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Marketers, Stop Looking to Agencies to Fix Long Term Problems with Short Term Solutions

By Jennifer Polk | April 05, 2016 | 3 Comments

Tomorrow, my colleague, Jay Wilson and I will host a free webinar on our recently published Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Marketing Agencies. As you might imagine, we talk to a lot of agencies and a lot of marketers who want to hire an agency for any number of reasons. In fact, both of us used to work for agencies. But, here’s the problem with marketers relying on agencies, or any outsourcing model for that matter. They often use those resources as short term solutions to fix long term problems.

Agencies and consultancies can be smart, strategic partners who can bring a unique perspective to marketing and business problems and infuse marketing with innovative and creative ideas.

Now let’s take off our rose-colored glasses.

This is rarely how agency engagements go.  Every agency says they’re a strategic partner and every marketer claims that’s what they’re looking for. Sometimes, it’s even true. But, more often, marketers don’t really know what they want, which means they aren’t exactly positioned to give direction to an agency. Yet, they do give direction, often misdirection, which leads to misunderstanding and misaligned objectives and incentives.

And when they do know what they want, or at least think they know what they want, they tend to be prescriptive, telling the agency exactly how to solve the problem and turning a smart, strategic partner into an order-taker. Really good agencies don’t take the bait. But everyone has to keep the lights on. So, inevitably, agencies end up with a roster of clients, some who view them as partners and others who view them as an extension of the internal staff, merely there to execute, using the agency as a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

There are 3 ways marketers are using agencies as short term solutions to long term problems:

  1. Hiring agencies to be your “ear to the ground”. Internal teams can get mired in the day-to-day running of the business, losing objectivity, creativity and connectivity to what’s going on outside. Agencies spend most of their time focusing externally, not internally, which gives them a unique perspective, particularly on emerging trends and techniques. Marketers should tap into that perspective, but marketing leaders also need to make sure they and their teams are looking up, around and outside the company on a regular basis to keep pace with the trends and techniques impacting their company, competitors and customers.
  2. Hiring agencies at the expense of internal talent development. Marketers often hire agencies to bring in expertise they lack internally or for staff augmentation, like supporting a campaign. Unfortunately, marketing leaders can grow dependent on these resources and under-invest in internal talent. This can actually hinder agency creativity, drain the marketing budget and impact recruitment, retention and the talent pipeline. Marketers should take a balanced approach to sourcing, which involves a mix of external and internal resources with the goal of building—not just buying—the marketing skills they’ll need to remain competitive.
  3. Hiring agencies and paying your team to manage the agencies. Managing the agency is part of most marketers’ responsibilities, but it shouldn’t be their sole responsibility. Yet, many marketing leaders turn the agency relationship over to their direct reports as soon as the RFP process is over. Marketing leaders should have visibility into the agency role, how their direct reports are engaging the agency and how much time they’re spending managing the agency versus managing marketing themselves. Review status reports and monthly billing. Meet with the account lead. Get a sense of the requests being made versus your team’s actual output.

Join us tomorrow to learn how marketers’ priorities are changing, hear how the agency landscape is evolving and review the results of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Marketing Agencies.

Comments are closed


  • You make some very good points, Jennifer. That being said, I can remember a time when being a marketing practitioner required skills beyond the creation of a Statement of Work and the corresponding program management of all ‘actual work’ that’s being outsourced to agencies and contractors.

    What puzzles me, about the current state of ‘progressive marketing’ expertise development, is the typical CMO’s indifference to the issue. I’m curious, do you have any insight to share about why the bar of expectations has apparently been lowered in many organizations?

    • Dave, you’re right! And you ask a great question.

      I suspect some CMOs lack visibility into exactly who is doing what between their agencies and internal teams. Since marketing directors and managers are often the ones in direct communication with the agencies, they tend to control the flow of requests. Agencies are reluctant to step on their toes by blowing the whistle.

      In other cases, CMOs know their teams lack certain skills and they rely on agencies more than they should. Maybe it’s easier to hire an agency than to recruit, retain and train employees, or even get approval for FTEs.

  • Ishan says:

    Small but insightful blog in someway related to the topic being discussed.

    Have a look!