The Agency Reputation Crisis: How did we get here, and how can we get out?

Over the past 12 months, I have been invited by Google to speak to agencies about how we run a successful agency. I spoke in London, Milan, Istanbul, and Berlin in front of some of the best agencies in the world. When they asked me the question: “what is the one thing that every agency can do to be more successful?” my answer has always been the same:

If every single agency delivered a remarkable experience to its customers, then every single agency would be more successful and more profitable.

There is still a huge number of potential advertisers who are skeptical of working with agencies. There is still a large number of potential clients who, when you walk in and tell them that you are from an agency, act as if you are telling them you’re the Antichrist, running to grab their crosses. For many, agencies have a terrible reputation but why? What caused such a poor reputation?

The main causes are low quality of work, lack of transparency and fear.   

Low quality of work

In 2013 we built Genie Goals, a digital marketing agency that specialises in paid channels and works exclusively with retail brands. Our goal was to revolutionise digital marketing for retail brands but also to positively impact the whole industry and improve the reputation of agencies. As part of our sales process, we audit an incredible number of accounts. Often these accounts are in terrible shape, either because there was clearly a lack of talent and expertise within the team at the agency that managed the account, or because there was a lack of resources, and too little time was assigned to the account.

On one hand, that makes our sales process very easy; it’s a no-brainer for the client to switch agency and come to us, especially when we show them what we would do, why, and what results the changes would be likely to produce.

On the other hand, it always makes me sad because I know that accounts in such terrible shape and teams that deliver such bad performance dent the advertiser’s trust and confidence in agencies. How many times does an advertiser need to be burned before they lose total confidence in the whole industry and decide to bring the activity in-house? Or even worse, decide that a particular channel ‘doesn’t work’?

We have managed to persuade clients who had lost all confidence in PPC or social media to give it another try, and helped them see that these could in fact be effective channels for their business. After a few weeks of high-quality work, these channels turned out to perform, and within a few months to a couple of years, they had become the biggest source of revenue and new customers for these clients.

But how many ‘unpersuadable’ customers are there for each one that we win? If every single agency did an incredible job, if they delivered on their promised performance, then the reputation of the industry in general would be better and we’d all win – you, us, everybody.

Higher confidence in the industry = higher demand. Higher demand = more business.

That’s exactly why I wrote the book, ‘THE AGENCY: How to build a remarkable agency business that wins and keeps clients’ in which I describe in detail everything we did in the attempt to not only create a successful business for ourselves but also improve the industry and the reputation of agencies.

Lack of transparency

Whenever agencies begin to hide the truth or change the facts, trouble starts. Even when they think they ‘got away with it’, the truth will come up in one shape or another and bite hard enough to leave permanent scars, on everyone. We saw agencies misstating the truth in order to both onboard new customers and hide mistakes with existing ones. The former is a bad idea because of obvious reasons, it hurts everyone and if customers take the time to do some due diligence, it’s very easy to uncover.

Most of the problems come when agencies hide the truth about performance or activity with existing customers. This is both stupid and unnecessary.

One of the things that most retail brands said to me during interviews I carried out while writing my book, is that one of the things that most annoys them is when, during meetings, agencies focus excessively on the small wins and try to hide or underplay the mistakes and things that didn’t go well. Customers want to see transparency and are far happier when we admit that results are not good if we give them good reasons and a strong narrative, and tell them exactly what we are going to do to improve performance.

Fear

When I completed my book, one of my contacts at Google who read it before publishing, praised me for sharing all that information with everybody. She thought it was remarkable that we were confident enough to share our ‘secrets’ with the world, including our competitors. All the successful agencies I know, share what they know. All the agencies that struggle don’t. All the agencies that are admired by other agencies and customers share their knowledge. All those who are poorly rated and continually lose customers, keep stuff to themselves. Why?

I think it’s because they are afraid that they might lose business to other agencies if they share their ‘secrets’. They approach their work from a place of scarcity, a place where everyone has to fight for the last bit of bread, and where everyone has to kill or be killed.

Instead, I think they must look at the landscape from a place of abundance. There is more than enough business for all of us, and by sharing, we’re more likely to learn more, collectively, and improve the effectiveness of the work agencies do. We are also more likely to increase the amount of value that customers get from agencies which in turn, would improve the reputation of agencies.

At that point, agencies can focus on winning business because of their unique specializations or benefits, because of how remarkable they are. At present, it feels like many customers work to ensure the agency they select is not bad.

Wouldn’t it be better if all customers could work to ensure the agency they select the the best for them rather than not the worst?

The good news is that there are more and more agencies leading the way with an open, transparent and etchical approach. These, I feel are the future. And natural selection will, in my opinion, do its true magic and refine the landscape and help us all give agencies the good name, some, deserve.