Marketing Agencies Are Dead? Give Me Strength

I don’t very often rise to blog posts but today’s bait was too rage-inducing, too nonsensical that it didn’t seem right to let it pass by unchecked, lest it taint people’s minds with unreasoned biased ramblings.

The blog post that caught my attention was “The Death of the Digital Marketing Agency” by Logan Hall.

The first rule of any “X is dead” blog post is that the person writing it always has an agenda.  In Logan’s case his entire argument is formed around the concept that growth hacking is a superior model and lo and behold he works for a growth hacking agency.

That should be enough for me stop this blog post now but let’s lay further salt on the ground of this ridiculous blog post so that nothing else can grow in its place, shall we?

Before we start I should add I have no horse in this particular race, as I no longer work for a digital agency, other than wanting to stir the pot and offer a counter argument based on my own experience studying hundreds of agencies.

If you can make it through Logan’s straw man argument you’ll come across a few key points that I’d like to counter as follows:

“Their narrow focus results in over optimised acquisition and unnoticed bottlenecks and opportunities, resulting in a lower performing business and sales funnel.”

In the past few years SEO agencies, for example, have adopted PPC, social media, analytics, content marketing, PR, data analysis and more. The industry has more tentacles than an octopus and the very idea that digital agencies are too stuck in one place just isn’t true in reality.

“From my experience they are neither concerned with the overall blended cost of sale, nor the more obvious opportunities that exist for growth. So long as they can maintain, and perhaps increase their retainer, they are ‘quids in’ and happy.”

If that were true then most agencies would have very few clients left and yet the majority of digital agencies are growing. Let’s also consider that most agencies produce detailed reports for their clients that literally give them nowhere to hide. If agencies were doing the above, they’d be found out pretty quickly.

“Across multiple industries the agency model is under pressure, with marketing being no different. Whether it’s how the travel agency was effectively replaced through technology by a combination of websites such as Airbnb, TripAdvisor and Kayak; to London’s commercial property agents being disrupted by startups such as Hubble. “

This is a false equivalence. There is a huge difference between agencies as intermediaries and agencies as service providers. Most marketing agencies are not intermediaries (like travel agencies) but offer the services themselves so this is a non point.

“Without the freedom and encouragement to learn by trial and error they can never hope to let the consumer guide their marketing activities.”

This implies agencies do no marketing research and gather no data, which isn’t true. If anything the collected pool of data from multiple campaigns gives agencies greater visibility of what is out there than a client can ever hope to achieve on their own.

I could go on…

Fundamentally Logan’s argument is based on the view that agencies are “unable to deliver the required rigour of experimentation and are certainly biased toward their own bottom lines.” Whilst it’s an interesting point that agencies could experiment more that doesn’t mean they should. For the vast majority of clients what works already is what should be invested in.

There are so many shiny new marketing toys the last thing we need is someone suggesting everyone go experiment with everything. We should let the pioneers blow their budgets determining what works and then learn from their mistakes. Smart agencies are focused on their bottom lines yes (Shock: Business exists to make money, more news at 11), but what that means is they have to offer results for their clients time and time again to do this.

Fundamentally it comes down to whether you want to bet your marketing budget in the sure thing or the rank outsider. If an agency gets results time and time again they are more than worthy of your budget. Experimental growth hacking may be fine for start-ups and disruptors but that’s not the way the majority of businesses operate.

Of course I can understand why one person’s negative experience may taint their view of other agencies and sure there are a few bad apples out there. Yet find me a digital marketing agency that is dying and I’ll find you 100 more than are booming. Heck, even Logan himself calls Rebel Hack Studios  a “digital marketing agency” on his LinkedIn page, so it seems even he feels there’s life in digital agencies yet.

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4 Responses

  1. Ryan Stewart September 29, 2015 / 4:00 pm

    You should’ve no followed the link to that joker’s post!

  2. Logan Hall September 29, 2015 / 6:14 pm

    Hi Mike,

    This is a great response thanks for writing it. It’s always great to get feedback from those in the space. And I apologise that the title made you rise, but one could argue that clickbait works in this instance. The title was certainly intended to be a little leading 🙂

    I was not implying that all agencies are dead, far from it. My post was focussed on the need for a far more robust approach to experimentation across channels and tactics, driven by an underlying focus/strategy (or set of beliefs). I know that digital marketing agencies are the best at what they do, but I challenge them to reaffirm their tactics with ongoing experimentation. I am sure that the best in the game have ‘experimental’ teams aimed at continued testing of their clients’ playbooks, but those small and mid tiered agencies are unlikely to have the resources, and from experience in house teams can easily get over-whelmed! I am sure that most digital marketers will experiment to a point (if not how do they learn?), but a more systemised, company wide approach is required in my opinion; one that supports the sustainable growth strategies (normally informed by trial and error). Is this not the place for Agile Marketing?

    I think you miss my point about backing growth hacking over strategy. That was not what I was intending on saying. They should work in harmony. In fact I have a real issue with the growing influence of ‘growth hacking’, because this has enabled a large number of digital marketers to charge for ‘spikes in traffic’ and ‘1000 instagram followers’, without the need to show sustainable growth strategies. I am merely proposing a way to keep these amazingly talented people working in the same direction, within a framework for the business/customer so as to deliver directional growth in line with business strategies.

    Those agencies that cannot move with the times will fail in my opinion, but that is business as usual. I think the only thing that is so evident now, is the speed at which change is required. The disruption caused for marketers by being expected to be able to use CRM, content management, marketing automation, predictive analytics, and testing and optimization tools is massive and I think this is only likely to continue as the number of tools proliferates exponentially! I think it’s about how we manage the change, and i believe that agile methodology will help us solve these challenges.

    Scott Brinker has a great interview , where he advocates a new way to manage technology in marketing teams, based on a more iterative experimental approach to setting strategies. I certainly subscribe any management framework that can make our already crowded lives any easier!

    However, i do think that you point about comparing marketing agencies to other technology platforms was a valid one. Thanks for pulling me up on that one. 🙂

    I have also dropped this onto the inbound feed so we can discuss.

    • Mike Essex September 30, 2015 / 11:57 am

      Hi Logan,

      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m glad to hear the title was intended as click bait rather than a belief that marketing agencies really are dead, although I’m sure you’ll appreciate that can get people a little riled up!

      The general idea I agree with, agencies should always be looking to raise their game and evolve with the times. That’s why nearly every SEO agency is a marketing agency now. Again, I agree agencies that don’t evolve with the times will struggle, but the post was written in a way that indicated marketing agencies were on the way out completely and that growth hacking was the only solution. That’s what I disagreed with.

      Much of what you call “growth hacking” is pretty much what the good agencies have done for years. Research the market, find what works and produce a strategy that dives in to that mindset.

      Having said that your comment presents a much more balanced viewpoint and that’s really what I was trying to provide by writing my own post. Yes some agencies are crap and sure they probably deserve to fail but ultimately, and I think this is what we can both agree on, the ones who adapt will win, whether they call themselves marketing agencies, growth hackers or whatever, is simply semantics.

  3. Cliff Sarcona March 10, 2016 / 1:11 am

    Ahh you gotta love debates over click bait. Fact is, its not going away anytime soon — I would agree with Logan above. I think trying to be a purest here just goes against marketing as a concept, from planning to execution. If you can identify clickbait so readily, rather than hate yourself here’s a suggestion: Don’t Click.

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