Is Your Agency Holding You Hostage?

Does the word hostage sound a little harsh? It’s meant to. I could have said “Is Your Agency Taking Advantage of You”, but this is a conversation about something broader than exploitation. The situation I’m driving at is one in which a marketing agency is holding its client back from its true potential.

If you’re asking, how can a marketing agency have this kind of power, my answer is this; it has control over its clients’ day-to-day marketing activities—or some portion of them, at least. (Take a look at my colleague Paul Richlovsky’s post about the role of an agency for more in-depth thoughts on this). If it is not executing effectively or sharing results transparently, an agency is holding its clients’ marketing efforts hostage as well as all of the corresponding benefits of marketing, such as increased revenue and business growth.

The majority of brands that hire agencies do so with the intention of confidently entrusting these agencies with tasks they don’t have the bandwidth, the knowledge, or the skills (or some combination of these three) to perform themselves. The numbers show, though, that this agency-marketer relationship, is lacking in its most fundamental and necessary trait: trust.

In the timeless words of Etta James;

We Can Get Along, Only if You Trust in Me.Fig. 1 - AdAge Survey Graph

Marketing is a complex world and you (should) have much bigger problems than being able to trust your agency. Still, a large quantity of marketers consider this relationship dynamic one of their most significant dilemmas. According to a recent survey done by Ad Age, 41% of Ad Age readers consider “Improving Trust Between Marketers & Agencies” the most important marketing & advertising issue in 2016.

This is the fourth highest concern, coming in directly after:

  • Making marketing more efficient (55%)
  • Improving creative excellence (54%)
  • Finding new ways to reach consumers as they block or skip ads (52%).

My main takeaway from these numbers, and what should be yours as well, is that these first three concerns belong there. They are prevalent, deep-rooted issues that are becoming even more difficult to solve as marketing continues to modernize at a rate faster than anyone can keep up. The fact that trust issues come in at number four, right underneath all of these heavy hitters, is, frankly, a little sad.

What’s worse, though, is that this is nothing new. Ad agency RPA conducted a survey in 2014 in partnership with USA Today, which found many of the same—if not worse—results in terms of marketing agency-client trust. Before I launch into the numbers, consider this client quote, which was used to frame the rest of the survey results: “Honestly, I simply don’t trust any of my agencies to actually solve my marketing problems.”

Need I say more?

When asked what leads to the best advertising, both agency & client respondents of the RPA survey felt exactly the same; 98% of agencies surveyed as well as 98% of clients surveyed believed that clients trusting their agencies leads to the best advertising. And yet, 56% of clients surveyed felt their agencies seemed more interested in ‘selling their work’ than ‘solving our problems’.

Whether this problem stems from purposeful deceit or from a simple miscommunication of priorities, the fact remains that brands need an agency that empowers their marketing potential.

So, You Think Your Agency is Holding You Hostage – How to Know & What to Do

Of course, there are problems on both sides of the aisle and two sides to every story. The client typically stands to lose more from a toxic agency-client relationship, though. Knowing the universal red flags below—which stand true regardless of an agency’s individual operating model—will give you a leg up when trying to identify if you need to rethink your current agency choice.

  • Promising results that are too good to be true with little or no follow through
  • Providing data that is unclear and difficult to understand—or not providing any data
  • Lacking transparency into the progress of milestone projects as well as daily tasks
  • Not asking about, listening to, or aligning strategy to your business goals
  • Using too much marketing jargon or overly technical terms in regular communication

While there will always be snakes in the grass, marketers should be working with an agency they know they can trust; if there’s any doubt, it’s not a good fit.

Whether you’re looking for a transformational partner or an SEO vendor, the foundational elements of a productive agency-client relationship should always rely on the same traits: transparency, communication, and effective execution.


Did you like this post? Let us know why (or why not) in the comments. In the meantime, check out our blog Marketing Vision: Inspiring Transformation for more of Fathom’s take on the influential role marketing can play in an organization.

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