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Behind the Digital Agency Curtain

Behind the Digital Agency Curtain

I was going to call this one ‘How the digital sausage gets made’. Yep. You’re welcome. 

Disclaimer, this isn’t a big reveal. There isn’t one to be made.

As a digital agency, we find ourselves auditing accounts often. We have conversations with business looking to make a transition, often. We still find ourselves scraping our jaws off the floor regularly as we run into scenarios of digital marketing shops ‘serving’ businesses and brands as if the client is in desperate need of a teeny tiny purple sloth and the vendor is the only person in the universe with the special set of skills to find this teeny tiny purple sloth. Absurd closeting, dire communication, subject matter expert chest beating etc.

To be clear, what makes a digital marketer is someone dedicated to the practice of staying on top of trends, learning, and continuing to learn the platforms, staying consistently close enough to the ground to sniff out the truffles and high enough in the air to claim the parachutist’s view – both critical, and both things it is very difficult for business owners and brand executives to find time to do. Many excellent digital marketers are both strategic and tactical, technical and creative, in some measure.

Contrary to keeping clients in the dark, I would argue without hesitation, that it always benefits to enjoy a relationship in which the client and the agency partner are in complete and transparent lockstep. 

Teeny tiny purple sloths – haven’t researched. [edit: just went to find an image to accompany this post and easily discovered a teeny tiny purple sloth. What?]

Brands and businesses, categorically, here are just a few things you should expect . . . without exception:

Obvious, but expertise. Digital Marketing has become a catchall. Decide what you need and what would be a nice add on. Example: SHIFT Digital Agency does SEM, Paid Social, Display, CTV/OTT, Geo-Fencing REALLY well.  Web design, SEO, and Email Marketing aren’t our bread and butter, but we have those skills and are dangerous in those arenas. If a potential client came to us with a heavy SEO and email lift, we would connect them with one of our trusted partners. We don’t want that stress and we know someone else who can do a better job in that arena. Most boutique agencies like ours have strategic partners that work excellently together already. 

Complete ownership and access to your accounts. Google Ads. Meta Ads, Google Analytics, you name it – your vendor needs to setup them up for you? No problem. They should make you an admin. If you ever need to change the relationship, the accounts are yours to take with you. You’ve paid for the research, the development, the history, quality scores, the data. It’s all yours. Amazing how many businesses we take onboard who do not have access to these and whose former agency partners will not release them. 

Conversion tracking. Consistent, accurate, properly setup conversion tracking that aligns with your business objectives. That means pixels and platforms configured along with landing pages to ensure that ad platforms are pulling in ONLY the relevant conversion metrics for your business. You care about revenue and ROAS. Track that. It’s fine to observe some useful metrics like calls and PDF downloads, but if those are your core KPIs, don’t let them be counted within them. Challenge your digital vendor to show you, in detail, how they are tracking each conversion, including how conversion windows are being defined [how long after a click or view a conversion will be attributed i.e 7 days, 14 days, 28 days]. 

Reporting – Simple. Not basic, but simply aligned to the business objectives you set out at the beginning. Dashboards should be visualizations of useful data that tell a story from which insights can be gleaned and actioned steps can be determined. That’s it. If CPM isn’t a metric that has any bearing whatsoever on your primary objective, then have your digital partner take it out of the reporting, along with any other irrelevant metric. You should have an exec summary you can translate in 30 seconds, and channel/campaign/creative drill downs for a deeper dive. 

There’s a lot more, but you get the gist. Don’t expect an expert who acts like a guru. Expect a smart collaborator.

Transparency. Knowledge. Trust. 

Be afraid.

When I launched the SHIFT Digital Agency nearly 3 years ago [no ribbon cutting, no staff, just a website and a late-night LinkedIn job update], the plan was this:

1)   Don’t fail

I wasn’t a very hard worker in school. The hardest I worked was in finding ways to avoid working hard. So much energy into excuses and dodging. I even stuck the thermometer in my morning cup of tea once. Mum saw right through it. Plus, there was tea on the thermometer.  I always did just enough to pass. Same with University. But ask any colleague of mine from my last 20 years here in the U.S – ok, last 15 years [even the 2 weeks when I was a 25-year-old car salesman in San Juan Capistrano] and they’ll probably tell you I work very hard. The driver of that isn’t a built-in ethic handed down to me by salt-of-the-earth parents who were up with the sun every morning [also not my parents]. It is fear of failure.

To look like an idiot [not physically or by way of style choices – already failed spectacularly there], when it’s preventable, isn’t an option. And there’s upside, on top of not looking like an idiot. When I first found myself in an agency executive role, I would play out the potential for all conversations prior to pitches and client presentations. I would figuratively take on the roles and mindsets of everyone in the room.  I would craft copious notes beneath every slide, covering every possible angle. That took research too. Tons of it. Which led to more learning. Every time I became more and more of a subject matter expert until I didn’t need the notes and I could comfortably manage any conversation around digital media strategy, channels, tactics, and the landscape. This one thing – this level of prep for regular client presentations, had a huge impact on my individual digital marketing knowledge growth outside of the day-to-day hands-on of managing campaigns across accounts. And it was driven by fear. Not crippling fear, but absolutely enough discomforting motivation to ensure I wouldn’t be caught without the right tool in my bag.

That was 15 years ago. I am still driven by fear. And I think it’s healthy. Said it.

This isn’t a post about avoiding failure. Not at all. We all fail. There are plenty of posts out there about failure.

Also not suggesting that ALL fear is good fear and shouldn’t be dealt with. If a picture of Ronald McDonald triggers an involuntary bowel movement, then that’s probably not good fear. Not a psychologist, but you might want to see one.

I’m also not talking about prepping for meetings. That’s the example above, but it’s really about the benefit that came from the process that was driven by fear.

I’ve just come to recognize that an element of fear has been the core driver of much of my development and learning over the last 15 years. Really more than anything else.

I desperately don’t want to be humiliated or look the fool. I don’t ever want people to feel let down or unsupported. These are my primary fears and my drivers. 100% they make life a little difficult to navigate sometimes [just ask my wife and kids]. 100% they also make for a great agency DNA. Too honest?

Almost 3 years in and SHIFT Digital Agency is 18 client partners strong and doing the best work of our lives. I would never preach or promote fear to someone who gets along brilliantly without it! I also get to enjoy many aspects of agency-life that don’t have fear attached to them, BECAUSE of the development, learning, and knowledge that fear helped drive earlier on. And, on the daily, a healthy dose of fear still lights a fire underneath everything I do, and that’s just my point – I think it can be channeled in a productive way.  

Am I wrong?

Be afraid.