CLARITY – Methodology for Picking the Right Agency

Jul 5th


(Image Source – my poorly built logo creator)

In my long career as an Online Marketer, I have had to often pick an agency to partner with or to carry out the different mixes of online marketing, such as SEO, Paid Search, Affiliate marketing, Email Marketing, Analytics, Social Media etc etc. Fact is, I am a rounded marketer who, although spends time on SEO the most, understands and works in most online fields. This means I am often the go to person for brands when they want to pick an agency to work with.

One such day, while in the middle of listening to an agency pitch, I felt quite a bit perplexed. The two pitches I heard were vastly different, and I wasn’t happy with either. The core problem I had with agency pitches was around the following observations:

  • They tend to be too boiler plate. Replace your business with any other and it may feel that it doesn’t matter.
  • They miss the main questions that a business may want the answers for.
  • They miss the opportunity to really sell their USP (Unique Selling Proposition)
  • If they are customised, they lose some of the generic elements necessary
  • They often leave too much room for questions, which can take the process either way.

The above is often true, even if you have issued a clear brief to your agency as to what you would expect to see, or what questions you would want answered. Any agency can follow a brief and answer it, but very few in my opinion see beyond the brief. And as an experienced agency recruiter for brands, I would like to see much more answered within the pitch than I am still seeing.

Many agencies don’t make it CLEAR what they aim to achieve, nor do they try to CLARIFY what the businesses need or want.


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nomad9491/2399208582/

So I formulated the CLARITY model for briefs, which could be a frame work for answering pitches – help you answer your brief, while allowing you to demonstrate much more than the questions at hand. CLARITY, in my opinion, is an agency model that would score very highly but would also form the ethos of an agency environment that is really geared to helping their clients.

At the same time, the model has helped me pick the right agencies over and over again, and as such could be used by in house Digital marketers to form their own judgement sheets.

Although many SEObook readers are SEOs, many are in the agency environment themselves having to pitch, or in house and may have to from time to time help pick an agency. Many are like me, interested in SEO, but involved in much more online and offline marketing. As a result, I felt that sharing my model may help at least a few readers.

Warning: This is a rather long post, and could sound a bit preachy.

Defining CLARITY

The model is a mnemonic that covers the 7 elements below:

  1. Communication
  2. Learning and Development
  3. Access to Support
  4. Respectable and Responsive
  5. Intelligence both in people and processes
  6. Technology and innovation
  7. Yield Based Approach

Communication


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ventodigrecale/315084105/

When working with any outside agency, the type of communication is vital. The overall tone and approach as well as the individual team members all add to a business’s communication strategy. Some businesses like being overly formal, while others find that formal approaches are annoying and could hinder work. When picking the right agency for you, understanding how they communicate with clients and amongst themselves is extremely important to make sure that the working relationship is a healthy one.

For example, how your agency dresses and behaves in meetings is fairly important – it is a subliminal communication signal. As part of a pitch process I was involved in, one very talented SEO turned up, but was wearing ripped cuff jeans.

The Head of Ecommerce was at the meeting and was not impressed that for such a large pitch, the key person delivering was in scruffy jeans.

Result? They didn’t get the gig because the Head of Ecommerce was distracted by the fact that this person hadn’t bothered to dress appropriately.

My tips to people running a pitch:

  • Find out what the communication standards are for the business – do they favour email over phone, or vice versa?
  • How do the key stakeholders behave, dress or communicate? If they are formal in their communication, you may have to resort to matching their style, or loosen up if they are a team that prefer informal approaches.
  • Keep your presentations clear and concise, and ALWAYS identify your communication strategy, especially things like reporting regularity, formats, availability of account holders, and even down to how you would deal with a crisis situation that requires communication out of hours.
  • When presenting or pitching, make the objectives clear – many a pitch goes a bit haywire if the summary of the presentation or of the overall service isn’t clear.

Learning and Development


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/4984567320/

In the digital world, things change daily. And sometimes small changes make big difference – take the latest Penguin Algorithm update from Google. The change in the way Google is treating a majority of low quality links has caught many an agency unprepared to turn around quickly - and to my knowledge a few, if not a majority, have since drafted communication to their clients about the change and what it means for their SEO.

As part of a pitch process, identifying the potential for such large scale impacts on channels is important – but more important is to show that your team is up to the challenge. It is important to indicate that your team is an ever learning, ever developing beast, and it may be worth showing some examples where you have bucked the trend, or foresaw changes and indicate how you managed to save, support or shift your other clients strategies.

For example, knowledge of your discipline isn’t enough – you have to garner some knowledge about your potential clients industry and changes occurring within it, such as legislation.

In one pitch I was part of, we identified that the client was suffering from Voucher Code site abuse – where the voucher code sites would consistently rank for long tails of the business. Interestingly, the client hadn’t picked up on the fact that the reason that they were losing a lot of organic traffic wasn’t because they had had ranking losses – rankings were all fine. The reason they were losing their traffic was because this voucher code site was ranking immediately below the clients sites with a discount offering! Our strategy tackled that by investigating the legislation, both applied and subscribed to within the voucher code industry in the UK, and as a result managed to craft a communication brief, which would enable the client from stopping the abuse.

We won the contract, and the work we did was implemented. In the end we came to an agreement with the site in question and they stopped. Clients SEO traffic and conversions soared.

A good agency has an arsenal of resources at its disposal – indicating these as well as how you constantly add to the armoury is very important – after all, often agency relationships with clients can span years.

Access to Support


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pat-h3215/7500230750/

For any business, support is important. For any business with large budgets and complicated marketing campaigns, support is critical. Although most agencies work in a 9am to 5pm daily shift 5 days a week, many brands don’t see themselves that way. Their business online is churning round the clock, 7 days a week.

Which means a crisis, issue or even an opportunity may raise itself at the least possible convenient time. Although in a pitch these sort of issues aren’t expected by most businesses, I often find that if an agency covers it, they tend to get “bonus points” especially if they highlight likely scenarios and how they would respond to them out of hours. Although this point is a subset of communication, it is also important enough as a winning point to be isolated.

One SEO agency I hired for a holiday business proposed that during peak periods of the business refreshing site wide content, (an annual occurrence) they would send one of their content SEOs to sit with the content team to start optimising content as it gets written, and getting it to the publishing team within a very short period of time. Excellent foresight, and was one of the contributing factors to a contract that still runs 5 years on.

On the flip side, another agency pitching an email support platform worth $100,000 in fees a year to them insisted that they would prefer all the communication via email and had a very complicated tracking system that runs through to first line support, then second line and then finally to a specialist if the first two lines couldn’t solve a situation. This scared the client – sometimes you just can’t wait for three layers of conversations before actioning an urgent change - and as a result they weren’t short listed.

Respectable and Responsive


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mafleen/402792862/

It sounds obvious that you have to be both respectable and responsive to potential (and current!) clients. However what you as an agency see as being “respectable” may not be necessarily what they feel the definition of the word may be.

Respectable also implies respecting your clients intelligence. One of the key primary things I teach to agencies is that they should research their potential clients carefully. By making your pitch too simplistic may offend their intelligence and could cost you.

Take for example a UK SEO agency that was pitching to a business I was consulting a few years ago. The pitch was about SEO and how they would help the business grow its SEO. Before hand, they had a list of all the attendees, which included my name and the name of the head of Ecommerce (who would at least have a rudimentary knowledge of SEO).

Now if you are pitching to me, you SHOULD know that I know a bit about SEO, if only you bothered to Google my name :)

Yet, in the pitch, the starting slide was an animated slide, which was a web with spiders running up and down it – explaining to us what a search engine bot was and how it crawls the web(!) apart from the fact that the animation was poor (a gif of a spider running up and down the web), they actually assumed that a multi million pound business that they were pitching to:

  • Need to see what a web spider is in a picth presentation
  • Be spoken to as if they were total amateurs

In addition, as I was in the audience I found this actually quite insulting – the fact that they hired me to be in the room meant that they were serious about a decent SEO strategy. The Head of Ecommerce had the same horrified response as I had – did the agency think we were complete idiots?

Needless to say, they lost the pitch in the first round.

Intelligence


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mukumbura/4043364183/

To be perfectly frank, expect a serious pitch to be faced with some serious questions. At the same time, you would be expected to show real intelligence in the way you present and prepare for the meeting.

Displaying intelligence isn’t showing how many clients you have, or sprouting your company’s internal strap lines. It isn’t displaying how many results you have gotten for other clients.

Intelligence is more about:

  • How well you have both, understood and answered the clients brief
  • How well you have actually understood the clients business
  • Demonstrated a working knowledge of the clients business and THEN demonstrated how your activity would help
  • Demonstrated both creative and critical thinking, and looked into trying to future proof campaigns.
  • Indicate that the right people would be working on the right portions of the campaign. Make some of those people part of the brief

The worst case scenario would be that you have a really intelligent hands on SEO prepare your presentation, and then instead either get an account manager or sales person actually present it, without the SEO present to field any questions. Often the result is a disaster – yet this a very common approach. Believe it or not, this has happened to me at least three times. Neither the account manager nor the sales person actually knew any SEO (PPC in one PPC agency pitch). Which meant though their presentation was solid, they ability to field questions intelligently was fairly limited to “We can come back to you on that”.

Technology and Innovation


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/3232133635/

In the online world, when data flows (fairly) freely, technology has to be at the forefront to deal with that data, to rationalise, monetise and sanitise it. An agency coming in to pitch within the digital sphere needs to show (to me at least):

  • Usage of relevant tools and technology existent in the market
  • Development plans for new tools / or custom tools
  • An understanding of how technology available can be suited to your campaign

Similarly, an agency that doesn’t innovate is low on my “like” list. I would be willing to spend more time with one that has interesting ideas about innovating, than one that actually just rehashes ideas that exist in the market and brand them as their own.

One agency years ago insisted that they have “market leading” guides on SEO for internal staff - from content strategies to link building. When quizzed what kind of information they would share with the businesses content team for better SEO, we received a document that was clearly well set up, researched and written for the right audience. Sounds great right? Only problem was this was the SEOmoz guide that they simply wrapped up and presented to us. Seeing that I was on one of the top contributors to SEOmoz at that point ( I think I still rank in the top 10) I recognised the document and called them up on it.

Needless to say, I don’t believe they ever repeated that faux pas - and went out and had their own content written.

Similar situations exist when companies tell me of a revolutionary tool A or amazing platform Y - and in most cases they tend to be industry standards that they use and nothing out of the ordinary. Which is fine for a basic pitch – but for a stellar pitch you need to stand out.

Yield Based Approach


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cambodia4kidsorg/3290848235/

Any campaign you build has to deliver a return. It doesn’t matter what the campaign is, it has to achieve its objectives. Which means if you have to pick an agency, the agency has to demonstrate the capability to not only come up with a plan or strategy that works for you it has to demonstrate that it understands what your businesses KPIs are.

This doesn’t simply mean an uplift in sales, traffic, but a clever demonstration of how the Return On Investment would be aimed at and achieved. If an agency cannot demonstrate a clear understanding of your businesses goals, and does not take the time to understand what the ROI of the specific channel being discussed should be, then they fail in using a yield based approach.

A few years back, an SEO agency pitched to me for a UK Holiday business. They were big on numbers by their own admission, and had a clear demonstration of how much it would cost us to rank for Keywords, and in fact had a clear chart identifying the top level “Category Killer” keywords.

They then went on to demonstrate how one of their current Holiday clients achieved those rankings with their help by spending the same figures that they demonstrated. The top level Keyword was “Holidays”.

2 problems with that.

First, if they already have a client in the space that they are working with to rank for those exact keywords, then I wonder to myself if the end result would become who spends the most to retain those positions. Which in itself is fine, I have no problem with agencies who have clients in the same niches, BUT, at what point does the competition with one client against the other show a negative return? If spend is the limiting factor, I wouldn’t want a competitor in that space to have the same resources as I do in terms of SEO talent, and then be simply beaten by their capability to throw more money at the campaign. Which wouldn’t be a worry, except if the agency was so willing to tell us exactly how much it cost their other client to rank, how can I trust them not to reveal the same data to our competitor?

The second problem with this scenario was they went straight for the proverbial jugular. They want to work on the money keywords (money for them!). A UK Holiday site may gain some sales on the back of ranking for “Holidays”, but I promise you that the conversion rate would be dreadful, and probably in the third decimal percentages.

If I had to pitch that gig, I would have started at the lower rung, moving upwards towards the chain to the category keyword “UK Holidays”. The spend to rank for most those would have equated to the total that the agency wanted as its fees, but the ROI for ranking for the RIGHT keywords would have been much, much higher. And an easier sell.

So the agency failed t understand the business, and as such failed to demonstrate that they could deliver the right ROI for them.

Conclusion…

If you have stuck with me so far, congrats (and thank you!). I am genuinely hoping that agencies that pitch, take something away from this post, and people who are paid to listen to pitches, do as well. I know that these principles have been successful for a large number of agencies when pitching, despite the fact that the agency didn’t realise that they were following a successful model.

The aim isn’t to follow my thoughts flat out, but learn form a person who has been involved I both sides of a pitch process, with a decent success rate in both, picking the right agency, and being picked for a campaign.

Rishi Lakhani is a freelance Online Marketing Consultant working with a number of brands and agencies in the UK, and spends a large portion of his free time on twitter. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/rishil






    Email Address
    Pick a Username
    Yes, please send me "7 Days to SEO Success" mini-course (a $57 value) for free.

    Learn More

    We value your privacy. We will not rent or sell your email address.