Okay maybe your agency doesn’t suck at B2B marketing. If that’s the case, thank the deity of your choice and keep it to yourself.
The chances are, however, that you and your agency are not quite seeing eye-to-eye on how to do things. If you work for a company that is also a consumer brand and you share an agency, you likely spend much of your day thinking terrible thoughts as you try, again, to explain how business people are different from teenagers even though they are both carbon-based.
The truth is, very few agencies are any good at B2B, which is a little ironic since they are fundamentally B2B companies themselves. So how can an organization that depends on its ability to sell to other businesses be so horrible at selling their customers’ wares to yet more businesses? I came up with just three reasons (if you have more, please let me know):
1. Agencies don’t sell us what we want
Business marketers are measured on a bunch of things about which most agency people have little interest and even less understanding. This is the first big chasm and one we don’t seem to get past when the agencies are pitching us in the first place. I think business marketers do a terrible job of confronting our agencies with our realities. We let them wave pretty colours and lovely slides in front of us but I’m not sure we do a great job of articulating the things we want from our campaigns and other agency activities. Things like:
- Less OPEX spend
- More share of revenue
- More share of market
- Clear differentiation from our competitors (and from our consumer brand)
- Value for our money
- Insights (the ones we can’t get elsewhere—no fair selling us back our research)
We’re also happy to be super-sized with some unaided awareness, mindshare and GRPs but they really aren’t keeping the lights on and mostly make agency suits feel good..
2. Agencies Sell Us What They Want
Visit any agency website and, once you get past the arty Flash things, almost the first piece of information they present to you is their most recent award. Agencies love awards. Who doesn’t love recognition from their peers? But agencies forget that awards may recognize creativity and courage but they don’t measure revenue, competitive advantage or, in general, anything that helps people like us keep our jobs. Agencies: Guess which of your customers cares about your awards. That’s right. None of them.
I used to think agencies considered awards to be the flowers on the altar of their self-proclaimed brilliance. I discovered I was wrong the day I met with an art director to finalize a campaign and as I shook her hand and said something like “I think this is going to work well” (translation: I think this is going to get us some new business) she said, “Yup, it’s an award-winner for sure.” (translation: I’m glad you signed off today because the deadline is next week to enter this sucker). Sure enough, they had their first award under their belts before the ads even dropped. They went on to win lots and lots of awards for the work I paid for while the campaign itself delivered mediocre results.
Of course, now I’ve figured out that awards keep creative people happy and in place and they help the agency’s salespeople get in the door of the next few customers. Which is why I now refuse to speak to any agency that tells me about their awards in their pitch.
The other thing agencies want to sell us is stuff that gets them some incremental revenue. So beyond mucking about with the brand and cranking out yet another campaign, they want, quite reasonably, to find a few little revenue taps they can leave running between campaigns. Things like microsites they host for a few hundred dollars a month and that you completely forget about after the first few weeks.
Agencies are also eager to recommend things they can outsource to smaller shops such as newsletters, brochures, PowerPoint templates and anything for which they can’t win an award. This means they can mark up the bill by 15 or 20 percent and pass it along without breaking so much as a glue-on nail.
If you look at your billing statements you will find helpful activities like proofreading and press approvals. And yet I’ll bet you find plenty of typos and incorrect prices and phone numbers in your creative. I will also bet that if you get out of bed at 5am to attend your press approvals, you will be the only one there other than the printer. Another favourite of mine is the creative brief charge. This is where the brief you have spent weeks crafting and hours presenting to your agency is promptly regurgitated at great expense for their internal people (writers and designers, apparently, need information pre-chewed by people in ties).
The prize for most agencies, however, is to sell you as much media spending as you can stomach. Why we continue to indulge the ridiculous model where agencies grab a 15% commission from the media is beyond me. I could almost (almost) understand it when things weren’t digital and production art was complicated and incredibly stressful to produce on time and properly. Why it costs $1,000 to resize a piece of art and why they then pick up 15 points on the media buy for emailing it is a complete mystery. In consumer marketing mass advertising is still king, even if it’s moving from broadcast to online. But in B2B the trick has always been highly targeted and highly integrated campaigns – the kind agencies hate because the media buy is small and they need to build in direct and promotional bits as well. That just chews up margin, which is why you are likely to find silly “management fees” around things like list purchases and calling the courier. It’s worth noting here that one agency actually did send my monthly statement over by courier with a 20 percent markup to cover their handling costs. It took me months to figure it out and boy were they pissy when I asked them to email it for free.
3. Agencies Understand Agencies and Hair Gel
Agencies understand creative process, production, demographics, direct mail, branding, media buying, design, typography, out-of-home, copy and, certainly, billing. They are experts at turning insight into creative that compels an action. A few (not many) are also very good at helping their customers understand social media, mobile marketing and other new platforms.
They understand how agencies work, how to get and keep customers, how to hire and inspire great creative talent and how to drive as deeply as possible into their accounts. They also understand consumer things like yogurt, cars and jeans. Hair products too.
Here’s what they don’t understand: they don’t understand how your business works, or how your industry works (unless it’s advertising). They don’t understand your products, especially if they are complicated, technical or highly specialized. They aren’t good at verticals and creatives have never met a procurement department.
Agencies don’t understand the core metrics on which people like us are measured such as ARPU, OPEX and churn; they have limited patience for non-campaign things like sustained top-line growth, consistent strategic execution and customer retention, though presumably someone at the agency is also in charge of these sorts of things on behalf of their shareholders.
Ten signs your agency sucks at B2B
- The team keeps saying “consumer” when they really mean customer or business. When you call them on it they wave you off with “same thing”.
- Creatives invoke their friends and family as examples of all things business. “My wife works for a bank and she isn’t interested in fluorescent light bulbs so we should put a cat in the image…”
- Account managers defend bad creative by suggesting B2B buyers are strictly logical and don’t need an emotional hook to a product.
- They bring you a consumer media buy and tell you that since IT managers are geeks they must read Popular Mechanics on the weekend and that’s a great place to put your server rack product (this actually happened to me).
- Your account team is composed of interns, relatives of agency executives and people in 12-step programs. And when you finally break-in a good account manager, writer or designer they shift to a consumer account and act like they just got day parole.
- They bring B2C creative and try to convince you it’s business-to-business-to-consumer (I actually had an agency show me potato chip ads and tell me their real target was grocers).
- You’ve been their customer for three years and haven’t yet met anyone more senior than their accounting manager (and only because you lost an invoice).
- They present creative that suggests your data encryption product actually destroys emails after they are read (this actually happened to me too).
- The print creative includes a coupon with little scissors on the dotted line.
- The media buy includes subway advertising for an agricultural insurance product (this happened to a buddy).