What is your value as an agency? Is it in the execution of the work you produce for clients? Or is your selling point rooted in your ideas and strategy?

The answer to these questions results in two very different types of agencies and two different types of relationships with clients.

But it’s worth considering because while people tend to talk about how marketing has changed, it’s also worth noting that marketers’ attitudes toward marketing have also evolved.

“For a while, digital marketing was specialized labor, and companies were looking at it as, ‘It’s really hard, it’s complex, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick, so we’ll just outsource that,’” said Jim Cuene, president of GoKart Labs.

Now digital is at the core of any marketing strategy, and talent skilled in these tactics no longer only haunt the halls of agencies. This may be a contributing factor in the rise of in-house agencies: In 2013, ANA conducted a survey that found that the penetration of in-house agencies is at 58%, a jump of 16% in five years.

So why do marketers still need agency relationships? What can’t they do or staff for in-house? What opportunities should your firm pay attention to?

Cuene thinks the opportunity is about providing access to highly skilled, creative talent, and in turn, having these people teach clients to be better, more strategic digital marketers.

And that’s why GoKart’s goal with clients -- beyond producing great work -- is for their clients to eventually fire them.

Why You Should Work to Get Fired

“Clients hire agencies like us because we know things that they don’t know,” Cuene said. “More importantly, we know things that that they want to know. I think an important part of our whole value proposition, the whole reason for us to be a partner for our clients, is to help them see what we see.”

GoKart Labs, an independent digital innovation consultancy, was founded in Minneapolis in 2009. Currently, it employs around 50 people. While its main services include product design and development, the agency also serves as a business incubator for its own ventures. The firm has launched five businesses in six years, attracting $14 million in investment funding for those startups. In addition, they provide marketing services support, specifically around launching a product and early campaigns.

“We build brands, but we don’t do a lot of advertising,” said Cuene, who was the director of digital marketing at General Mills prior to joining the agency.

GoKart’s projects typically begin before a formal agency relationship begins or outside of this partnership due to their focus on product design, but they also believe that the marketing aspect should be adopted and handled by the brand’s internal team eventually. They’ve even helped clients to hire this team to execute on the marketing work that GoKart started.

“Our bet is firmly on doing higher value, more strategic work, and we know that means our work isn’t going to put us in a position to do two- or three-year retainer deals,” said Cuene.

He believes this is a more sustainable approach for clients, and it solves the relationship fatigue issue.

When client-agency relationships built around tactical execution span into long-term partnerships, “the work tends to lose the innovative nature because the agency knows so much about how the client works that they start tuning the work to what will get bought and what will be accepted,” he said.

With the goal of educating clients to the point where GoKart Labs is phased out, the agency can focus on and do the work it does best -- and it can staff specifically for producing work from a high level of expertise.

“The value [of our services] isn’t in the labor that we provide,” Cuene said. “It’s in the knowledge, the experience, and the method.”

But that doesn’t mean the relationship should end with a swift push out the door. Agencies need to make sure clients have the education and skills they need to be able to manage the marketing aspect.
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An Agency-Style Education

Cuene believes that by teaching clients to think like your agency does and do marketing in a similar way, the end result is better work for the client and stronger, more collaborative relationships. The clients are more open about their business and their issues when the conversation moves from "this is what we'll do" to "this is how you'll do this." With this approach, clients have to consider not just what needs to be accomplished but how they will do it, which helps them see things from the agency's point of view and be more open about the challenges and potential roadblocks that could occur. 

“It’s a really gratifying collaboration because that teacher-knowledge-transfer model creates a lot of trust and a lot of confidence,” said Cuene.

With this in mind, GoKart focuses on three main areas of education for its clients:

1) Digital Marketing Tactics & Trends

GoKart, through informal training sessions or by sharing examples, rubrics, or guidelines, educates its clients on best practices and trends in technology and digital marketing.

This aligns with the #1 area of value -- expertise in emerging trends -- for clients, according to the Society of Digital Agencies’ 2015 report.

Training can include anything from how to run a Facebook advertising campaign to trends in mobile video, basically anything the client needs to understand to better run their own marketing effectively.

This would require some self-examination, including a look at the processes and procedures an agency follows to execute on a marketing plan. To teach someone else or to put in writing how you do something and why it is done that way makes you completely rethink each step, but this would be a positive step in becoming a more productive, efficient organization -- one of the main ways agencies can increase their margins

2) Agile Marketing Methods

Digital work needs to be done faster, which means marketers need new ways of concepting, building, and launching projects.

GoKart educates clients on how to work like a startup, even if they are housed within a more traditional organization. Understanding agile project management processes, such as sprints and scrum development, is essential to creating a more responsive, user-focused marketing approach.

In addition, agile can be applied far beyond marketing -- to how a company or team makes decisions, learns, and improves.

3) Digital as a Cultural Change Agent

This is more ambiguous, but it’s about how people think and act differently in a digital culture. How do you make decisions about your company, your products, your staff, and your customers when you have access to digital tools? How do people communicate differently? This is still a struggle for many companies that are dealing with how to manage people when communication -- both internally and externally -- is no longer under their control and when compliance is seen as the enemy of innovation by many younger executives.

GoKart doesn’t just want to teach the how-to's though. Cuene says they focus on teaching methods, such as its Playing Field approach to setting goals. Training clients on how to think through issues or approach problems results in more creative, personalized approaches. It’s about pushing clients to think strategically while also giving them a framework so they can feel confident in the ownership of the results.

Cuene believes that because of the nature of the work they do and the educational model they have adopted, this has helped them to avoid the vendor-style or “outsourced labor” relationship that can often become the setup between the two parties.

And in 2016, the team plans to launch a more formal way for clients -- and the public -- to learn. This won’t be the team’s first foray into the online education space. It recently launched The Big Know, where brands produce online courses for anyone. For example: AARP created a four-week class called Be Happy: How To Bring More Joy To Your Life, with support from UnitedHealthcare.

Let's Get Fired Again, and Again, and Again

While GoKart wants their clients to eventually fire them, it doesn’t mean they don’t want long-lasting relationships.

Eventually, they hope clients come back, looking for a new idea or a new product to launch.  

“My belief is based on experience inside a very large organization,” Cuene said. “The agencies that were the most successful were the ones that worked more like management consultancies but simultaneously delivered really creative work. At the end of the day, the best approach is to share everything you know to help the client figure out the problem, trusting that the output will be useful.”


Originally published Nov 23, 2015 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Losing Clients