For all the ways that digital media has changed the marketing landscape in recent decades, it's done very little to alter the way that designers, agencies, and marketing firms themselves actually work. With a handful of notable exceptions, most still follow an old-world approach that was prevalent in the '40s and '50s... and probably even earlier than that.
It's the same approach you've seen celebrated in TV shows like Mad Men - and I can't argue with the fact that it makes for great theatre. What I will tell you, though, is that the world of pitch meetings, liquid lunches, and creative awards is probably doing very little to help you grow your business or reach your most important customers in our always connected, always online world. How could it? It basically amounts to making things up as you go along.
At my company, we think it's time they started teaching evolution (of the agency model) in marketing classes. Below, I'm going to give you some of the finer points to this approach. Feel free to explore and implement them, both in-house and with the digital agencies you work with.
Glitz Isn't Enough Anymore
The biggest challenge I see with the traditional agency approach to marketing and advertising is that it's about entertainment. Even worse, there appears to be preference for entertaining existing customers over attracting new ones, for attempting to squeeze every drop out of their budgets vs accessing new ones.
This is where the theatre of unveiling things like artwork and slogans comes into play - it's fun for everyone, and it feels like a creative breakthrough. But for all the clever quips and dramatic pauses you get in these kinds of encounters, how often are real benefits to actual customers ever discussed? How much back-and-forth engagement do you get from a clever billboard or ad? Where does having an established new prospect process come into play or lifetime value enter the discussion?
Think about how differently these types of meetings would have to go if businesses were to demand actual results for their investments... or at least a sense of how spending money on these campaigns would lead to an increase in sales opportunities in the real world. That wouldn't be as much fun, but it would undoubtedly change the conversation.
Repeat after us: "fancy design doesn't sell anything." Communication does. Having aesthetic, consistent page structures is a great first step, and can help you attract interest from buyers. But it's the edge you get from industry research and understanding what make your customers tick, that ultimately generate the qualified leads.
What You Want Isn't on the Menu
No matter what city you live in, you've probably seen a local news special where reporters go "undercover" and reveal the dirty secrets lurking within an area restaurant or fast food chain. The reason these segments are so ubiquitous is that the underlying problem is, too - there are simply a lot of places that don't maintain the sanitary standards you'd wish they would.
If we were to have the same kind of special reports on marketing firms, the shocking truth they would undoubtedly uncover is that most agencies offer the same half-dozen services or "solutions" to their clients. Even though these businesses might have different goals, customer bases, and marketing personalities, they all get the same fast food specials.
Although there are bound to be some similarities from one situation to the next, the bottom line is that it's easy (lazy?) to keep selling the same package of products to different businesses. Conversely, a good agency will take the time to understand the situation and challenges you and your clients are facing, along with the threats/opportunities that are there for you but not your competitors, to develop a workable plan that makes sense.
Selling buzzwords and nice-sounding ideas is just another form of glitz. It might be easier, but as far as I'm concerned, it's not enough.
Those Who Can't Don't Teach... Because They Have Nothing to Share
One of the worst-kept secrets in the marketing industry is that a lot of clients don't really know exactly it is they're paying for. They don't generally have a great understanding of the concepts, strategies or tactics involved, and are almost wholeheartedly dependent on someone else to execute on their behalf.
So, why aren't creative teams doing more to teach their customers about things like visual design strategy, user experience, optimizing conversion opportunities, blogging strategy, social media networking, or modern search engine optimization guidelines?
In my experience, there are a couple of main reasons.
- The first is that they may want to preserve the notion that the services they are providing are incredibly complex, and maybe even include "secret" ideas that other vendors don't know - that way, they can charge a bit more without ever having to get into the topic of value.
- The second is that vague descriptions keep clients from properly understanding the plans or budgets that are put in front of them. For the business that's writing the checks, there are only two options: keep going (and paying), or start over from scratch with someone else.
At KAYAK, we pull back the curtain all the time because the reality is that there aren't any secrets or magic in what we do - we use the same techniques that our peers and competitors do, we just do them in concert with one another. By teaching our clients the how and why of the way we help them, we remove the mystery from the process and encourage their input.
When you're doing business the right way, there isn't anything to hide from the people who are paying you.
It's Time To Demand a New Business Model
Chances are, your digital agency has been treating you like you need training wheels, and you have been reasonably happy with this arrangement because you didn't have a reason to do things differently. But over time, this kind of relationship doesn't benefit anyone. If you and your creative team aren't working "on the same side of the table," so to speak, then how long can it really be before you find your interests are at odds?
The old-school approach to presenting creative, getting a bit of applause, paying the bill, and then moving on should have gone out decades ago, but it's still convenient for creatives as long as their clients don't request change.
Don't just demand to know what your digital agency is doing on your behalf; be an active participant. Insist that they teach you what they know, both so you can understand where your money is going and so you'll never be a hostage to your own website and online marketing plan.
In this day and age, you can find a business that's willing to work with you as a partner. But you have to take the bold first step of demanding more.
This post originally appeared on the Kayak Online Marketing blog