I’ve seen the inside of hundreds of marketing agencies over more than a decade, including my own.
Most marketing agencies struggle to generate recurring revenue. Many suffer through the ups and downs of the cash-flow roller-coaster because they never make the switch to recurring-revenue engagements.
Some inch their way to consistency by securing one, two, and three thousand dollar per month engagements. But, those low fees aren’t usually enough to justify much work, and after failing to make a big impact on their client’s business, they get fired after 6 months or a year.
On the flip side, I’ve also had the opportunity to see many agencies prosper as they’ve secured bigger and bigger clients that stick with them for years. When I met Stream Creative (now a Platinum HubSpot Partner) in 2010 at HubSpot’s INBOUND event, they told me they had no recurring revenue. Every year I’d ask them, “How much revenue is from recurring contracts now?” Every year, their percentage would go up. Last year, their response was, “All of our clients start as retainers, and now we add projects on top of that.”
I have hundreds of stories like this. This kind of success continues to fuel me in my mission to help agencies grow their recurring revenue. It’s why I started HubSpot’s agency partner program in 2008, and why I’ve launched an agency partner program at my new company, Databox.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of some common dumb moves that prevent agencies from winning new retainers, landing bigger ones, or losing those precious few ongoing contracts — and what to do instead.
9 Reasons Your Retainers Aren’t Bigger
1) Your Own Marketing Sucks
You wouldn’t hire a dentist with rotten teeth or hire an account who has filed bankruptcy 6 times over.
So why the hell would a company hire an agency that doesn’t prioritize their own marketing?
I’m not going to lecture you on how to do this. If you don’t know how to market your own business, you have bigger problems.
But if you want to start winning more, get more at bats by doing inbound, internet marketing.
If you need some inspiration, follow the lead of Impact Branding, a HubSpot Diamond Partner who now gets more than a quarter million visitors to their site every month. “We’ve grown from two to thirty-two people and the majority of our clients have found us through our online marketing,” said Bob Ruffolo, Owner of IMPACT. “The smartest decision I made as a startup agency was to dedicate time to it and when we were bigger, to dedicate a full time person to it.”
2) Your Clients Are More Tech-Savvy Than You
Marketing technology is a given these days. Clients expect you to have expertise in the software products they’ve chosen.
When I ran my own little agency, marketing software was pretty new. Google Analytics, Moz, and Constant Contact were really the only well-known tools. There was such a lack of tools, we often edited websites with Notepad and configured our own email server for sending email campaigns.
When I joined HubSpot in 2007, web content management systems were still pretty new and HubSpot was really just a blogging platform with some keyword research tools and a form builder built into it. Today, HubSpot is a full marketing and sales growth stack that makes it possible to execute a multi-channel marketing campaign. And at Databox, our average paying customer visualizes key performance indicators from more than five different tools.
You need to be a tech-step ahead of your prospects.
3) You Aren’t Aligned with Marketing Technology Vendors
Marketing technology isn’t just a fact of life you must adapt to. It’s a massive business development opportunity for agencies.
Here’s why: marketing technology is booming. Investors have been putting billions of dollars behind marketing technology companies (known as martech) and it’s cousin, salestech, for more than a decade now. There are a bunch of marketing technology companies generating hundreds of millions of dollars — and a few generating more than a billion dollars in annual revenue. In fact, marketers are expected to spend more than $120 Billion over the next 10 years.
Where do you think they’re investing all that money? They are putting much of it into marketing and sales, or what they like to call it: customer acquisition. In fact, they’re putting more into sales and marketing than they make in many cases, as investors continue to put money behind them and their unprecedented growth curves.
When I started HubSpot’s agency program, partnerships between martech companies and agencies was a pretty new idea. But, today, most of these companies have agency partner programs. And the benefits of partnering are great for agencies.
In addition to earning commission when you resell their products, you can also do co-marketing to generate leads, buddy up with their sales teams to get referrals, and market and sell your expertise directly to their install base. In other words, you can leverage their customer acquisitions machines to generate new clients for you.
If you pursue these partnerships to help you win new clients, you can’t fake your way through it, though. First assign someone from within your agency to identify, learn and drive adoption of new software programs.
“Clients hire us because of our experience identifying and using technology to improve their marketing and sales results. They’ve come to depend on us for evaluating new technology and presenting new opportunities to them. Even though HubSpot is a broad “all-in-one” marketing and sales platform, our average client uses more than 5 pieces of software integrated with it,” said Elyse Meyer, owner of Prism Global Marketing Solutions. Her firm won HubSpot’s Integrations Innovations Award for leveraging HubSpot and other software that is integrated with HubSpot to drive client results.
Maybe you’re just not that into technology, though, and this doesn’t feel natural. If for no other reason, do it for the leads. “Not only do our clients get better results, but we get more opportunities with larger companies that are looking for a tech-savvy agency that can focus on their business holistically,” Meyer added.
And if you’re clinging to your “We’re technology agnostic” line, stop it. Like any other personal or business relationship, the benefits of picking a mate are greater than going it alone. Plus, I usually find that technology-agnostic agencies are actually just technology-ignorant. I bet your prospects will make the same conclusion.
4) You Look and Sound Like Everyone Else
The world does not need another generalist design firm. There are enough full service advertising agencies and marketing communication firms. The world is drowning in undifferentiated creative businesses. What the world needs, what the better clients are willing to pay for, and what our people want to develop and deliver, is deep expertise. Expertise is the only valid basis for differentiating ourselves from the competition. Not personality. Not process. Not price. It is expertise and expertise alone that will set us apart in a meaningful way and allow us to deal with our clients and prospects from a position of power.
As I was building HubSpot’s agency program, Enns and fellow agency luminaries David Baker and Tim Williams started warning me that the sheer volume of HubSpot partners marketing themselves with the same message and the same tactics will soon make them all look like a commodity.
And even though demand for inbound-certified practitioners still outweighs supply, inbound agencies do tell me they are being shopped around more and more and under-cut by new entrants all the time.
But this doesn’t mean your agency shouldn’t do inbound marketing. Inbound is an unstoppable movement driven by buyer’s interest in self-educating, self-serving, and ultimately, being served better.
What it does mean is that you must differentiate yourself by establishing an expertise no one else can match in another way. A great example of this is TREW Marketing, an inbound marketing agency and HubSpot partner that helps companies market to engineers. But they don’t market to all kinds of engineers. They’ve specialized even further than that. They focus on working with specific types of manufacturing companies like control and automation companies, embedded semiconductor solutions, and just two other specialties that I (nor you, probably) will understand even if I name them.
Here’s an excerpt from their website: “TREW helps design and embedded companies generate demand for their wireless chips, reconfigurable FPGAs, UI development software, and electronic control solutions (to name a few!) in this rapidly changing space.” Find another agency with that on their website. Go ahead, I dare you. They even wrote the book on inbound marketing to engineers.
“By focusing on these niche markets, we bring our collective knowledge of what works to each client, making it a win-win for both agency and client,” explains Rebecca Geier of TREW Marketing. “Not only can we serve them better than anyone else because we understand their products, markets and technical buyer, we can do it faster and more effectively than any other agency. Based on our knowledge and relevant experience with similar industries, we can help them create a differentiated position, develop content engineers are seeking, and drive conversions to fuel demand and business growth.”
5) You’re Trying to Be All Things to All People
Most agencies are small. According to Digiday, “Two thirds of advertising agencies in the U.S. employ fewer than five people.”
There is no way you can be an expert at everything. Instead, partner with firms who are truly experts at things and focus your own resources on developing one or two core competencies.
“Thousands of HubSpot customers use our website templates. We’ve worked with hundreds of them one-on-one to lower their Cost per Customer Acquisition with Conversion Rate Optimization.” said Joe Jerome, owner of Brand Builder Solutions. “Not only does our efficiency allow us to beat the competition on price, but we’re continuously investing in our processes and systems around this type of work.”
I personally know several other agencies who outsource their work to Jerome’s team because his quality is high and because he stays in his lane. He doesn’t offer the kind of services his agency partners do. Therefore, agencies trust him not to steal their clients. And Jerome is often in a position to refer agencies work too.
Find partners who are experts at one or two things, and be more like them too by building your own deep expertise in one or two things.
6) You’re Not Using Data To Justify Investments
Marketing results are more predictable today than they’ve ever been. It’s not an exact science, but over time, more and more things have become measurable.
Just a few years ago, it was possible only to measure CTR of paid ads and not ultimate conversion rates. Now that’s easy. As technology continues to advance, marketing and sales activities will become even more measurable and improvable based on data.
And if you’ve been doing digital marketing correctly, you know the longer you work with a client, the more data you can collect, and the better you can predict the outcome of future marketing activities.
When you’re starting out a relationship, it’s hard to predict how much value or ROI you can deliver. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, though.
According to a survey we ran at Databox, most agencies use data in their sales process sometimes, but only 30% require their clients to give them access to data every time. In addition to putting forth a more relevant and customized proposal to the client, there must be a reason these agencies always request access. Maybe they close deals more often because they do?
Here’s how they do it …
Without even asking for anything from your prospect, you can use tools like HubSpot’s website grader to evaluate issues with a prospect’s website or competitor grader to evaluate how they compare against their competition. You can use a tool like SEMRush to evaluate ways to increase organic search traffic.
Don’t stop there. If the prospect has Google Analytics setup, ask for access so you can evaluate issues and find improvement opportunities. If they’re already using tools like HubSpot or Databox, ask for access to those, so you can look for opportunities deeper in the funnel.
If you want to make this process systematic, consider developing standardized report templates for your agency that allow you to quickly view the data the way you want to view it, like HubSpot Platinum partner, FullFunnel did, “We’ve created templates for our core funnel metric reports that make it even easier and quicker to roll out new reports to new clients and prospects.”
By doing this in your sales process, you’ll demonstrate your approach to data-driven marketing and set the stage for using data to justify future investments too.
7) Despite Your Claims, You’re Not Actually Data-Driven
All digital agencies say they’re data-driven. But, do you really use data to adapt your marketing plans? Did you do it once a long time ago for one client or do you make data-driven decisions every day for every client? Do you adapt your marketing mix for each client each month based on the performance of the campaigns you ran? Do you tweak your campaigns or content calendar to ensure you hit client goals each week? Do you tweak ad campaigns and social promotion daily as you gather data in real-time?
If you answered yes to all of these questions, you’re a rarity.
Most agencies I’ve interviewed cut and paste some data into a KPI scorecard, send it off to the client and call it a month. Or worse, they cut and paste some screen grabs from a few different tools into a powerpoint presentations, add a few sentences of interpretation and email it off to the client each quarter.
These agencies are treating “reporting” as a thing they have to do to cover their ass.
What makes this pro-active really shameful, this is not how most data-driven agencies sell themselves. Many of these same agencies set numeric marketing goals with prospects during the sales process, but don’t hold themselves accountable to achieving them. They might revisit the goals at their quarterly review, but most don’t ever re-visit them.
Don’t get me wrong. Most agencies do produce results and are able to show a lot of “up and to the right” graphs to clients. But, they could be doing much better if they adapted client marketing plans more frequently.
There are a few agencies that do this right. Some agencies have established consolidated near-real-time views of marketing data from different sources and made these views accessible via all devices to clients and all agency employees. By making it easy to monitor data against the goals set, monthly reporting almost becomes unnecessary and marketing results can be incrementally improved.
I know a few agencies who even use mobile, slack and email alerts to let software monitor when issues arise or when goals are unlikely to be achieved. Like a software company monitors when their software or servers are down, these marketers are receiving alerts when specific metrics aren’t where they need to be. Then, they’re adapting their activities to ensure achievement of the goal.
That is what it means to be a data-driven, agile marketing agency.
Need a system for this? Read HubSpot Diamond Partner, Kuno Creative’s process for visualizing and monitoring sales and marketing data.
8) You Are Too Focused on Top of the Marketing Funnel Services
There are not enough agencies that know how to grow sales for their clients.
I’m not suggesting you should stop building or re-designing websites, ignore search engine optimization, or social media marketing, but at a minimum, you need to be able to connect those efforts to sales.
To do that in a B2B or high-ticket B2C client, you need to serve the sales leader as much as you serve marketing. Marketing is essentially a support function for sales, so it’s ludicrous that an agency wouldn’t.
In the early days of HubSpot, we taught agencies how to generate leads for clients, which certainly helped turn top of the funnel results into client revenue. Then, as marketing automation became popular, generating qualified sales leads became the norm.
Today, generating qualified leads is no longer good enough. Agencies need to help drive CRM usage, align sales and marketing goals and messaging and enable sales teams with training and content for use during the sales process.
Many agencies have told me they’ve doubled their retainer sizes by offering sales enablement services. Other than the fact they have no reason to lie to me, I believe them. Why? Enabling a sales team is a time-consuming activity when done right. And it is a very quick return on investment when done right too. In one case, an agency reported they created a “a more stable pipeline and consistent flow of opportunities” just be getting the sales team to send out a sequence of pre-written templated emails to one additional prospect per day.
9) You Aren’t Introducing New Ideas to Clients
Typically, companies hire agencies because (a) they don’t think they can execute on certain concepts in-house or (b) because the same old stuff isn’t working as well as it once did.
It’s an enviable position to be in where clients are expecting you to pitch them new things. Most companies are expected to just do what they’re hired to do.
If your agency isn’t introducing new ideas to clients, you’re not only failing to deliver on expectations, you’re squandering an opportunity to retain and grow your client accounts.
Don’t have ideas of your own? Leverage technology to find opportunities for improvement. LeadG2, a HubSpot Platinum Partner leveraged SeventhSense, a send-time personalization solution, to do just that. Email marketing is an extremely important marketing channel for many of their clients, and they were at a loss on how to improve deliverability, opens, and click-through rates. By using SeventhSense to send emails to individual recipients based on the recipient’s activity profile, they achieved “a 26% Increase in open rate, 141.38% increase in read rate, and a reduction in hard bounces to almost zero.”
There are plenty of technology companies with clever ways to help your clients grow traffic, leads, and sales. Don’t feel like you have to figure it out all on your own.
Do These Things to Land Bigger Retainers
Most agencies really struggle to grow. The most common blocker I’ve seen is they take on project after unprofitable project.
While conventional ‘marketing agency’ wisdom says you need to go upstream to get bigger retainers, my work with HubSpot partners proves you can get bigger retainers from small and mid-sized businesses too. Sure, it helps to go upstream and you can gradually move upstream if you want. But, don’t fool yourself into thinking you need to go out and miraculously land big clients to get there.
Instead, stop making the mistakes above. Alternatively, start doing the things below.
- Commit to consistently doing great marketing for yourself
- Get tech-savvy
- Partner with marketing technology companies
- Differentiate yourself from all other agencies
- Become an expert at one or two things
- Use data to convince prospects to hire you and clients to pay you more.
- Use real-time data to improve the results you deliver and ensure you hit goals that are meaningful to your clients.
- Offer down-funnel services like CRM setup and sales enablement in order to deliver and prove ROI more easily and more convincingly.
- Always be introducing new ideas to existing clients
Start doing all of these things and I guarantee you’ll never have cash flow problems again. Instead, you’ll start growing revenue and profit consistently. Oh yeah — and you’ll have bigger retainers too.