About a year ago, before I became a HubSpotter, I stopped wasting my company's precious money and fired our marketing agency. It wasn't that difficult of a decision to make, but it was an extremely expensive lesson to learn -- to the tune of about $70,000.
In a previous life, I was a small business owner. When I joined the company in September 2011 (we'll call it the Acme Startup Company), my business partners had just spent two years in research and development. They managed to round up enough money to get them through the early days and come out on the other end with a prototype for the Acme software product. When they asked me to work with them, they were nearing a product launch. And part of their strategy to support that launch was hiring a marketing agency.
We Needed Leads, They Gave Us Twitter Followers
When I was introduced to the agency owners and account managers, they jumped right into talking about how critical building an online presence would be to a successful launch -- which at first sounded like the right plan. However, my business partners and I made it clear that our number one priority at the time was to generate sales leads, and we asked them to develop a plan for how they'd help us do that. But instead of focusing explicitly on lead generation, they encouraged us to build a Twitter presence, a Facebook business page, and drum up two or three good press releases announcing our company's launch. In the meantime, they would be pitching both local and national “rags” to get feature articles written about our company. At first we went along with it. We all figured, "Hey, we've never really tried this approach before, so maybe it's worth a shot."
The Customers Started Coming, But …
Four months and 30 new customers later, we were seeing some traction, but we couldn't tie a single one of those customers back to our agency's work. So on New Year's Day 2012, I sat down and wrote out our businesses goals for that year -- the total number of leads we would need, lead conversion rates, cost of customer acquisition, total number of new customers, revenue per customer, lifetime value of each new customer -- and about 20 pages worth of strategy about how we would achieve those numbers. I sat down with our agency, shared the plan, defined their responsibilities (as well as our responsibilities), shared all the numbers, our expectations, and a timeline for them to achieve their goals (milestone #1 was in 3 months).
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service
Three months later and a grand total of $70,000 poorer, it was time to say goodbye. The agency just never produced the results we cared about. And probably worse, they felt like they did but could never produce a report to prove it to us. All we had to show for this mess was a new website design (which we ended up changing twice in the following 6 months), 600 Twitter followers, a few ad designs, about 10 feature articles about our business in unknown news outlets, and 3 press releases (which, by the way, we wrote, and had to pay $600 a pop to release). We fired the agency, and it was about time.
I share this story not because I think marketing agencies are worthless. In fact, many agencies are absolutely worth your money and will deliver awesome business results. But there are some key lessons we learned throughout our own experience that both agencies and business owners can benefit from.
Advice for Marketing Agency Owners
Lesson #1: Don't Forget Why You Were Hired
Regardless of the size of your client's business, they (should) have a very specific reason why they hired you. Figure out what that reason is, and don't forget it.
Lesson #2: Challenge (the Hell Out of) Your Clients’ Assumptions
Actively listen to what your clients are telling you -- they might say things like, "We need a new website" or "We need to figure this social thing out" or "We need to work on our SEO." Be a child and ask, "Why?" at least five times before giving up. Only then will you uncover the real reason why they want you to do something for them.
Lesson #3: Measure Your Impact on the Client's Business
If you can't tie the work you've done directly back to the performance of your client's business, you're probably going to get the axe sooner or later. I know it isn't easy, but it can be done.
Advice for Small Business Owners
Lesson #1: Hire Marketing Agencies Only When You Can't Solve Your Problems Solo
This may sound obvious, but most small business owners think they can't do marketing alone. You not only can, but you'll be surprised how much more work you can squeeze out of yourself in the face of adversity.
Lesson #2: If You Decide to Hire, Hire Only Thought Partners
If you hire a "Yes Man" marketing agency, you're done for. You might as well be flushing every single dollar you give them down the drain. You need people to challenge your thinking, and get them to drive results for your business. That's why you hired them, isn't it?
Lesson #3: Hold Your Marketing Agency Accountable for Producing Results
This is just baseline business sense, but don't get caught up in buzz words like "brand presence," "go-to-market strategy," "microsite," "QR code," or "targeted campaign." If you're anything like me, all I cared about was the bottom line -- "How many new customers did you bring me this month, how many sales dollars did they produce, and what did it cost me for you to bring them in?" If you sniff any sense of a loss (AKA "in the red"), start sharpening your axe ... you might need it.
Have you ever fired a marketing agency? What lessons did you learn from the experience?
Originally published Jul 24, 2012 4:30:00 PM, updated July 28 2017