B2B Ad Agencies – It’s time to step up your game

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always had respect for ad agencies. It’s how I started my career and without my first agency job I have no idea where I would be today. My experience in the agency world taught me how to be organized, multitask, and get comfortable presenting to executives. It gave me my first taste of technology (and digital) marketing. So it’s with utmost respect to my first mentors and colleagues that I write this post.

With that said, it’s time for b2b agencies to make some significant changes if they want to exist in the new world of consolidated b2b media buying and a “digital first” marketing mentality.  

Let’s take a look at where we are today and where I hope we can get to in the future…

 The old promises:

  • We get the best rates for you: As someone who’s worked at an ad agency, bought media (both through an agency and direct) and sold advertising – I can say this one tends to not be true. When you add in the booking/agency fees and everything else I’ve always been able to get better rates going direct. I’m not saying it’s not possible to get better rates going through an agency, but in general I haven’t seen it. What’s also changed is that media rates are much more visible these days, especially if you look at AdWords and programmatic buying. No more backroom negotiations and special “agency” rate cards – today pricing is pretty straightforward. This is the direction digital is going and it’s no longer going to be the hook b2b agencies can use to suck in new clients and keep old ones.  Service, not price, is going to win in the future. If you don’t believe me, test it. Call some of your top media partners and ask if they would honor your current agency rates, or even do better. You may be surprised with what you get.
  • The world of digital marketing is scary, confusing and there are so many media options out there – we can navigate it for you: This was correct many years ago, but things are easier now. Most media outlets offer inventory on the open market, and there are typically only a few strong players providing lead generation/content marketing services in every industry. Marketing teams have adapted to this change and typically have specialists to handle search (SEO and SEM), programmatic buying, social and content marketing/development. Top media partners have developed entire client service teams to help serve as experts and managers for their specific campaigns. The bottom line is the digital world is not as confusing as it used to be. Marketers’ understanding of digital media buying has advanced, and platforms/services are making it easier to buy now than ever before.
  • We are an extension of your marketing team: This is the one I wish was true (and where I think the evolution needs to start). Unfortunately, the deck is usually stacked against your agency team here. They’re either pulled in too many directions due to being on multiple accounts, or are too green to offer real value.  If I think back to my old ad days I was fresh out of college and my account load was a major technology company, a major insurance company and MTV. I had equal time on all three accounts and to say my meetings every day were “different” is an understatement. I was never going to understand the technology landscape (or my client’s business) at the level they hoped for, especially when I was trying to figure out how to market the new Pauly Shore page on MTV.com.  To be an actual extension of a marketing team (especially in b2b) you need to understand not only the solutions your clients sells, but their competitors, their target audience and the real media outlets that will reach them. That’s hard. It takes years of specific industry experience and it’s not something you find at your typical b2b ad shop.

What I expect from an evolved b2b ad agency today:

  • Be very clear and contractually obligated to an account load: The old rule used to be that your account team will not be assigned to a competitor. These days I want more. I want to know if they’re going to be allocated to other accounts, how many, and if they’re outside my industry. Average experience of the team is also critical and should be part of the decision criteria.
  • Specialization and expertise:  If I’m working for a technology company, I want at least one member of my agency team to have had marketing experience at a technology company. The dream scenario would be someone with experience in my market, but that may be asking too much. The agency world tends to be one big family, and this has positive and negative consequences. In my opinion, one major issue is many agencies are made up of people who have only worked at agencies. In b2b (especially tech) this can be a huge disadvantage. Having direct exposure to technology buyers, lead pipeline/results, and technology sales changes the way you think about marketing success and campaign architecture and execution.
  • Let me meet with my key media partners: Part of hiring an agency is to push off some of the media planning and research to them. The problem is agencies (especially when they’re not confident in the services and impact they’re providing) use these media relationships as currency to keep a close grip on the client relationship. With my top media partners, I want a direct connection. I want to make sure my goals and objectives are communicated correctly. I want to be able to take the meetings without the guilt trip. If I’m impressed with the services my agency is providing there should be no risk of me going direct to a media partner.
  • Understand my goals and my target audience: I don’t know how many times I’ve had agencies pitch me on how they can deliver my target audience – only to be way off the mark on who my target really is.  One of my friends used to head up marketing for a tech company exclusively focused on small business. He was complaining about the agency he hired and showed me the briefing they sent out to potential media partners requesting lead guarantees with a 1000+ company size filter.  First strike: he had discussed his targets with the agency up front. Second: his site had “small business” all over it and included case studies and customer success stories. The problem is that all this went out the window when the briefing process was started and the agency just slapped their standard “quality” filter request on it. The assumption from some agencies is big companies and big job titles are always better. It’s not always the case, and cookie cutter approaches never work. The agency I would look for would listen to me, ask about the last few sales and guide me on the best way to reach the best prospects.
  • Be honest:  When an agency asks me what I want, naturally I ask for everything. The problem is sometimes the agency team is so worried about losing my business that they will yes me to death. The first thing I want from my agency is honesty. If what I want is going to be too hard, too expensive or not realistic…tell me and point me in the right direction.I’ll want your honest recommendation if you’ve proven to me that you understand my market and have the right specialization, experience, and market expertise.
  • Consultants instead of agencies:  Some of the best agencies I’ve worked with in my career were not agencies at all. Instead, they were independent consultants who had expertise in very specific areas (search, content development, lead management). They tend to keep the account load low, stick to similar industries and have experience that’s much more advanced than your average agency team. I also felt like they were in my corner because my business success was tied directly to their livelihood.

With every significant shift in the marketing landscape, I’ve seen many experts predict the end of the ad agency. Based on my experiences and feedback from my marketing and agency peers, I don’t think we’re all heading for the “great agency crash” of 2020. But I do believe that in this new world of media planning, b2b agencies of all sizes need to evolve their pitch, benefits, skills and services to survive.

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