why the fees were so low to begin with.
First, the problem of unrealistic expectations. Do you want your agency to be a strategic marketing partner? Many say that they are, but few actually follow through. Sub-par plan development and even advertising copy bring reality to light over time.
You’re also paying for the quality of talent your agency can hire. Low costs might mean supporting an infrastructure with not enough professionals included, meaning that the agency executes too slowly to get to market with relevant strategies in time. They might not support the professional development of their talent, meaning that they’re not up-to-date with current digital marketing strategies and tactics. Or the talent might just not be good enough to deliver quality work.
Yes, the budget-conscious side of you appreciates the monthly invoices that come in below others. But what are you really paying for? The quality of work and ability to provide a complete strategic marketing partnership need to be there as well. If it isn’t, it’s probably time to move on.
2. Your Agency Doesn’t Understand Your Business
I can’t begin to emphasize just how important this part truly is. In all aspects, not just marketing, you need external partners who understand your business. If they don’t, and don’t show the ability or willingness to learn about it, look for someone else who does.
Remember that this is a partnership. No marketing partner will know as much about your business as you or someone on your team does. That doesn’t mean they cannot attempt to come close.
The importance of this statement goes beyond your primary account executive. Ask yourself: does the entire agency team working on your account, from the copywriters and designers to the media buying team, actually know what your business objectives and larger strategy are? And if they don’t, how are they supposed to build projects and run initiatives designed to support these objectives?
At the very least, look for a willingness to learn. An agency that doesn’t actually want to come out and tour your business to learn more despite close physical proximity presents problems. The lack of strategy sessions with the entire agency team on your account involved is another red flag.
3. The Partnership Lacks in Accountability
How does your agency actually measure success? And do they do it at all? You’d be surprised how many potential clients I talk to that don’t have clear answer for this, simply because their marketing partner never emphasized it. That’s a huge red flag.
You’re probably paying your agency a significant chunk of your marketing budget. The least you can expect in return is accountability on how the work they do for you is actually performing, and helping your business. Without goal-setting and KPI tracking, you’re bound to be in trouble eventually.
This lack of accountability is probably the biggest reason why client/agency relationships fail. If you don’t know how your time and effort is performing, why stick with them? It’s why lofty articles about the “agency of the future” always include this as a key factor for success.
Be especially suspicious of reports that focus on vanity metrics instead of conversions and actual ROI. Nobody cares if your latest ad or piece of content reached 20,000 people if none of them took action. Focusing on these types of metrics means your agency doesn’t have to test their strategies, or engage in effective segmenting to improve results. In other words, there is no motivation for improvement, and it’s time for you to leave.
4. The Billing System Is Not Transparent
You probably get an invoice from your agency every month. What does that invoice actually look like? Can you easily glean from it what services were performed, and how these services affect and deepen the partnership? And do you even receive it regularly for better planning?
I’m always shocked how many agencies don’t engage in best practices that should be standard for billing. The cycle is not what you make it to be, but what the client expects for better planning. The fees should be clearly distinguishable from creative work and media placements. It’s not that difficult.
And yet, too often, that transparency simply doesn’t exist. Instead, you end up with an invoice that simply asks you to pay a lump sum, with little indication of where that money was spent. How are you supposed to glean ROI from that type of system?
Agencies that don’t prioritize transparency in billing fall into one of two categories: they have something to hide, or they don’t prioritize the financial aspect of the relationship enough. The first is an obvious reason to run. The second should at least make you worry that they’re good stewards of your marketing budget.
5. You Cannot Access Your Own Data
Your data is yours. That’s worth emphasizing. Any agency that disagrees is worth at least a debate over whether you should cut the cord. You need to own your own data, because the agency might change—but the need for marketing will always be there.
That means any inability to access your own data or information is a huge red flag. Yes, your partner may run your AdWords account or Content Management System. But you need to be able to get in there and draw anything you need from it for your own purposes.
That truth extends to your creative needs. You have paid for your creative, including ad copy, images, and more. They might have created it, but it should be yours to keep. The same holds true for your domain, analytics account, social media run through your agency, and anything else they might have created or optimized on your behalf.
The question of data ownership remains an unsolved problem for many client/agency relationships. It shouldn’t be. You have a right to it, and any partner that disagrees is worth questioning further.
6. It’s Not a True, Equal Partnership
Does your marketing agency simply execute what you throw in front of them, or are they actually partnering with you to improve your marketing efforts? It’s a complex question that doesn’t always seem easy to answer. If you cannot answer positively, though, question whether the relationship is worth continuing.
There are a few signs you can use to see whether you’re truly in a professional partnership. Ask yourself:
- Does your agency push back on your bad ideas?
- Is your agency interested in building new strategy with you?
- Does your agency come to you with new ideas for tactics you might not have considered?
- Does your agency want a seat at the table for larger business discussions?
Answering no to all of these invites problems in the future. You’ve found yourself an executioner who relies on you exclusively for directions and strategy. Given that you’re supposed to be working with marketing experts, that’s a problem worth questioning the future of the relationship.
Is every agency relationship doomed immediately?
I’ll admit that the above paints a gloomy picture. Too often, marketing agencies hope to coast by on clients that pay good money without actually questioning expertise or strategic direction. Of course, that doesn’t mean any relationship with a marketing partner is doomed from the start.
In reality, quite the opposite is true. You can find the right partner, if you know what to look for. That means clear expectations from the start, transparency in how the work will be laid out, and good communication that provides constant info and forms a personal relationship while still respecting everyone’s time. You need someone who advocates for you, not someone just looking for the next invoice.
Modern marketing is more than just advertising or media buying. It needs to be a strategic partnership that builds business continuity and influences other parts of your business and its key objectives. Being nimble is a key part of that effort. So is mutual data transparency, which helps both parties learn what they need to in order to drive the business forward.
Yes, your marketing partners need to be marketing experts. They also need to feel personally invested in your business. When they are not, it might be time for a new agency. To truly grow your business, you need a strategic partner who wants to succeed in that effort as much as you do.