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The Truth that Inbound Marketing Agencies Don’t Want You to Hear

by Doug Davidoff | Jul 25, 2017 1:00:00 PM

The Truth that Inbound Marketing Agencies Don’t Want You to HearAt Imagine we work with growth obsessed, forward leaning executives who want to hear the truth about sustaining and scaling growth. We take a lot of pride in our ability and willingness to tell our clients (and prospects) what they need to hear and to teach them what they need to know, rather than what they would want to or like to know.  

Today I want to take that same approach with you, the readers of this blog, as I share with you the truth that inbound marketing (and other sales and marketing) agencies don’t want you to know. It’s not working. It’s not working for clients, and the reality is, it’s not working for the agencies either.

Today, more blogs posts, landing pages, infographics, video, emails, etc. are being created than ever before, and what do most businesses have to show for it? Higher expenses, complicated and confusing websites and more noise that must be dealt with to “break through.” Oh, and what is the response from the very marketing agencies that caused this problem to begin with? Simple - produce more content and spend more money on pay-per-click.

It’s no wonder that Kip Bodnar, CMO at HubSpot, recently shared that marketers “fuck everything up.” But why? What’s happened? How has the promise and excitement of inbound marketing ended up in a cacophony of noise and “me too-ism”? More importantly, what can companies and growth executives do about it?

If you’re implementing (or considering) inbound marketing, don’t lose faith. The fundamental principles are sound, and the approach is producing amazing results (at lower costs) for those companies that are executing the process appropriately.  

While the focus of this post is on inbound marketing, to be fair, everything I share here applies to other aspects of the modern demand generation playbook. Websites, sales development, marketing automation, content marketing and more are getting more investments and attention than ever before, while only a small percentage of companies see any real benefit.

So how can such a strong idea be creating such tepid results for the vast majority of advocates, and why are the “expert” practitioners (agencies), well in the words of the founding father of inbound marketing’s own CMO said, “fucking everything up?”

Here are the three key truths that agencies don’t want you to know:

The Agency Model is Flawed

Understand that most agencies are not in the “grow your business” business. Rather, they’re in the “find ways to keep you coming back and needing more” business. Okay, I admit that’s a cynical viewpoint that doesn’t apply to a few agencies. However, for most, it’s the truth.

I should also mention that this is not all the agency’s fault, clients are equal co-conspirators. It’s exhausting when you work with companies and executives that talk about their desire and commitment to rapid growth. Then they bristle when they’re told what their shortcomings are, fail to invest adequately in the effort, are unwilling to test, experiment and iterate (which means accepting the value of being wrong) and react with unrealistic expectations.

If you run an agency (or are responsible for client “management”), you’re incentivized to keep clients happy because happy clients are more likely to stay longer and pay fees. So what do they do? They pursue vanity metrics that make you feel good and activities that make you feel good about paying their fees. They use data to constantly reinforce that things are working, yet fail ever to provide real actionable insights from the data. The result is a (comparatively) highly trafficked website generating higher volumes of leads that never quite turn into the revenue that was promised.

With these shortcomings becoming increasingly clear, what are agencies doing about this today? They’re offering more services and “moving down the funnel.” That’s right, your lead generation and lead management process is really working and the solution is that they want to provide sales services to fix that.  

What You Should Do:

  1. If the agency you’re working with isn’t leading the process, challenging you on a regular basis and backing it up with a strong understanding of your business mixed with a profound understanding how things work, then you’re working with the wrong agency. And don’t fall for the “this is really complicated, you wouldn’t understand” excuses. If you’re working with someone who understands what needs to be done, they will be able to teach you.
  2. If your agency doesn’t readily, openly and vigorously share the mistakes being made and what’s being learned, it’s time to make a switch. When’s the last time your executive team implemented an important initiative without some missteps and mistakes along the way? Then don’t expect it when launching something as complicated growing your business.  
  3. Don’t skimp on fees (more on this below). Don’t just accept the fees being proposed. Challenge the agency and see how they defend their fees. When are they willing to walk away, and how do they explain the drivers of those costs.

You’re Paying for the Wrong Things

A couple of weeks ago I shared that good content is a commodity. In this post I asked this question:

If you wanted to win the Daytona 500, would you buy jet fuel and put it in your 1984 Pontiac Fiero, or would you build a powerful engine to put in a Toyota Camry?

Too much attention and focus is paid on the shiny parts of marketing when the real value is in the plumbing, or operations and processes that make things work. The most frustrating thing about sales and marketing is that you can merely check boxes and be successful. You can’t simply “do what someone else who was successful did,” and expect to get success yourself.  

Instead, you must build a demand generation and management process that transforms awareness, interest and engagement into bona fide sales opportunities and revenue. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this one point: the value of an agency or an advisor does not lie in the answers or plans they provide. Instead in lies in their ability to ask great questions, interpret data and actions, then adjust.

What You Should Do:

  1. If you’re in the process of selecting an agency (or hiring an executive to run things internally for you), don’t choose the one that has the best story or gives you the best answers. Instead, choose the one that asks the best questions and responds to the unknown most effectively. If you’re already working with one, be sure they continue to ask those challenging questions and if they don’t, switch your agency.
  2. While you certainly need to continue to pay attention to your content strategy, put more focus on the process. Ask your agency (or executive) how interest is transformed into revenue (and if the answer isn’t concrete and clear, realize that it’s not a real answer). Spend more time reviewing your playbooks (you do have playbooks don’t you?) and ensure that they’re constantly refined and improved.

Agencies Lack Sufficient Business Acumen to Create Effective Strategies and Drive Results

As I write this section, I can’t help but laugh a little bit. For years, when Imagine was focused primarily on the sales side of the equation, I often talked about the limiting factor of business acumen. I challenged people to stop being salespeople, and instead to become business people who sell.

As I sit here today, I remark that this problem now plagues marketing in general and agencies in particular. For those who have not read my posts on business acumen as it relates to sales, let me define it:

The ability to intuitively grasp the performance drivers for someone else's business – and then clearly explain how your product or service will drive THEIR results.  It's an "ROI on the fly" conversation that's an equal mixture of business understanding, asking the right questions and pouncing on opportunity when it presents itself.

Three trends have heightened the lack of business acumen to a highly acute status:

  • The demand for marketers has exploded over the last decade. The tidal wave of new marketers has simply overrun the ability or capacity to ensure that marketers understand the business issues they impact.
  • The complexity and requirements for good marketing have grown tremendously. It used to be if you had a blog you were different, worrying about the quality of the content or the “engine” were things you didn’t have to worry much about.
  • The economics of the marketing function doesn’t support the business acumen. Whether you’re running an internal marketing team for your company or a marketing agency, the cost structure simply doesn’t afford the luxury of business acumen, as business acumen is a scarce, highly valued talent.

The problem that good agencies have is that they’ve grown. As they grow, they have to hire more people and their economics mean that whatever business acumen they have is spread more thinly, while simultaneously the threshold and need for business acumen have increased. The result? Lots of activity, with little true impact.

What You Should Do:

  1. Be sure to review the structure of the agency. How many employees do they have? How are they structured? Who’s got the business acumen and how is it integrated throughout the organization? Have whoever is/will be the strategist on your account explain your business to you, and then question them on it.
  2. Ask your agency how they teach and grow business acumen with their people. Remember that just because someone owns or runs a business doesn’t mean they have business acumen, so be certain that the people leading the effort have the capability.
  3. Have your agency (or marketing department) describe various scenarios where things don’t go as planned. Be sure they highlight how they’ll identify the scenario, the adjustments they’ll make and the impact it will have.

The bottom line is that inbound marketing and demand generation are not only still strong strategies - they’re absolutely necessary. However, just because more people say they do it, doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Quite the contrary, it’s hard...and it’s getting harder.  

Your job is to ensure that you’ve got the right people, with the right strategy and the right process, backed by the appropriate resources to deliver on a clear objective. When that’s your formula, you’ll find the success equation.