As a small business, it's more important than ever to get your message out into a crowded world. We explain how marketing agencies have changed in recent years, so that you can be sure to hire the right one

As a small business, you know that getting your message out in a crowded world is never more important, and you may be considering hiring a professional marketing agency to help you with this. It’s a good solution, because the only way you can grow and scale your enterprise is to double-down on the bits that only you can do, while outsourcing activities outside your core skill set. The cliché of the solopreneur wearing dozens of different hats only gets you so far, and some of those hats will always fit better than others - so you’ll want to offload some of them early in your development.

But just as you will need to ensure minimum knowledge of things like management accounting to help you choose the right bookkeeping service which adds value and does not rip you off, you’ll need to understand a bit about marketing agencies before you can hire the right one.

And you’ll need to appreciate too how much marketing agencies have changed in recent years, for a range of reasons. Then you’ll be in a position to evaluate and compare the best providers for you and your small business - and excitingly, this is no longer limited to those operating in your immediate area.

What is a marketing agency for?

Simply put, a marketing agency will help you identify, implement, and evaluate marketing strategies, in order to achieve your business’ goals.
So the right agency for you will be one which understands your market and business model, and has experience in identifying the right approach for you - this is important because of the fragmentation of the marketing mix and the many channels within which it now operates. Making the right choice is important, because ideally the relationship will be a lasting one which grows with your business, maturing the strategy over time and becoming ever more closely aligned with your success.

Your marketing agency should take time at the beginning to invest in qualifying you as a client, and understanding your business goals. This is the essential first step in clarifying the approach which will best yield the outcomes you need, because it might not be immediately obvious in terms of how you go from ‘sell more of our products/services’ to a plan which involves elements such as raising awareness of your brand, segmenting your audience, and driving specific sales campaigns. As such, a responsible professional agency will know early in the relationship whether your two businesses are a fit for one another in terms of skills alignment, culture, values, and collaboration approaches.

Once the plan is crafted, the agency will implement the solution for you or with you, and monitor and evaluate it - generating the metrics you need to evaluate the return on investment, and feed the learning from this back into the next phase (because marketing is never a ‘one-and-done’ activity, but instead a series of integrated campaigns which get you steadily closer to your goals).

The way you interact on a daily or weekly basis, the input that you as a client have at each stage, and the depth of your involvement - as a creative originator, decision-maker, or approval of decisions based on recommendations - will form part of your marketing agency contractual agreement, and a flexible approach to account management will be keen to utilise your knowledge and insight as a valued asset in the marketing mix: no one knows and understands your business the way you do.

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Changes to the agency model

The way that marketing agencies operate AND the work they carry out, has changed radically in recent years, because marketing agencies, and the clients who procure them, are working in a fluid digital environment.

Established agency models have had to evolve in order to implement holistic marketing strategies which embrace the omnichannel world we live in. In the past, there were full-service agencies competing with below-the-line outfits which specialised in sales or direct marketing, but now these campaigns need to be integrated to ensure a consistent message and approach - so agencies need to ensure they have a diverse range of expertise on hand to ensure effective implementation of holistic strategies, and also that these are correctly attributed and evaluated at each stage. As the marketing mix has transitioned from single channel to multichannel to omnichannel, the way it is delivered has had to be redefined, to put the customer at the centre of the strategy, and layer the channels around them and their ever-changing needs and preferences.

That means the agency model structured around traditional teams has had to change. In the past, account managers typically interacted with clients, building relationships as the ‘face’ of the agency, while the creative writers and art directors operated in their own sphere internally. They were rarely seen by the client, and typically kept a low profile (Mad Men? That was fiction!)

Today it’s more usual for small business clients to work directly with the creative team to craft the message, which will be driven very centrally. The account manager’s role has become more about co-ordination, of the different disciplines required to deliver on the campaign objectives.

Those niche experts may not be agency insiders either, but freelance consultants with unique expertise, working for a range of agencies and direct clients. The rise of the professional gig economy was already well established before the pandemic era, as the omnichannel world creates an array of micro-niches in which a marketing consultant can dominate and become the go-to person, for something like wedding planning on TikTok influencer engagement strategies, or else share-of-voice optimisation tactics for coffee bean beverages in the South East Asian market… If you’re a marketing generalist, then you’re more likely to end up in the client facing role, synthesising these niche providers and knowing whom to call on for what job.

This leads on to another significant change:

The rise of the ‘virtual agency’

This evolution was again already well underway pre-pandemic, because the nature of marketing agency expertise was a natural fit for the world of short-term contracts for multiple clients, delivered in a location-independent way.

But while the specialised graphic designer delivering on a campaign brief may have been a digital nomad for years, until very recently the account manager still worked out of a ‘proper’ office in a downtown central location - probably retaining the services of a professional reception area and meeting rooms etc, and bringing clients and consultants together for collaborative briefings and corporate entertainment on a regular basis, in the right postcode for that particular city.

All of this has now changed, as the rest of the world has also changed. But for marketing agencies, this was a genuinely evolutionary, rather than revolutionary shift - just the latest increment in the virtualisation of the way we work in distributed teams. That account manager was already dealing with a PPC consultant in one city, a photographer in another, and a CRM expert from somewhere else - presenting their work to the client face to face, in the traditional way.

Now that the office is closed, and that account manager is working from home or wherever they choose, managing the client relationship virtually, using rich interactive online collaboration and communication tools that every knowledge worker has become familiar with during 2020, and delivering exactly the same service as before. Will the office ever reopen? Who can say, and does it matter?

For this reason, I’d argue that the label ‘virtual agency’ is unhelpful and misleading anyway, because the agency and the way it works together internally has been shifting and evolving for years. The client interface may have been the last element to transition, but managing this is well within the professional competency of any account manager who still has a job, and the service received has not changed.

However if the antonym of the word virtual is ‘real’, or ‘physical’, then the ‘virtual’ description implies that the services received are somehow lesser or a poor substitute, to an agency operating along traditional lines with that office reception and meeting rooms - even though that is how every agency survived to operate during the pandemic lockdowns around the world.

It means a resilient and flexible approach to their service delivery, which is also a good indicator for a resilient and flexible approach to the speed of change within the industry as well.

Evolving agency structures

So as a small business owner seeking the right marketing agency to hire, please don’t be put off by the ‘virtual’ description if you see it. Teams who have learned to collaborate successfully on a distributed basis are resilient and effective, and also less hierarchical.

If you’re all operating in a Slack group together, there’s nothing to stop you pinging your assigned copywriter directly - not to cut your account manager out of the loop, but just because you happen to both be online at the same time and you can get a quick answer to your brief question immediately, instead of having to have it gate-keeped through a traditional structure of relaying. It doesn’t matter whether that copywriter is in the same city, or continent - they’re perfectly capable of dealing with a client directly (and probably manage their own client relationship with the agency deploying them as a consultant in any case), so it’s simply a more efficient way to work together and get things done.

Also, when you hire an agency working in a fully distributed way, it can be very cost-effective. Not because they’re paying that copywriter less, but because they’re probably paying them for their specific hours and expertise, rather than a fixed salary weighted to the city centre they no longer have to commute into. AND you’re not paying towards that slick office suite with its fresh flowers budget and all other associated costs.

You might miss the occasional expense account lunch, but on balance, your budget as a small business client will go a lot further working with a distributed modern marketing agency, and as such your return on investment in your marketing plan as a whole will inevitably be greater.

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A digital transformation

Increasingly now of course the marketing agency is also a technology broker, crafting bespoke software-as-a-service (SaaS) bundles for their clients, which they operate as managed service providers alongside the actual marketing services provided.

While the specific tech stack they enable for each client will be unique, many agencies partner with particular providers in the space to develop deep expertise, frequently licenced and certified as partners, to ensure their end users receive not only frictionless onboarding and management but also maximum ROI on these complex and expensive services.

This means that you as the small business owner don’t have to become an expert in HubSpot or ZOHO - you simply contract a marketing agency who is already the expert and will help you configure it to integrate with your Ringover phone system and other software tools, and ensure just-in-time learning and expertise as your needs evolve through the implementation of the marketing strategy you are following together.

Because of the licencing structures, this can also sometimes be the most effective way to invest in this kind of SaaS anyway, because of their complexity and the nature of the tooling, and the unbundling and bulk pricing that agencies can offer and pass on to their clients. As ever, the devil is in the detail - so as a small business owner with an eye to the bottom line, you’ll want to scrutinise the small print thoroughly, to ensure you’re not paying over the odds for your managed service tech stack compared to what it cost to contract each element directly from the provider.

So as you can see, there is much to consider as a small business owner, when retaining your first marketing agency - not least in understanding exactly where your proposed agency is along the marketing agency evolutionary curve. Understanding what you’re paying for, and what to expect, will make you a great customer for them to work with - and ensure you get the best possible impact for your marketing budget, in achieving your business objectives.

Are you looking to enhance your business?

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