Monday, December 16, 2019

How to Make Your Agency Hireable

Well, it's been a fair few months since I moved role and went clients side. It's been busy, but interesting.

What have I been doing? I moved house and job, rebranded a multi-million-pound company - including assets ranging from new livery on fifty vehicles and every bit of stationery and stickering, to a full website rebuild and creation of our new identity in line with our brand traits and goals. I've launched several exclusive (and major) product ranges into the UK market (from Italy and Germany) plus relaunched all their social channels (adding 1,000s of new organic followers onto their LinkedIn). I launched tens of grands worth of automotive-specific PR campaign, shot numerous corporate and explainer videos and toured half of Europe at tradeshows and supplier factories (while raising my knowledge of our suppliers' products and our market). It's been busy, but probably not quite as busy as agency life.

Not being agency side I've had less reason to put digits to the keyboard by way of this blog. I've not been short, however, of valuable and interesting interactions with agencies where I feel any of my regular readers might benefit from some of my experiences. I am, after all, now the CLIENT and not the agency departmental head. This has made me realise how our industry looks at us (or is it them?) from a new perspective.

I'll take this slowly. Let's start with...

Hiring an agency.

Guess what? Your job (as an agency) is to make my job (as Senior Marketing Manager of the largest independent workshop design, installation, supply and equipment providers in the UK) easier. It's to make ANY clients job easier. This was evidently a shock to some of the agencies I interviewed. I don't want to sound preachy here, just cautionary and this is purely based on observation. I spend my first month in the job recruiting. The reaction - and I'm spending hundreds of thousands of pounds here - was mixed to say the least, ESPECIALLY (and I hate to say this) from digital and creative agencies.

I work for a family-run engineering company in East Yorkshire. We don't stand on ceremony. Our clients are high-end brands like Maserati, Audi, BMW, Porsche, Lamborghini, Jaguar Land Rover, etc. Our clients have high standards and so do we. We don't have time or inclination to listen to you fluff yourself or to wade through forty pages of cut and paste before we get to the costs and our KPIs. We don't want to listen to you talk in your language, we want you to talk in ours. We're made of engineers, CAD designers, petrol heads, technicians, racing drivers and every single one of us (myself included) could fix a 2.25 Series 2 petrol engine with a bent chocolate screwdriver and half a house brick. Our company is purpose-driven, entrepreneurial at heart, and built on a few core beliefs. To say that we're 'no-nonsense' is probably a staggering understatement.

The rest of the company is certainly not used to dealing with the likes of creative, digital, branding, PR or marketing agencies - which is why they employ me. Many of the stakeholders are openly sceptical. A part of my job, by necessity, had to become filtering the agencies I spoke to in order to find which were capable of working with us, above and beyond their creds or skillset. Who can talk like we talk? Who can understand the needs of our business and our industry? Who can adapt? Who can speak in plain English and offer identifiable results? Who at least has BDMs and account managers with a foot in both worlds? To be honest, it was a fairly shallow pool.

Having decided early on that a rebrand was one of my first steps, I started by putting feelers out and looking at local agencies in the Yorkshire area, including Leeds. Branding and creative agencies have their own language and attitude. It's a part of what makes them who they are and promotes the creative process. Individuals in such agencies, however, are invariably inappropriate to put in a board meeting with sceptical accountants and engineers from Hull. I found it amazing that, despite clearly working across multiple markets and discipline, most of them didn't use account managers or BDMS, but rather sideways-promoted existing staff or directors (steeped in the creative language and process). I'm sorry to say that I repeatedly got the impression - justified or otherwise - that, despite making £14m last year, we were somehow beneath them.

The branding and creative agency we finally chose is based in Leeds and, immediately, gave the impression they understood our industry. Their website was specifically tailored to manufacturing, engineering and B2B - which was an immediate draw. They'd drunk from their own vat of grape-flavoured drink and embraced a specific market. They'd made the conscious decision to not be all things to all men. When a branding agency pitches themselves this way you know it's a deliberate decision and you know they can clearly do their job.

Side tip: Don't be (yet another) a full-service agency - show your strengths and specialisms - you can upsell later once they trust you. Few folks have funds to spend on everything at once anyway.

I was met in their offices by one of their Directors who had given me a stalk on Twitter, found I'm a self-identifying coffee snob, and took me out for the best brew in the area. I'm not quite that easy, but it got my attention. I laid out our requirements and he engaged and asked questions. He'd visited our site and social channels. He'd looked at our Directors LinkedIn profiles. In many ways, he'd prepared for our meeting as though he'd prepared for an interview - which, in many ways, was exactly what was happening. He asked the early questions. He asked about time scales. He asked if I had buy-in from our directors. He asked about possible roadblocks. He was interested and curious. He was prepared to give us what I wanted - a single page Chinese menu/flowchart of tasks highlighting the process, with descriptions and costs. Simple and easy to print out and share when the time came for me to secure internal funding. He was making my life easier.

Within two days we had that page, their creds, and a further explainer (if we wanted to read it) of each part of the process. No free pens, branded moleskin notebooks, or other bollocks. This was all presented in a video (with screen sharing) from their director (my contact) and via their offices, to ease the process and introduce the document. A great balance of functionality, information, presentation and face-to-face efficiency. Yes, it was a formula, but it was a good formula.

We also had an offer of a presentation on the process, live, with our directors and stakeholders. This would be the first step for many into the branding and creative process, discussing the value (hidden and deliberate) of the process. We took them up on this and our directors got a lot from it and truly realised the value of branding above and beyond what I could explain to them from my passing knowledge.

Out of the twelve companies I met face-to-face, they were the only ones which gave me any form of confidence that they would go the extra mile to understand our business. No other agency I met even came close to this level of service and interest. To be honest, on the whole, I got a general impression that people weren't interested, and we just weren't stimulating or glamorous enough to be beneficial to their portfolio. They felt lazy and (one in particular) bored. They liked the sound of our turnover but, basically, didn't try to have a foot in our world. Again, I come back to looking for an agency who is going to make my job easier. An agency is not doing me a favour by letting me into their creative club - I need them to provide a service.

1) How does one achieve this? Firstly, employ a competent front person to lead sales and customer liaison. Have an individual who can have a foot in both worlds - in that of the client and that of their colleagues. Unless the client specifically wants to meet the team, they don't care - show us your developments and results. We're unlikely to actually care about your hipster culture (says the former agency proto-hipster). We will, however, probably want to meet your office dog if you have one.

2) Make things easy. Have a summary page with titles, descriptions and costs. Expand on this elsewhere, but keep it easy to digest - we're not stupid but we are short on time and have another six or eight of these pitches to go through.

3) Give the client clear steps. Think of the creative process like a flow chart with investigation, content, decisions and dependencies. Assume the client isn't an expert but has a broad knowledge. Use clear language and avoid using your own industry terms unless you explain these to the client in person (you can't rely on them reading a glossary). Surely there's an easier way to say "We build omnichannel marketing personalisation to foster brand trust" that doesn't make we want to set your offices on fire?

4)  Pricing is always important. I was quoted £750 a day for link building - for what is, essentially, unguaranteed and 'nebulous' results? No, no matter how good you might think you are. We have to justify and/or get clearance on our budgets. Keep it real. Equally, underpricing makes people sceptical that you have relevant contacts or experience. Be realistic.

5) Old colleagues. If you know you can trust people - maybe you've worked together previously in an agency or on a different contract - you ask them to pitch. It's not 'jobs-for-the-boys' (or girls) it's a case of familiarity, known compatible process and giving competent folks the opportunity to pitch. This is how we ended up working with our current SEO and PPC agency. They also explained their process and the theory of digital marketing to our directors and stakeholders, in person, at no charge to promote clarity and value. Stay in touch. Send Christmas cards. Offer to be of help. Be excellent to each other. If you're good I'll use you again and put a word in. LinkedIn recommendations all 'round. It makes my life easier.

It's pretty basic really... Be a benchmark for things to come. Make your future customers' lives easier. Be competitive. Don't treat them like an idiot but don't over complicate things.

If this is of use to anyone let me know. I'll add bits to the blog as I see them from client-side and try to keep this a bit more up-to-date. Considering what we've achieved in the last six months I can't really say it's been a relaxing experience, but it's not as 'all-hands-to-the-pumps' as my former ten years in agency.

Anyway, I'd rather be busy than bored.