What’s wrong with the digital marketing industry?

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It’s almost four months now that I’ve been ‘out of the agency game’.This unprecedented chunk of time has provided a fantastic opportunity to stand back and reflect on my fifteen-plus years in the sector with a clear head and obtain some valuable perspective.

I was in my late 20’s back in 2001, when Coolpink was born. The business would eventually grow to employ some thirty-plus full time members of staff and reach close to £3m per year in income, becoming one of the leading regional agencies in the rapidly emerging ‘digital marketing’ sector.

At the time the two founding partners, sitting across a desk from each other in a cheap, by-the-month rented office the size of a broom cupboard, had pretty much zero business experience. Yet we were about to attempt to build a business in a sector which had, up until that moment, not previously existed. Just in case that wasn’t daunting enough in itself, the sector itself would then continue to relentlessly change, evolve and fragment at an alarming rate over the coming 13 years, requiring constant innovation in terms of products and services offered and frequent strategic ‘adjustments’ in terms of the overall direction of travel and value proposition, just to remain relevant.

Quite an ask, on reflection.

No wonder it was such an exhilarating and, at times, exhausting ride. So here I am, writing this, a few days before my forty-third birthday. I’m older, certainly much greyer, and hopefully at least a little wiser. So, back to the question I posed at the top of the page. ‘What exactly is wrong with the digital sector? In fact, what gives me the right to suggest that there is anything fundamentally wrong at all?

Well, for a start, I’ve been there myself, too many times. I’m ashamed to say that, irrespective of how much we cared – and we did care passionately – or how hard we worked – and we did work extremely hard – in far too many cases we were simply incapable of delivering a satisfactory end result for the client. Project after project overran on deadlines and budgets, bleeding cost and resources – both the client’s and ours. Relationship after hard-won relationship damaged over and over again, and then finally lost completely, due to a perpetual failure to deliver on time, on spec and on budget.

It didn’t matter how hard we worked, how many systems we tried to implement, how many painful changes of staff and management we underwent. Nothing seemed to fix the issues, and the mistakes just kept on piling up. Change the people: same result. Implement new processes: same result. Pretty bleak summary, and hard words to write, but that’s the truth.

In the end, that’s the core reason the business failed. We may have looked great and sounded great; and we certainly had a fantastic ability to read the market and get to the heart of a client’s requirements. We produced great creative work and pitched very convincingly. Strategically, we were bang on the money. We were extremely warm and personable, likeable even. We genuinely believed in what we were doing and wanted to make a real difference. We wanted to be – and believed that we could be – part of a truly great business: an award winning business: something to be genuinely proud of.

Why the baring of the soul? This isn’t about a public catharsis. I’ve had four months to contemplate, lick my wounds and reflect. As I said, perspective is a wonderful thing. The point is; well, actually there are a couple of points…

Immediately off the back of Coolpink I was approached personally by several former clients, looking for solid recommendations as to where to take their business in the wake of our sudden collapse. It suddenly became apparent to me that I couldn’t offer a single suggestion that I would be willing to personally endorse one hundred percent: a pretty damning indictment.

Zero sour grapes, you understand. I would have loved dearly to help these people out – some of whom I had built business and personal relationships with, going back over 10 years. The simple, shocking fact was that, during over fifteen years in the sector, I could count the number of positive digital agency-client experiences that I was aware of on one hand. Well, less than one hand, to be honest.

Every story that we heard from clients coming to us for help was the same. Appling experience, budget overruns, projects delivered late and full of bugs and then taking months to get right, if ever. It was all scarily familiar, given our own previous experiences. All the while we’d be praying, vowing to each other that this one, this time it would be better. This time, with this iteration of the team, with this client, with these new measures and processes in place we would make it happen. And no. Repeat ad infinitum.

Now, there are plenty of good people in this sector, don’t get me wrong. Passionate, hardworking, committed people, even genuinely talented people. You’ll find them in abundance. A couple here: one or two there. Some businesses maybe even have more than their fair share of them, as I know we did from time to time, over the years. Yet despite this abundance of talent, commitment and hard work, the vast majority of stories still remain the same.

Agency X has just lost XYZ client because the project overran by almost 100k and is 12 months late. Agency Y delivered the project 18 months late. We had four different project / account managers in a twelve month period. Etc. etc.

Some may think that I’m exaggerating. Others might be inclined to suggest that I am just bitter and that Coolpink was a particularly poor business, with a worse track record than our peers. Maybe: maybe not.

The point remains that this doesn’t seem to be working anywhere near as well as it should be by now. After all, the sector is well over fifteen years old and one might reasonably expect some basic level of competency and professional standards to have emerged by now. But that’s not my experience. Nor is it the experience of many clients out there, even today.

This very morning I met with the senior team of a successful regional retail business, to talk about the ongoing development of their digital strategy. Upon enquiring about the existing website, guess what? Delivered a staggering eighteen months late and so far over budget that it almost sank the agency responsible, which has now been replaced by another development partner. And this a relatively straightforward Magento based ecommerce site.

I feel for the client, I feel for the agency, but most of all, frankly, I’m just sick of hearing this kind of thing. Simple as that. It just isn’t good enough.

So, why isn’t it working?

Well, if you think back to what I said at the beginning  of the piece about how we got started in business, I think you’ll find several clues. Businesses in this sector are typically started – and therefore subsequently run – by the enthusiastic, the entrepreneurial: generally relatively young and for the most part woefully inexperienced. I’m including my younger self in that description – and that’s the man/woman at the top, leading the organisation! Learning on the job is the order of the day. You find help, guidance and support where you can, but mostly figuring it out as you go is all you can really do. Because no one has actually done this before. There is no body of experience to draw upon, because none of this existed fifteen years ago. This is the first generation. The pioneers. And being a pioneer is a lot about trial and error.

Unfortunately, as in most pioneering endeavours, there are likely to be many, many versions of what doesn’t work discovered before folk start to get the hang of things and delivering reliable results.

Lower down we have the ranks of even younger, even less experienced account managers, junior account managers, account executives, and on and on; all passionate to the core, idealistic and willing to work until they drop. Often with only a couple of years out of university under their belts, they are naturally sociable, naturally ambitious and naturally mobile – both geographically and career wise. In short, they tend to move around quite a bit, given the slightest incentive – such as a recruiters promise of an extra couple of grand in the pocket and a fancy new job title. Many haven’t really found their calling yet, but simply love the agency life for all of its drama and excitement.

So, we have an industry of relatively young, inexperienced business owners and second tier managers learning how to run a business on the job, the pioneers: we have teams of even younger, enthusiastic but inexperienced and often commercially naïve support staff, and on top of all of this we have an entire industry which is itself continually undergoing really huge, fundamental changes as we all try to figure out exactly where this whole ‘digital thing’ is going.

Consumer behavior changes practically by the month. New channels emerge before marketers can even begin to understand what they are and how they impact their business. Agencies have to try to react by developing new products and services, new value propositions. There is little opportunity to become ‘expert’ you have to react to the demands of the market place or face becoming redundant. There are no experienced staff to hire. No experts to consult. No body of knowledge as how this should be done. No best practice to adhere to.

I’ve already written about the ‘rise of the content marketing expert’ and I certainly am of the opinion that here is a LOT of smoke and mirrors going on out there at the moment. It’s the next wave. People can see it coming and they are desperate to grab a piece and not be left stranded, clinging to an outmoded business model. PR experts scramble desperately to reposition their businesses and themselves as content marketing gurus. SEO companies realise that content is the future of search and have to set about disassembling and repurposing their huge link building teams, who become, overnight, social media experts, content marketers, authors and campaign managers. Digital agencies start to properly grasp the significance of Martin Sorrell’s ‘Mad Men vs Maths Men’ debate and realise that, unless they start to understand marketing in a much broader sense, their own futures are no more certain in the short to medium term.

And that’s the industry. It’s like Thomas Eddison attempting to invent the electric light bulb; only someone keeps swapping all of the available raw materials and fundamentally alters the basic laws of physics every six-to-twelve months or so. All in all. Not an easy task.

So what’s the answer?

At this point, the best answer that I can offer is the same one I gave to those former clients and friends looking for recommendations, which was to take all of this completely to heart. Realise what you are dealing with. Realise that this is a young, inexperienced and rapidly evolving industry. These people may look confident and they all seem to know what they are talking about. No doubt they do. But talking and doing are very different things. For some, this could be the very first project of this size (or type, or based on this particular technology platform) that they have ever been responsible for; possibly even involved in at all.

If I were you, I’d check those agency credentials carefully. Do your due diligence thoroughly – on both the business and the individuals working on your particular project. What is their real level of experience in this particular role, technology, medium, etc.? Not that you should expect to find out that it’s very much. As I said, things change quickly in this industry and experience in anything is pretty thin on the ground, especially when dealing with recent grads, or people migrating into digital from more traditional marketing roles. Usually, by the time they’ve started to figure out how to do it, no one wants it any more and it’s time to lean the next thing.

Maybe they have done it all before (with what results, I wonder?) but have only recently joined the current team. Either way, keep your eyes open and your ears peeled for the faintest whiff of uncertainty or deviation from the plan. Few agency staff at any level will have undergone any professional training, most are completely self taught – on the job – which means your job, in this case. Be prepared to invest serious time, effort and energy alongside your chosen agency partners in order to keep a very close eye on progress. Demand frequent, up to date project progress reports and financial updates.

‘Exercise extreme caution. Don’t assume anything is naturally going to go completely according to plan. Don’t expect this to go smoothly without you having to get hands-on and closely manage the entire process.’

And finally, to all of you agency owners and staff out there: this is not meant to be a criticism of your work and efforts.

Far from it. I know exactly how hard you all work and I know how much everyone in this sector cares. It just tears me up and frustrates the hell out of me when I see the same mistakes that we made, being made over and over again. So this is meant to be more of a gentle provocation to take a long hard look in the mirror, as I have been doing, and face some unpleasant facts.

I for one would love to see a happy, healthy, thriving agency community continue to blossom in the region: one with happy clients, gleefully singing the praises of their chosen partners to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. It certainly is a nice dream.

And (adopting the tone of a grizzled American frontier old-timer) when that time comes as I’m certain it eventually will, I hope those agencies of tomorrow will think kindly of those early pioneers – both clients and agencies – who sacrificed so much in blood, sweat, tears and hard cash, to lay the foundations for a better future.

Admen.

 

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