I never meant to start a marketing agency. In fact, I really, really, really did NOT want to start an agency.
The idea was to get out of the corporate world, have a little more flexibility, and work in this thing called the “gig economy”.
But once I started looking for work, more came in than I could handle alone. And it was work that fit the skillsets of people in my network – experts who wanted to collaborate on projects and do great things for clients.
So I built up a roster of subject matter experts (SMEs) and pulled them in strategically to offer a full-suite of marketing services. With more expert collaborators came more time for work, which meant more clients and then more experts…until one day I woke up and found I ended up leading the exact thing I didn’t want to start, though a bit non-traditional.
Life’s funny that way.
So why didn’t I want to start a traditional agency? What do I have against them? Time and again, I’ve seen agencies:
- Offer expertise but give you novices
- Offer expertise but give you jerks
- Sacrifice the important things for growth at any cost
- Use people like commodities, not human beings
Here’s why I hate that.
Beware the Marketing Novice or Guru
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on the Digital Marketing reddit or a copywriter group on Facebook and have seen a “marketer” post something like:
- “I just got my first client, how do I do the thing they’re paying me for?” or
- “I’m submitting a pitch to run someone’s Google Ads, what campaigns should I tell them to use? I’ve never really done Google Ads before.”
It’s pretty difficult for me to not jump in and ask them a single question: “Why?”
Why are you doing this? If you don’t have the experience or expertise, why would you take someone’s money? It’s like telling someone you’ll bring dessert and showing up with a single stale cookie.
That’s partially why I started my business – because I believe it’s morally wrong to lie to someone about the services you can provide. As a business owner myself, I need to be able to trust that the people I employ can actually do the job I’m hiring them to do.
In contrast to the novices, there are the experts. The “gurus”. These fall into two camps…
- True experts who know their time is valuable and charge handsomely for it. There’s no problem with that – if you’ve got an elite or rare skill, or do something incredible well, the market will reward that.
- True experts who are ego-centric and don’t play nice with others. These people baffle me, because marketing is a service business. Jerks should find a new industry to work in.
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Here’s an example.
My team was looking for a PR firm to help out with one of our clients, doing the whole RFP dance. One of the firms came highly recommended and seemed like the best in their field. I offered to have a conversation with them about the project to better inform their RFP, but they refused. They said they were so confident in their ability to go in there and dazzle the client that they didn’t need to tailor their pitch. As if they were so great at any project, they didn’t even need to research my client’s INDUSTRY in advance…
What they didn’t take into consideration was my role as one of the major decision-makers.
Needless to say, I politely took them out of the running. Even if you’re the world’s best quarterback, you still do the research on the other team you’re about to play.
Egos and arrogance are rampant in agency life, but there’s no place for them in mine.
The Consequences of “Growth at Any Cost”
I recently interviewed an Account Manager candidate for a role here at Arnold Marketing Consultants. She had just left an agency where she had more than TWO HUNDRED clients to manage. Not two. Not twenty. Two hundred.
She told me the story I’ve heard over and over – that her agency was focused on sales numbers and revenue growth over customer satisfaction and lifetime value. Growth at any cost means agencies must sell, sell, sell, even if it’s not the right fit and if it means the current team can’t best serve the current clients. Why do they do this? In part because they have an office and salaries to pay for and executive bonuses to pay out.
Growth at any cost is not the way. It doesn’t allow people to live like humans instead of robots and it leads to low-quality output that doesn’t make a difference for the clients.
With Arnold Marketing, I don’t want to take on more work than we can actually manage well. That’s why we currently have a waitlist – some of you reading this are on there! Being realistic and transparent with clients is something all agencies should do.
Staffing Up…and Down
Most agencies have huge overhead because of their trendy offices and large full-time teams.
When they gain a big client, they staff up. And when that client leaves, they lay people off. This constant breathing in and out of people is hard on the employees, who all know layoffs are frequent. It’s also hard on the clients since the agency will do and say anything to keep the client so they can cover their expenses.
I wanted to break this cycle too.
I started my agency with the intent to only use a team of freelancers and contractors to get the work done. It’s a modular approach that enables us to move quickly and assemble the best people for each clint and project. This flexibility keeps us scrappy and affordable – plus the work is much more effective since we give clients the attention they deserve and don’t have inexperienced interns/entry-level employees filling in gaps created by client overload.
For example, if a client needs a messaging strategist and social media specialist, I can easily pull in two experts from my roster who have experience in the industry, work well together, and tackle work quickly without pulling a lot of admin hours.
And about the fancy office…my team is fully remote so there’s no overhead in that area. They honor this flexibility by being amazing communicators and heads-down workers – our robust Slack threads are evidence. And we have a yearly offsite meeting in person to get that critical face-to-face time!
Though I’ll continue to use the modular approach, I did just hire our first full-time employee for a role that works best when it’s a 40-hour gig. I’m not afraid to pivot and innovate as needed when it serves clients best – non-traditional agencies like ours have that freedom.
There are plenty more milestones ahead for Arnold Marketing Consultants , and my goal is to keep fighting against the typical agency culture to benefit both our clients and my team. I know it’s the best way – the results and team culture speak for themselves.