Four Things Marketing Managers Can Learn From Agencies

In 2017, despite moving away from agency-of-record agreements, the marketing efforts of leading brands are more dependent on agencies now than ever. The complex levels of even the most modest integrated marketing campaigns often necessitate the specialized creative talent found at agencies. Hiring an agency can represent a significant cost and time savings over building expertise within your organization, but, particularly on smaller projects, an internal team can achieve a remarkably similar level of success just by making an adjustment to their mindset.

Many of the benefits that agencies provide aren’t derived from specific knowledge or skills, but from how they work. As a marketer, I’ve lived it all—or at least a lot of it: from agencies and in-house teams to consulting and freelancing. While working in all these capacities, I uncovered the secret to the secret sauce: agencies achieve the best outcomes because they’re flexible, open, and resourceful in the way they work.

Below are four key lessons that marketing managers can learn from agencies:

Identify the real challenge

The first thing an agency does before tackling a project is clearly identify the challenge at hand. While most companies deliver a comprehensive RFP chock full of business objectives, industry stats, and other critical information to consider, it usually falls short on the human component of the business equation. Whether you’re in B2B or B2C, the core communication challenge is ultimately H2H: human to human. Considerable work is done by agency strategists to contextualize the business goals and challenges contained in the RFP against the cultural tensions and social trends happening in the real world.

Surely increasing brand awareness or generating a 10 percent sales lift are valid goals, but this metric-focused approach often drives marketers to ask tactical questions when they need to be looking at issues more holistically. What makes this product or service offering relevant to people’s lives? How will real people evaluate this offer when looking for solutions that are right for them?

When I worked as an agency strategist, asking big picture questions and collaborating with creatives to find answers was my main responsibility. Ultimately, the way we deconstructed business goals into more readily understood human emotions and needs is what differentiated our pitches from competing agencies. Taking a step back from the listed benefits of your product feature sets and the cold calculus of your marketing KPIs will help internal teams understand the messaging required to break through the noise, so you can connect with customers in a meaningful way.

Know what you don’t know

I’ll let you in on a little secret: although agencies tend to represent themselves as all-knowing experts with the silver bullet for whatever challenges a brand faces, they rely on a network of freelance talent and outside agencies to get the job done. Even small agencies tend to serve clients across a diverse cross-section of industries, from CPG to software to automotive. They achieve success not by staffing large numbers of industry experts, but by reaching out to these experts with an open mind and inherent trust in their abilities and knowledge.

Sometimes this relationship is informal, where agency heads, creatives, and strategists leverage their network for friendly advice. Other times, it’s a more traditional arrangement where the agency contracts freelance talent (either directly or through a staffing agency) to fill a knowledge or skill gap. Still more, agencies work with other, more specialized agencies such as “production houses” and interactive agencies to outsource work. While there are certainly mega-agencies that can truly offer a full-suite of services to clients without turning to others for help, most agencies build a core competency and delegate the tasks they are less accomplished in to others—they still own the big ideas and the creative direction of the project, but they are realistic about what they can and cannot do, and resource the project accordingly.

Forge strong partnerships

Part of the reason agencies can seem omnipotent is because the line between agency FTE, freelancer, and outside agency is almost nonexistent. They look at the outside help as their partners, not line items or a means to an end. While NDAs and non-competes are de rigueur, overcomplicated bureaucracies don’t stand in the way of the work. Partners are given wide access to agency resources and work directly alongside the agency instead of being assigned tasks in a more transactional manner.

Even if the project is short or narrow in scope, an agency’s relationship with freelancers, staffing agencies and outside agencies is often long-lasting. Agency managers keep in touch, they grab drinks, they talk shop, and they forge relationships. That way, the next time a project comes up, they know the perfect person for the job, and that person knows the agency is going treat them well.

The agency hallmarks of using outside help are quick hiring, fair compensation, clear communication, and, critically, trust in their abilities. Agencies build strong relationships with freelance talent, partner agencies, and staffing companies to make sure they have the right resource for the right project at the right time. Marketing departments in big organizations would do well to model their resourcing practices after agencies, as it leads to a more streamlined and seamless onboarding process that contributes directly to the overall quality of the work that is produced.

Flexibility as a rule

No doubt you’ve heard horror stories about the so-called “work-life balance” that agency staff enjoy. In crunch times, staff can routinely expect to work 14-hour days or 60-hour weeks. Frequently I have people ask me why anyone would subject themselves to such a grueling work environment.

The key is flexibility. Generally, agencies aren’t concerned with the hours an employee works, where they work, or how they get their work done, so long as they produce stellar work. Contrary to popular belief, the 14-hour marathon work session isn’t driven by agency task masters, but by the staff themselves who are committed to doing the best possible work for their clients. In fact, one of the main (and thankless) tasks of an agency project manager is to minimize the number of hours contributed to a project.

Why do so many agency employees and freelancers bust their humps to churn out top-tier work long past closing time? Because they are empowered to make their own choices about how and when they work. The work might require a 60-hour work week this week, but next week, when the workload has subsided, staff can opt to take time off. Don’t feel like coming into the office today? No problem; work from home—we trust you. Wanna take this meeting over drinks at the restaurant next door? Let’s have an impromptu off-site together. Need to get away for a little bit? Make sure your work is covered by your team and you got it.

Nobody trusts in their teams, gives them schedule flexibility, and empowers them to choose how they work like an agency. Marketing departments in enterprise-level companies may not be able to emulate this aspect of the agency model exactly, but for marketing managers eager to retain top talent, consider integrating more flexible work arrangements where possible, particularly with freelance or contingent workers.

Let’s be real: no one model is perfect, and I am certainly not of the mindset that all marketing departments should function like agencies. Still, with in-house agencies on the rise, it’s clear enterprise marketing managers can take cues from agency best practices to enjoy the same efficiencies and benefits. Being more open, flexible, and trusting of and reliant on outside partners are goals that all marketing departments should aspire to. A commitment to moving your marketing department in this direction will help you take on more projects in-house, and ultimately, empower your team to produce better results.