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Marketing Agency Secrets Exposed

Cover art for blog post: Marketing Agency Secrets Exposed

At Forge Marketing Group, we've built our reputation on a foundation of transparency, integrity, and an unwavering commitment to our clients. We believe in navigating the intricate world of marketing with a compass that points steadfastly toward these core values. In our journey, we've come across industry practices that don't quite align with our ethos. With the aim of fostering trust and empowering our clients with knowledge, we're pulling back the curtain to offer a candid look into these practices.

Proprietary Software

"Use our exclusive, state-of-the-art software," they say, but what's the catch? Proprietary software can be a double-edged sword. While it may offer unique insights, functionalities, and integrations, it can also be a way to lock clients into a service. It's crucial to assess whether these tools offer genuine value or if they're a glossy way to shroud processes in mystery while making it harder for clients to switch services in the future.

Reliance on proprietary software almost always leads to vendor lock-in. Transitioning away from an agency becomes a daunting task when all the client’s data and campaign history are tied up in the agency’s custom tools and can’t be migrated. This can put clients in a difficult position if the relationship with the agency sours or if they simply want to explore other options.

We’ve seen this happen a lot with businesses who work with website design and SEO agencies that use proprietary software to build websites. Unfortunately, when the businesses decide to fire the agency or cancel the subscription, they lose access to their website and must start over from scratch.

Proprietary software is, by nature, a closed ecosystem. Clients often have limited visibility into how the software works, what data it's collecting, and how it's interpreting that data. This lack of transparency and potential bias in the reporting tools can limit a client's understanding of their own campaigns. It can also be a significant issue when decisions based on the software's analytics directly impact a company's marketing strategy and budget allocation.

While proprietary software can be highly specialized, it isn't always superior to widely available tools or easy to use. Many open-source platforms and third-party solutions are robust, tried-and-true, well-supported, and continuously updated by the platforms or their community of customers.

And because proprietary software is often nuanced and not widely-used, clients may have to rely on the agency to show them how to use the platform or to navigate it for them. This occurrence adds to the sense of vendor lock-in mentioned earlier in this section.

This is not to say proprietary software doesn't have its place. When well-designed and supported, it can offer unique solutions tailored to specific marketing needs.

The key for clients is to maintain a critical eye and to determine whether the software is something they are certain will be beneficial over the long-term.

Clients who are considering working with an agency that uses proprietary software should ask the following questions:

  • Would we be able to migrate to another platform if this doesn’t work out?

  • To what extent will our efforts be impacted if we cannot migrate and we must start over?

  • Is this proprietary software being used in an area that experiences a lot of vendor turnover (e.g. online advertising)?

  • Is this proprietary software necessary, or can the agency use a more common alternative?

  • Can the data, content, and analytics be backed up or exported?

Reports that Lie by Omission

Data can tell a thousand stories, and unfortunately, some marketing agencies are fantastic at telling the most convenient one. Reports can lie by omission, highlighting irrelevant metrics while overlooking the data that matters most.

Agencies may provide reports that highlight vanity metrics — numbers that look impressive on the surface but don't actually correlate with business success.

Metrics like impressions, clicks, and even website traffic can be deceptive if they don't translate into leads, sales, or other meaningful actions. By omitting key performance indicators (KPIs) such as conversion rates, customer acquisition costs, or ROI, agencies can cover up the actual results of their efforts.

Another common issue is lack of context. Without context behind the numbers, clients can't determine the true results of campaign efforts or make informed decisions about their marketing strategies.

For example: A report might show a spike in traffic or leads, but without context, these numbers can be misleading. Was there a market trend, a viral event, or a change in the algorithm that contributed to these results? Or was a campaign actually successful?

Moreover, reports that omit negative results or areas for improvement do a disservice to clients. Marketing is rarely a story of unmitigated success; it's a dynamic field with ups and downs. Clients deserve to know what isn't working just as much as what is, as this information is crucial for refining strategies and improving performance.

Here's how clients can ensure they're getting the full picture:

  • Work with the agency to establish clear, business-focused KPIs from the outset.

  • Request that reports highlight successes but also challenges and areas for improvement.

  • Ask that reports provide context for the data to identify how certain factors might affect campaign results.

  • Ask for regular meetings to get opportunities to ask questions, discuss progress, and receive deeper insights.

In essence, reports should be a tool for insight and improvement, not just a showcase of successes. A trustworthy agency will be transparent, offering a complete and honest view of campaign performance.

Percentage-Based Management Fees

At first glance, percentage-based management fees can seem like a fair and straightforward pricing model. However, this structure can lead to a conflict of interest where agencies might prioritize budget increases over effectiveness, efficiency, and ROI.

Under this pricing model agencies could recommend increasing ad spend without a corresponding strategy to improve performance – resulting in diminished returns on investment.

Percentage-based management fees mean that an agency's compensation is directly tied to a client's advertising spend.

For example: If a client spends $10,000 on ads and the agency charges a 15% management fee, the agency earns $1,500. But if the agency can encourage the client to spend $20,000, their fee doubles to $3,000.

This ultimately forces the client to wonder whether the agency is asking them to increase their ad spend budget because they want to get paid more or because they truly believe it will improve the performance of the campaign.

Percentage-based management fees are unfortunately commonplace; however, there are some great and credible agencies that use this pricing model.

If a client is currently working with or is considering working with an agency that uses percentage-based pricing, they should protect their advertising investment by requesting that the agency:

  • Provides adequate, data-based reasoning if they recommend raising ad spend.

  • Shares transparent and detailed reporting on campaign performance.

  • Frequently meet to discuss campaign performance, progress, and updates.

  • Confirms that they are willing to reduce the ad spend budget upon request.

Long-Term Contracts

Among marketing agencies, long-term contracts are presented as a commitment to a lasting partnership, but they are often a trap that limits flexibility, adaptation, and ultimately accountability.

Agencies favoring long-term contracts argue that marketing strategies take time to yield results, which is true. However, rigid, long-term contracts can also serve as handcuffs, binding clients to an agency even if the partnership isn’t delivering the desired outcomes.

Agencies might also use long-term contracts to lock in revenue, ensuring a steady cash flow regardless of performance. For clients, this can mean a lack of agility in responding to market changes or pivoting strategies when necessary. The digital landscape is always shifting, and being tied to a lengthy contract can hinder the ability to adapt swiftly.

Moreover, long-term contracts can lead to complacency. Without the incentive to continually prove their value, agencies might not push the boundaries of innovation and performance as they should.

That said, not all long-term contracts are detrimental. When they include performance clauses, regular review periods, and clear exit opportunities; they can foster a healthy, results-oriented relationship.

Clients should however approach long-term contracts with caution. It’s also essential for clients to negotiate terms that offer an escape if the agency isn't meeting performance benchmarks or if the business's needs evolve. A good marketing agency will be confident in its ability to deliver results, and thus, won’t shy away from more flexible arrangements.

Selling Services Clients Don’t Need

One of the less savory practices in the marketing agency world is the tendency to upsell services that clients don't genuinely need. This practice not only strains client budgets but also diverts focus from strategies that would better serve the client’s business objectives.

Agencies – especially those with an extensive list of services – might push for additional offerings under the guise of being comprehensive.

For instance, an agency might insist that a complete rebranding is necessary when the client might only need a website refresh or improved content strategy. Or, they might suggest expensive and extensive social media campaigns when the client's target audience is more effectively reached through email marketing or SEO.

We’ve seen several agencies adopt this practice as they sell extensive video production packages with HD quality and professional actors to clients who aren’t planning to run advertisements on platforms that need such quality video.

This strategy benefits the agency in the short-term by increasing billable services, but often erodes trust and damages the agency-client relationship as a sufficient ROI isn’t produced. Naturally, clients are then left feeling that their marketing budget is not being used effectively and that the agency's recommendations are not in their best interest.

Clients should be wary of agencies that seem to push additional or enhanced services too aggressively – especially before a thorough understanding of the client's business and market position has been established.

It's important to question the rationale behind every recommended service and its direct impact on achieving business goals. A trustworthy agency will:

  • Take the time to deeply understand the client's business, audience, and objectives.

  • Propose a tailored strategy that aligns with the client's specific goals and budget.

  • Be able to clearly explain how each recommended service contributes to the overall strategy and desired outcomes.

Clients should seek partnerships with agencies that prioritize their needs and goals, providing strategic recommendations that are both necessary and effective. The focus should always be on value and performance, not volume of services provided.

Set It and Forget It Approach

Imagine planting a fruit tree and never watering it. That's the "Set It and Forget It" approach some marketing agencies follow when it comes to advertising campaigns. It's a passive, often neglectful strategy where agencies launch a campaign and pay little to no attention to its performance as they move on to the next client.

This methodology not only disregards the dynamic nature of digital marketing but also neglects the client’s evolving needs and goals. Consumer behaviors and algorithm changes are always changing which creates a continuous need for campaign and strategy adjustments in order for them to remain effective.

Just as consumer needs and behaviors are changing, so are the clients’ needs and goals. If a campaign is running without adjustments to address new or seasonal service offerings, adjusted sales goals, or occasional promotions, then it's doing a disservice to the client.

Moreover, this approach can lead to missed opportunities. Regular analysis of campaign data can uncover new insights, trends, and strategies that could significantly enhance marketing performance. Without this ongoing attention, agencies and clients alike might miss out on leveraging these opportunities for exceeding goals.

Clients should seek agencies that treat their campaigns as living, breathing entities that require constant care and improvements. Regular reports, performance reviews, and strategy sessions should be customary, ensuring that campaigns are always aligned with the client’s current objectives and the ever-evolving environment of online marketing.

Over-Selling, Under-Delivering

The allure of grand promises can be irresistible. Many marketing agencies in their pursuit of new clients might paint a picture of unparalleled success and guaranteed results. However, over-selling and under-delivering is a pervasive issue in the industry that can leave clients disillusioned and behind on their business goals.

Over-selling takes many forms, from promising unrealistic timelines for achieving results to guaranteeing ambitious results without a thorough understanding of the client’s market or challenges.

There are several negative consequences to over-selling. When the promised results inevitably fail to materialize, it can erode trust between the client and agency. Moreover, a misallocation of resources based on over-optimistic promises can impact a company's bottom line and its ability to invest in other areas of the business.

Under-delivering, on the other hand, stems from an agency’s failure to execute on the strategies it sells. This can be due to overextension, unrealistic market assumptions, lack of expertise, or simply a lack of commitment to the client’s success.

To avoid falling into the over-selling, under-delivering trap, clients should:

  • Work with an agency that will set realistic goals and reasonable timelines to achieve them.

  • Ask agencies to provide case studies, testimonials, or references before choosing to work with them.

  • Insist on clear, straightforward communication. A trustworthy agency should be able to articulate its strategies and the rationale behind them without resorting to hyperbole or jargon.

  • Establish clear benchmarks and regular check-ins to hold the agency accountable for the progress of its marketing initiatives.

Remember, in marketing, as in life, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A reputable agency will set realistic expectations and then strive to exceed them.

Marketing Jargon

"Optimizations," "growth hacking," "omnichannel marketing," – welcome to the labyrinth of marketing jargon, a language that agencies sometimes use with a lavish hand.

While industry terms are essential for precise communication, they can also be a smokescreen used to mystify simple concepts and to create an illusion of complexity where there is none. This can lead to clients feeling out of their depth and overly reliant on their agencies to translate their reports into plain language.

Marketing jargon becomes problematic when it obscures the truth, rather than clarify it. An agency might talk about "leveraging technologies to optimize consumer engagement and conversions," when in simpler terms, they're just using popular tools to improve how customers interact with the ads and make purchases. The excessive use of jargon can also mask a lack of substance, where fancy words are used in place of solid strategy and tangible results.

Clients should feel empowered to ask their agencies to demystify the jargon, but a good agency will be able to explain their strategies and the rationale behind them in plain language.

They should also be able to break down complex concepts into digestible pieces without patronizing or being condescending. Clarity and comprehension are key, so if an agency can’t explain their tactics in straightforward terms, it’s a red flag.

In the end, marketing jargon should be a tool for precision and clarity between marketers, not a barrier constructed between agencies and their clients.

Empowering Clients to Seek Exceptional Service

Though we pride ourselves on navigating the intricate landscape of marketing with a compass set firmly towards integrity and client success, we understand that many marketing agencies do not. By uncovering these pervasive industry practices, we hope to have empowered you to seek out marketing agencies that will do right by your business and who will deliver not only results but also quality service.


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