How (not) to Hire in Outsourced Marketing: A Buyer’s Guide

Think fast: What do corn and marketing have in common?

Not setting up a punchline here—although I’m accepting them in the comments, if you’ve got a good one. (It’s the Internet. Don’t let me down.)

Seriously. What do they have in common?

The one-word answer you’d probably expect is: Nothing. After all, one’s a grain; the other is a protracted exercise in getting attention to grow a business, organization, or cause. Corn and marketing have exactly zip in common. That’s the answer. Or it should be.

But as time goes on, the truth of the matter, especially as it pertains to business leadership, is that the answer depends entirely on who you ask.

It depends who you ask because if you ask certain parts of the org chart—procurement, for example—of if you ask business leaders who made a career in manufacturing, or who have a line-item orientation to their company finances, they’ll tell you they favor buying marketing services the way a cereal maker buys its corn.

Like a commodity.

And why not? There’s plenty to like about a commodity market. The economics are simple. It’s input-output, supply-and-demand stuff. That makes for predictable pricing models, and transparent cost factors, each of which is an advantage if you’ve got any concern for accurate projections or your bottom line. What’s more, there’s no difference between corn supplied by Farmer A and corn supplied by Farmer B; as a buyer, you can effectively sort by ‘Price: Low to High’ and expect more or less the same thing.

Hiring for marketing services, on the other hand, is a very different matter. Industry-wide, the cost factors that drive marketing services pricing are notoriously opaque (that, by the way, is one of the things that Simpatico is working to change). So much so that it surprises even us. In 2017, we unseated another marketing agency to win an enterprise eCommerce project. During the proposal stage, when our client took our bid back to the incumbent, the agency principal rebuffed: “I can’t even build you a five-page website for that amount!” That incumbent, by the way, had bid $500,000 to complete the same work. Our price wasn’t peanuts, but it wasn’t that much, either. Because the scope, by our most conservative estimate, wouldn’t amount to anywhere near a half-million dollars in time and materials. (Incidentally, if any agency after 2011 is trying to tell you they charge for website builds by the page, run away.)

We found ourselves in a similar scenario with a different prospect six months later. Word made it back to the shop that the guy signing the checks had asked, for a sanity check along the way, “How in the world could there be such a difference in these estimates?”

Good question. Damn good question. And in the absence of any kind of transparency, or without any frame of reference, how are you, as a responsible marketing leader, or as an entrepreneur trying to squeeze out some semblance of profit, supposed to know the answer?

Fixing the Blank Check Problem

Classically, the remedy to this conundrum—at the enterprise level, at least—has been to start with a budget number, and find a partner who’s willing to back themselves into it. This is what I’ve got for you, says you, our fearless CMO and protagonist of this article, and this is what I need. Either the candidate agency will accept the challenge, or they won’t. And voila: through natural attrition, you’ve found yourself the perfect marketing partner: Somebody who’s able to give you exactly what you want for exactly what you can afford.

Just how problematic this pattern of thinking is should be obvious to anyone who’s spent any length of time in creative services, or for that matter any kind of services business. Effectively what you’ve done is written out every part of the check except the Pay to the order of line and said, “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” What business in their right mind wouldn’t shout back, “Everything you said you need!”?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s proper, and polite, to, at some point during the review process, reveal to the candidate agency the upper limits to your spending abilities. Doing so saves umpteen rounds of volleying between your internal contracts team and agency’s proposal writer, because most contract volleying is usually circling around whether your company can bear to finance the agency’s recommendation.

But the main issue is that there are a number of freelancers, one-person shows and even team-based agencies out there who will reply to any boolean question about viability with a simple ‘yes’—that is, they’re content to promise anything to win the contract, without regard to what reputation damage they might incur by overpromising and underdelivering. Right-minded agencies don’t just give a commitment. They ask clarifying questions, and propose a middle ground. If you award work to an agency who hasn’t done that, it’s you, the client-to-be, who loses; you’ve just agreed to exchange precious budget not for a guarantee, but for an implied promise that a competent second-opinion might have told you is completely unrealistic.

Is there a better way? The good news is, there is.

Automation, A.I. and Your Marketing Program

Too many creative professionals waste energy lamenting the loss of work to that which can be automated. At first, it was code packaging and recycling. Part of what led to the emergence of WordPress as the clear leader in Content Management Systems is what it calls ‘plugins’: micro code sets which are affordable, and built to plug-and-play into web projects of virtually any size, scope or intention.

But while WordPress and its plugins have streamlined Web design processes significantly (and is part of the reason why, in the case of the aforementioned client, we didn’t quote $500,000 for their project), it didn’t render Web designers useless. Why? For one, code sets from different developers don’t automatically play nicely together. Nor do they automatically meet brand styles, aesthetic preferences, or user expectations. So now, instead of scratch-programming—i.e., developing interactive projects from the first line of code—Web designers today find themselves redirecting their efforts, manipulating someone else’s code to conform to the master requirements doc of their project. Which sounds like a lot, but is still less work than the redundant work of ground-up builds.

So too with virtually every other marketing function. Stock code, stock design, shared resources of any kind—these things eliminate redundancy, shorten lead times, lower costs, and overall create win-win scenarios for both clients and for marketing agencies, particularly those agencies who understand the best use of their time is strategic thinking, not production for production’s sake.

Marketing Partners: Screening Out the Chaff

As code recycling gives way to automation, and as automation gives birth to Artificial Intelligence, there’s little question that a great deal of the production work that businesses depend on marketing partners for will, sooner or later, be almost entirely, if not completely, automated. We’re approaching that reality more rapidly than you might expect. And that’s part of why Cost:Value Ratio is more important than ever when vetting outsourced marketing partners and awarding contracts.

If you think of even one of said benefits as a commodity, then you’re effectively arguing that you, yourself, are a commodity.

Automatability of certain functions, however, hardly relegates quality marketing partners to the rank of commodity. The value of the agency—if they know what they’re doing, and if you’re hiring for the right reasons—doesn’t end at, or even begin with, production or fulfillment. The agency’s value is its broad, cross-industry knowledge, its multidisciplinary skillset, its singular focus on the pulse of your target audience, its readiness to educate you on user expectations, the competitive intelligence and context it provides, and the ability to extrapolate and interpret the whole environment in which you operate for the benefit of your business goals.

If you think of even one of said benefits as a commodity, then you’re effectively arguing that you, yourself, are a commodity. That, of course, is silly. Leaders like you don’t grow on trees—or stalks, as it were.

When screening marketing partners, your main goal should be to ascertain the extent to which (1) the agency team’s braintrust is cerebral in approach, and (2) the project team is prepared to roll up their sleeves and do the work on your behalf. A great way to deduce these things is to ask the agency, at the point of proposal delivery, how they arrived at their numbers. I’m here to tell you that yes, that’s kosher. The answer should be a function of:

  • labor required
  • hourly rate
  • material costs
  • vendor costs
  • media costs

Keep an open mind, but if the even one of these variables seems off-kilter and can’t be explained, it’s probably safe to bet the candidate agency either doesn’t understand their pricing model, or they do, but they aren’t ready to share it with you. If the former, their competence to help you meet your business objectives should be questioned. If the latter, you’re rolling the budget dice each time you commission them for work.

Marketing leaders will never have the same buying luxuries that their counterparts in commodity procurement do—not completely, anyway—and that’s OK. The trick is to understand how your needs, or your requirements doc, drives the cost equation on your agency partner’s side. So long as you do your homework, and you’re honest with yourself and the agency, you’ll eliminate many question marks in the outsourcing process.

Bottom line? Don’t accept opacity. Demand transparency—if you hope to derive even a kernel of value from your marketing partner.


Also posted on LinkedIn

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