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Digital Velocity Podcast Hosted by Tim Curtis and Erik Martinez

32 Creating Agency Partnerships That Grow Business - Drew McLellan

This week on the Digital Velocity Podcast, Drew McLellan joins Erik and Tim to discuss how to find agency partners and create relationships with them that will help grow business.

There are many pluses of working with agency partners and one of them is their broad knowledge of marketing strategies. Drew says, “And one of the advantages that agency folks have is that we do have to know a little bit about a lot. And when we are building strategy for clients, we have to know enough in terms of knowing we're going to pull this lever or turn this knob, or do this or do that, or these three things work together really well. Even if we can't do it all, we understand how it works.”

Agencies can often offer timely solutions to issues that internal marketing departments just cannot. Drew says, “One of the benefits of working with an agency is the speed and nimbleness that agencies can bring to a problem that an internal marketing department simply cannot. There's too much corporate red tape. There's too many committee decisions. They have a smaller staff in most cases.”

The most important aspect of an agency and client partnership is the relationships that are developed. Building strong, lasting, beneficial partnerships requires a great deal of work from both the agency and the client sides. Drew explains, “You have to come to this relationship on both sides with a willingness to be humble and honest and really listen to one another and recognize that there's nothing cookie-cutter about this relationship. That you have two unique entities with unique people in each of them that are coming together to form a partnership. That takes effort and time and commitment and a modicum of trust. Yes, trust can be earned over time, but you have to start by assuming everyone has the best of intentions. And then talking about it whenever you get a sign that that is not the case.”

Listen to this week’s episode to learn more about agency partnerships and how they can benefit a business.

 About the Guest:

Drew McLellan has worked in advertising for 30+ years and started his own agency, McLellan Marketing Group in 1995 after a five-year stint at Y&R and still actively runs the agency. 

He also owns and runs Agency Management Institute (AMI), which serves thousands of agencies small to mid-sized agencies (advertising, digital, marketing, media and PR) every year, so they can increase their AGI, attract better clients and employees, mitigate the risks of being self-employed in a such volatile business and best of all — let the agency owner actually enjoy the perks of agency ownership.

AMI is the only agency network that is run by an active agency owner.  It offers:

                -Public workshops for agency owners, leaders and account service staff

                -Owner peer networks (like a Vistage group or AAAA’s forums)

                -Private coaching/consulting for agency owners

                -Annual primary research with CMOs and client decision makers about their work with agencies

                -The highly praised podcast Build A Better Agency

                -The only conference built for small to mid-sized agencies – the Build A Better Agency Summit


Drew often appears in publications like Entrepreneur Magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes, AdAge, CNN, BusinessWeek, and many others. The Wall Street Journal calls him “one of 10 bloggers every entrepreneur should read.”

He’s also written several books, the most recent being Sell with Authority (January 2020). The latest book has garnered rave reviews and has been the guidebook for agency growth and business development in today’s world.

Drew also speaks at leading agency and marketing conferences like Inbound, Content Marketing World and MAICON and is often cited in agency centric content for his expertise in the industry.

When he’s not hanging out with clients or agency owners and their staff, Drew spends time with his daughter and following his World Series winning Dodgers.

Drew has a Master’s Degree from the University of Minnesota but alas, he cannot remember their fight song.


Erik Martinez: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Digital Velocity Podcast. I'm Erik Martinez from Blue Tangerine.

Tim Curtis: And I'm Tim Curtis from CohereOne.

Erik Martinez: Today we are very excited to have Drew McLellan on the show. Drew is the owner of the Agency Management Institute and is an expert in all things agency. We have invited Drew on a show today to help you understand how you can best leverage your agency partners to help grow your business. Drew, welcome to the show.

Drew McLellan: Thanks for having me.

Erik Martinez: I have been looking forward to this for the, what? Six months we've been trying to schedule it.

Drew McLellan: It has not been easy for sure.[00:01:00]

Erik Martinez: Drew travels a lot. One recent period, it was what? Six weeks on the road.

Drew McLellan: 24,000 flying miles in six weeks. It was brutal. Even for me, that was a little much.

Erik Martinez: Yeah, that's a lot of travel. I'm amazed that you guys survived that. So, Drew, just to start, can you give us kind of a brief synopsis of the type of work you do and why you do it?

Drew McLellan: Sure. Agency Management Institute serves privately owned agencies. So, it could be a PR shop, an advertising agency, a PPC, an SEO shop, a digital media shop. Agency encompasses a lot of different kinds of agency professionals, but we serve privately owned agencies that run from a handful of employees to three or 400 employees, and the premise of our work is that everybody who owns an agency, or most people who own an agency, are sort of accidental business owners.

They were very good at some aspect of serving their clients. They're great at PPC, they're great at PC, [00:02:00] whatever it may be, and somewhere along the way by hook or crook, they hung up a shingle to freelance, or they decided they wanted to start an agency, but they never went to school to really understand how to run the business of their business. And so what we focus on is helping them on all what I would call the back of the room stuff. It's HR, it's finance, it's biz dev, it's all the things that are not the sexy parts of owning an agency, but it's what allows an agency owner to be profitable, to be sustainable, to grow their business, to serve their clients better. And so we stay focused right there.

And the reason I do it is I'm an agency guy. I've owned my own agency for 30 years. My business partner owned an agency for 15 years. And, you know, we just have a heart for agency folks. They are our people, and so we understand the walk that they're on, and we want to just be as helpful as possible, and it's gratifying work.

Erik Martinez: Yeah. You know, it's been interesting since we started participating in AMI conferences, workshops, and the education we received. Both [00:03:00] Tim and I started out on the client side, and have sat on the other side of the desk. And I gotta tell you, I was really skeptical of agencies when I was sitting on the client side of the desk. You know, why are they trying to me? What are they trying to sell me? Will they actually achieve their objectives? And you know, I would say every agency, even the really good ones, fail from time to time, right?

Drew McLellan: Well, you know what? The work we do is not an exact science. There is art to it. There is curiosity to it. There's opportunity to it, and sometimes there's just dumb luck to it.

Tim Curtis: Yep.

Erik Martinez: But that's true with your in-house people too, right?

Drew McLellan: Absolutely. Right.

Erik Martinez: All of those same things are true.

Drew McLellan: Remember, we do primary research every year where we talk to hundreds and hundreds of people who hire agencies and learn how they're feeling and what they're thinking and what they're worried about. So, we do get to see both sides of the table every year. It's really part of how we can help agencies is to help them actually understand the [00:04:00] head and heart of the client side person and what they're going through and the pressures they're under, and why they ask the questions they ask and why they have the concerns, to your point, that they have.

Erik Martinez: Yeah. So, let's talk about some of those concerns. You know, what are the most common misconceptions or objections you hear about agencies?

Drew McLellan: First of all, we have to understand the mindset of the client, which is I'm making a huge buying decision. This may be my own money if I own the business, or it's somebody else's money, but either way, I am going to be judged by the outcomes that the agency produces for the dollars that we give them.

For many people who are not the business owner, the consequence of that could be them losing their job. I mean, you know, CMOs have a very short shelf life. It's 24 to 36 months, and a lot of that's because they didn't deliver against their objectives. So, when they're hiring an agency, if that person gets it wrong, if that agency gets it wrong, there's serious consequence on their part. So, I get why they have the concerns.

But some of the [00:05:00] misperceptions are agencies aren't willing to talk about or explain how or why things cost what they do. And in many cases, honestly, agencies are kind of thrown in the dark. Clients won't disclose their real budget or they're cagey about the budget. Part of having a good working relationship with an agency is being a good client, and one of those is being honest about how much money you have. Cause then the agency can say, well, you know what, when I look at your dollars and your goals, they either match up or they don't match up. So, we're going to have to change something along the way.

Another misperception is that agencies are always sticking their hand in the client's pocket. They're always looking for more money. They're always trying to sort of line their own pockets at the client's cost. You know, in some cases agencies are painted with the brush that they don't know as much as they say, that they're blowing a little smoke up the client's skirt.

And I will say that agencies of 10, 12, 15 people who tell a client that they are full service and they can do everything under the [00:06:00] roof, everything from influencer marketing to PPC and all of that. That's probably not the case, right? I mean, agencies have to be realistic about what they do and have to be honest about, yeah, we can do, for example, influencer marketing, but we have a partner that does that because that's their area of expertise. So, a lot of this is about transparency on both sides of the table.

I think the other misperception is that an agency is going to tell you it costs a dollar and then bill you $2 and say, well, you know, it took longer, or whatever it is. So, having good conversations about how billing works and is it a flat fee fixed price, is it time and materials, which means the bill just goes for as long as it takes to get the work done. So, having clarity around some of those things. So, most of the misperceptions are born of some element of fear on the client side, and sometimes some element of partial truth on the agency side, and when those two things come together, you get a lot of things that aren't actually [00:07:00] accurate from either side.

Tim Curtis: On the podcast, we talk to agency folks, we talk to client side. When we're talking about marketing, one of the concepts that we've been really discussing is, we've all done marketing for a while now. We're all well into our careers, and what's happened over the course of time is marketing has gotten much, much, much more complex. What started out as more of a generalist-type field, now we have lots and lots and lots of vocational specialties. You have SEO, you have paid social, you have traditional paid, you've got PR, all the different various elements that you're doing, and a lot of boutique.

One of the age-old questions and this would be kind of for the listeners is, what's the right mix? Do you go various boutique agencies or do you look at that larger agency of record that has many of those things in-house? And that's a debate that people still seem to be caught up on.

Drew McLellan: Well, and there's no right answer because it's gonna be different for everyone. So, for a smaller business who [00:08:00] has very clear goals, a big box agency, they're gonna get the most junior of people 'cause their budgets aren't big enough. So, even if the agency has all of the things in-house, you know you're gonna get a bunch of 20-year-olds. Is that the risk you want to take?

On the other hand, having one agency means I only have to manage one relationship as opposed to managing three or four relationships. For a lot of clients, the solution is a hybrid. Which is, I'm going to find an agency that's right-sized for me, that's really going to help me drive the strategy of my overall marketing, and they have certain skills in-house that I'm going to take advantage of. But they also have strategic partnerships with other people who will come to the table as a subcontractor and do the other things, but my core agency is the quarterback.

Like, they own the strategy, they do the things they do well, and they're honest with me about what they don't have in-house. But they introduce me, and they actually [00:09:00] manage the relationship for me, of these other agencies so that I don't have to be keeping track of 30 or 40 agencies, or even four or five.

To your point, most of our clients, the more technical work that we do, the more sophisticated work that we do, they don't know how to manage those people 'cause they don't know how to do it. They don't even know what questions to ask. You know, most clients don't know the questions to ask to know if an SEO expert is actually an SEO expert. But their core agency, their quarterback of an agency, should be able to resource them good sub-partners to help them fill in the gaps of what that agency doesn't do. So, for most clients, I think that hybrid model works pretty well.

Tim Curtis: When you talk advertising and you talk marketing agency or advertising agency, you know, I think the first thing that seems to creep up, even still is, sort of that Don Draperish feeling and the world has changed quite a bit. And so we do have many, many more boutique agencies that are really zeroing in and focusing on a particular [00:10:00] aspect. So, I think that's a really good point. It still seems to be one of those age-old conversations, and it kind of is, you almost have to do a diagnostic of the client to understand where that need set is, because as you know, Drew, when you're engaging with the client for the first time, they'll give you an idea about what they think the issue is, and then when you dig into it, you know, you're oftentimes finding something else needs to be a point of focus.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. I don't think there are a lot of Don Draper agencies out there anymore. Honestly, When you think about it, again, to your point, we've all been doing this for a little while. When I was early in my career, the cool kids in an agency were the creative people. Now the cool kids in the agency are the computer people, the digital people, the people who understand conversions and PPC and SEO and email sequencing and all of those things. They've now become the cool kids and the creative people are less so in demand in most agencies.

Tim Curtis: Yeah. It's a dynamic shift.

Drew McLellan: Yep. Huge shift.

Erik Martinez: You know, just kind of thinking about this. I've run into a couple [00:11:00] of situations where clients now have multiple agencies. What are those circumstances that make sense to have multiple agencies involved in your business?

Drew McLellan: Well, at the end of the day, someone has to quarterback the team. And so either that becomes the point of contact at the client, the CMO, the VP of marketing, the business owner, or it can be the lead agency that is then bringing in the sub-partners, but to our point, it's very rare today. I mean, other than like the ginormous agencies of thousands of thousands of employees. Which my world and your world, the clients listening to this podcast, that's not the right fit for them.

If they're not that big of an enterprise organization, the reality is the agency that's gonna give them the appropriate level of attention and time and strategy and thinking and commitment, probably can't do it all in-house. [00:12:00] So, they're gonna have to have some partners. And we're not talking 30 agencies, we're probably talking a lead agency that drives the strategy and does some deliverable work, and then maybe two or three other partners depending on what needs to be done.

So, you know, web dev is a great example. There aren't a lot of agencies today that still keep that expertise in-house, but you want an agency that has a depth of expertise in that. You know, everybody's website is their workhorse today. It is the front door to your store whether you have a store or not.

If your agency doesn't have a depth of experience in that and can't show you case studies and can't really tell you why they are worthy of doing that work, then hopefully they have a great partner that does. Because that's a perfect example of where you don't really want somebody who has one guy who's built a couple of websites doing that work. It's too important.

Erik Martinez: That totally makes sense. You know, even for us, being one of those agencies that does, you know, some strategy work [00:13:00] and some deliverable work, it's challenging to be a master of all things.

Drew McLellan: Actually, I think it's impossible today.

Erik Martinez: Right. There's too many disciplines, too many vocations, as Tim alluded to, to do that effectively.

Drew McLellan: You know, unless the client is so small that you're basically just skimming the surface of a lot of things, then an agency probably has enough knowledge to pull that off. But if you want true expertise and depth, then odds are your agency partner because that's really what it should be, your agency partner should come to you and say, here's the team. And what do you care if they all work in the same building or have the same email address as long as the agency has already vetted those partners, knows how to sort of work with them?

You know, in the old days, agencies never thought about working together. It was very competitive, and now the world has changed, and agencies are cooperating and partnering together to support each other in the places where they can't take care of their clients properly. That's another huge shift in our industry is that sense of [00:14:00] cooperation that didn't always exist. You know, when everybody was buying newspaper, radio, and television and that was it, you know, everybody was pretty cutthroat. But now, to your point, the depth of expertise is so vast and so different that we have to band together.

Tim Curtis: We have an interesting evolution of that in real life. Part of that evolution is the expertise on the agency side. There are more agencies per capita now than there ever have been because there's more services that can be offered. Out of that came these fractional elements. So, it's a fractional CMO, or a, our case, it's a fractional CMO. In Erik's case, it's a fractional Ecommerce director. So, agencies are even taking on some of that role because they have developed the expertise in-house for basically how to manage marketing campaigns in all of the various channels. And that's sort of an example of the organic growth and the fact that it is getting much more difficult for a CMO to have the tenure [00:15:00] to be able to make the impact on their role.

Drew McLellan: Not only tenure but knowledge and expertise. If a CMO hasn't been around the block for a while and hasn't continued to develop their education. So, they can be 45 and they could have been doing this for 20 years, but if they haven't continued to grow and learn, then they're doing things that were really awesome 20 years ago, that we don't do anymore. And when they're hiring somebody today, they don't really know how to hire for today's skill sets, channels, fill in the blank, strategies. So, it's not even tenure, it's really about somebody's education level.

And one of the advantages that agency folks have is that we do have to know a little bit about a lot. And when we are building strategy for clients, we have to know enough in terms of knowing we're going to pull this lever or turn this knob, or do this or do that, or these three things work together really well. Even if we can't do it all, we understand how it works. [00:16:00] And some CMOs also understand all of that, and they can be the quarterback of the team, but in many cases, hiring someone like your firms to step in and do that because you have a depth of expertise that it's pretty hard to hire.

Tim Curtis: On the market.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Erik Martinez: Let's turn the conversation a little bit about how to find an agency. I remember sitting on client side. I was much younger then. I found it always challenging to find an agency. Almost all of our clients do get a bajillion sales calls, of which 99% get ignored. A gentleman one day, the company I worked for was a catalog firm. I was buying paper and he was a paper broker and he called me. We actually built a pretty nice relationship and he asked me, I just gotta ask one question. I'm like, okay, sure, fire away. And he said I don't understand why I can't get five minutes to talk to somebody. And I said, you know, here's the deal. There are 30 of [00:17:00] you calling me.

Drew McLellan: Every day.

Erik Martinez: Every day. And so if I spend five minutes with every single one of you.

Drew McLellan: By the way, it's never five minutes.

Tim Curtis: Exactly.

Erik Martinez: He totally agreed. So, I still think that is true. It may not all be phone calls today, right? It may be unsolicited emails or LinkedIn messages. Even as an agency owner day, I get a ton of that stuff. And actually the more we've been publishing our podcasts, I've got even more as a result of that. What is the best way to go find an agency? Who do you turn to? What resources should they read? Who should they talk to? How do they evaluate the process once they start to narrow a list? What's your advice in that process?

Drew McLellan: I think the first question a client needs to ask themselves is, do I need someone that will be able to come to my office, or I can meet with face to face on a weekly basis? Do I need someone local? Because then odds are I'm gonna choose a generalist [00:18:00] agency, an agency that does not have a specialization in my industry or in my audience. I'm going to pick the guy that I meet at the chamber thing, or that my buddy, who's also in Vistage with me uses or something like that.

That's decision one, do I need somebody that is physically local to me? Or geography is not an issue or there's some subset of geography like I want them based in the US or I want them in my time zone, but I want an agency that understands my world. Either understands my audience, if I have a really specific audience, understands my industry. Cause there's all kinds of internal baseball and jargon that goes with every industry. If I don't have to teach my agency all about, you know, rural healthcare, that's a huge advantage to me. If they already know that, if they already have resources, if they've already done this for other people, they already have built strategies that work, their case studies line up with what I'm trying to do like they get me. [00:19:00] So, that's decision one.

So, if you want somebody local, then I think it really is probably a referral thing. Like, somebody you know is happy with their agency. Or again, you belong to some professional organization in your local city and you find somebody that you click with. We'll get to the chemistry part in a second but in terms of just finding them. Finding them is different than selecting them, but finding three or four to interview, right? The first thing is local or not local. If I want somebody who has a depth of expertise in my industry, then I start looking for that. I start looking on the web. I think about the biggest trade show in my industry and what agencies have a presence there, what agencies win the awards for marketing in my industry. Like, the Bank Marketing Association. I start looking for people who have a depth of expertise in what I'm looking for.

Then I have to start narrowing down by size and other things like that. Agencies are terrible marketers for themselves. You're awesome with clients, but you're terrible for yourself. You [00:20:00] don't tell the world what you're expert in. You don't make it easy for them to find you. But if somebody can do that, if they have really created a position of thought leadership, and they're producing a podcast, they've written a book, they're doing primary research, they're doing things that demonstrate their commitment to the industry, or the audience and their depth of expertise in it, they're much easier to find.

But when you get down to three or four, you still have to interview all of them. You have to talk to them. You have to see what the chemistry feels like. Because at the end of the day, if I have three or four agencies that I know have the capability to do the work, the next question is who do I think I'm going to enjoy working with? Who do I think I can trust? Who feels like they're a good listener and they're actually hearing me? Who's asking me the best questions? I think that's one of the best ways to choose an agency. An agency that asks you questions that you've never been asked before, that's pure gold.

It is a bit of a leap of faith. Again, you should talk to references, you should look at case studies, you should do all of that due [00:21:00] diligence. It is not easy to find the right fit agency, and that's one of the reasons why some clients keep it in-house because it's hard work to find the right agency. To your point, it's not gonna be somebody who left you 12 voicemails probably.

Erik Martinez: Counterpoint to that is it's also hard to find really good employees who get all that. Cause you still have to train and onboard and educate them in the way you do your business. So, if you can find that right fit partner who has that base understanding of what you do, how you do it, they can get up to speed much, much quicker than sometimes the new employee who may have all the skills and all the background, but there's still some significant ramp way.

Drew McLellan: Keep in mind, the person who's hiring their internal CMO doesn't probably know squat about marketing and certainly doesn't know about marketing today at the level of sophistication. So, they're hiring blind. The one thing you know for sure when you [00:22:00] hire an agency is they do have a depth of expertise in marketing. Otherwise, they wouldn't still be in business. They wouldn't have survived the recession. They wouldn't have survived COVID. Anybody who's still standing has some chops.

As opposed to I'm hiring a person, I have no idea what they're capable of. I don't know how to ask them the right questions. And I'm not saying there shouldn't be an internal resource in an organization. For most agencies, it actually works better if they do have somebody with a marketing mind or a marketing responsibility inside the client, advocating for the work and helping identify goals and all of that. It's not easy on either side of the fence.

Tim Curtis: It does seem though that there was a mind shift change and I can't point to a particular date on the calendar, obviously, but as more and more people started getting into more and more areas, particularly on the digital side. SEO specialist, let's take that as an example.

The client-side started having much harder times hiring and retaining those employees. The challenges on the [00:23:00] recruiting and the retention side sort of changed the conversation a bit. What was always a definitively in-house role, they were turning over it. So, there's a constant thread in our conversations on the podcast and various individuals have all spoken to this, that what started to happen is the turnover of employees has really started to cripple that business.

So, as a shift, that was a risk proposition that they then kind of said, well, you know what, let's examine the agency side because we can have more consistency there. So, it's just interesting how market pressures really changed the dynamic of the in-house versus agency conversation. Yes, the rise of the vocational specialties, all of that played into it, but at the end of the day, it was that market pressure on the hiring. We've talked to some recruiters. They'll tell you right now if you can find an SEO person, then you are way ahead of the stack. They can't, find people to do it.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think both sides of the table have experienced the challenges of hiring in the last year and a [00:24:00] half. So, whether it's an agency or it's a client looking for an internal person. I think right now it is hard to hire. So again, that lends itself to this idea of a fractional CMO or something like that for a lot of clients because they can hire what they need at literally a fraction of the cost. Obviously, not a full-time person, but they get what they need.

And maybe that's a temporary solution, or they think it's a temporary solution, and then it works out and they're like, forget it. This is a variable cost. I don't have to pay this person benefits. This is working out just fine for me, and they're entrenched enough in my business that they feel committed to our goals and all of that. So, I think you're seeing some of that. But you're right, I think hiring, especially the specialist, the technical specialist, super challenging right now. I don't care who you are, agency or client.

Tim Curtis: Absolutely brutal.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Erik Martinez: So, let's kinda move on to the onboarding stage of an agency. What does that first 30 to 90 [00:25:00] days look like? What questions should our listeners be asking about the onboarding process? How do they evaluate success and what's the reasonable amount of time to evaluate that success?

Drew McLellan: Yeah. Well, the problem is when a client hires an agency, they're already at odd purposes. Which is, it's taken me six months to find an agency and I have some burning bush issues that I have to put out those fires right now. The agency, appropriately so, is like, we don't know you very well. We can't put out all those fires. We need to do discovery and spend time with you and soak you up and tour the plant and do all the things. And the client's like, you gotta be freaking kidding me. I'm being beaten up by the CEO every day because the website hasn't been updated, or whatever the thing is.

So, the first step is I think to say to the client, Look. We are your team. So, if there are things that have to get done right now for you to save your job, to get a promotion, to get somebody [00:26:00] off your back, let's talk about what those things are and how quickly we can do them. But we also need you to understand there's a flip side to that, which is we do need to get to know you and your business and your customers and your competitors, and that takes a little bit of time.

So, for the first 30 or 60 days, we may have to be running on two parallel tracks. We may have to be putting out a couple of fires for you while we're learning about you. So, what we need from you is a little bit of patience because we might not get it quite right the first time 'cause we don't know you yet. But we're willing to help you put out the fire and we understand that that needs to happen now.

Bridging the gap between the urgency on the client side and the desire to do their due diligence on the agency's side, I think there is a way to find a compromise that works for both. But it starts with the first of many very transparent conversations where both the agency and the client lay their hearts bare on the table and say, Look I'm in [00:27:00] trouble because I didn't get this done. It took me three months longer than I thought it was going to to hire an agency.

And the agency is honest enough to say, you know what? We don't understand everything about your business. Even if we understand rural healthcare, you're our first southern rural healthcare client, and we know that there's regional reactions to healthcare. So, we are healthcare experts and rural healthcare experts, but we're gonna have to learn about Georgia or whatever. So, I think you have to find a balance because I think for everybody there's a desire to do it well and right, but there's also very different needs in the moment.

Tim Curtis: I think it begs the question or starts the conversation internally at the agency, the comment you made there about the parallel tracks. You know, having to put out a fire while at the same time really diving into a discovery to understand, you know, in your example, rural healthcare. What does it mean when you're in Alabama versus Western New York and having time to learn that? But I think it's maybe adopting more of a position of almost triage.

Drew McLellan: Perfect example.

Tim Curtis: They [00:28:00] can learn from that healthcare environment. And I think it's incumbent on agencies, now I'm speaking as an agency, to understand, you know, how we deploy that and to have planning for that. Because in most cases, Drew, you're right. A client's gonna come and say, I've got this fire I've gotta put out. The parallel track is absolutely the reality. And I just wonder if there's not more of a formal process that agencies should be adopting on how to basically roll out on that onboarding. Because most of the onboarding looks really pretty and it very rarely isn't that easy because isn't there always a fire?

Erik Martinez: Well, there's always a fire and there's always some nuance that you can't always find in discovery, right? You may ask all the questions, but somebody forgot that this thing isn't connected to this thing if it's a data thing, right? Or, we told you that we had all this reporting and you go find out that none of it's based on reality anyways, and so it all has to be rebuilt. So, there's a lot of nuances as you [00:29:00] start to engage in a relationship while trying to put out the fire that you uncover.

Drew, you know, in my experience, it's also the place where you start to see some frustration because it's not moving fast enough. Sometimes you're still having those conversations like, here's the things that we've been working on, here's where we are on our plan, and yet it's still not enough. So, what do you do?

Drew McLellan: First of all, I think it's great that we have beautiful, pretty, formal onboarding processes and we should have something so we're not just pulling it out at the last minute and making it up as we go. But we also have to understand the reason why they're not doing it internally is 'cause they can't do it fast enough internally. One of the benefits of working with an agency is the speed and nimbleness that agencies can bring to a problem that an internal marketing department simply cannot. There's too much corporate red tape. There's too many committee decisions. They have a smaller staff in most cases.

And so we have [00:30:00] to come to the party ready to move and move quickly. You can argue about your onboarding process all day long. The first 30 or 60 days, that's your honeymoon, and if you don't get that right, the odds of a long-term marriage are not awesome. And so you've gotta show up ready to move and move quick.

Part of that is I think agencies fumble there for a couple of reasons. Number one, we don't staff up until we get the work, so we sometimes we're short-staffed. Number two, our team loves the thoughtfulness of the discovery, and we want to bring them the exact perfect solution. And we have to remind our people that, you know what? Sometimes giving them something that's a B, but getting it done fast and then going back later. Six months or a year later, after we know them much better. Tightening it up, fixing it, doing whatever that may meet the client's need more than getting it perfect.

You know, I think there's a challenge in today's environment. You know, when we all started in the business, if you had to work till midnight to [00:31:00] get something done for a client, you worked till midnight to get it done. You know, I don't know about you, but I see agencies struggling to get their people to put in 40 hours a week, let alone work at night or on the weekends.

Part of the ability to be nimble is being truncated for us as agency people because it's hard to get our people to actually rise to that occasion. So, if your agency culture is, look, we do what we have to do to get it done, and sometimes that means working in an unconventional way or an unconventional time, you're gonna have a huge advantage over other agencies.

Tim Curtis: Yeah. The emphasis there are agencies are a service agency, and when you unpack the word service, you know, there's a lot there. And I think culturally agency execs need to really think hard about that. Because it does require very much a particular mindset to work in an agency. The mindset that you have on a client-side is just different. It's just different. When you shift over to that agency side, it's much more than just [00:32:00] jumping to a different vertical. It's an entirely different experience.

And for those who haven't done it, it's hard to explain it. I mean, Drew, you get it. It's that service component of what we do is absolutely so mission critical. I know we try to emphasize that in our meetings with the team every chance we get because for us, that is a cultural core tenet. That has to be maintained because that's a secret sauce, if you will, for us.

Drew McLellan: The goal for an agency is to be indispensable to the client, and that's not about the stuff we make. That's the fact that on a Sunday afternoon when the client's freaking out 'cause they saw something on TV that the competitor did, that you take their phone call. That is you being their whoopie a little bit and being their thinking partner and being their safe place and being somebody that they feel confident that they can speak in confidence and trust, knowing that you're going to hear them, that you're going to be available to them, that you're not going to violate that trust.

Inside their [00:33:00] organization, they don't have someone like that. Inside organizations, it's cutthroat, it's ugly, it's political, and their agency partner has to be that safe space. And you know what? People don't only need safe space between nine and five. We have to be able to rise to that. Otherwise, we should call ourselves a vendor and we should just admit that we're a vendor. We're open from nine to five. You know, we're an auto repair shop. That's it. We fix your car. But if we're not that, if we are truly your partner, then we have to show up like a partner.

Erik Martinez: You know, I think that's probably the most important thing for our audience to understand, is that the relationship is incredibly important. And if you can't start the relationship and keep the relationship going on a basis of trust, and that trust has to be earned. It has to be earned over time, and it's not gonna happen overnight. Agency owners, it's not gonna happen overnight. Clients, it's not gonna happen overnight. It's gonna take some time to work on those relationships and build that trust. But when [00:34:00] it's there, then you know, Hey, you know what? Those times that I need you on that Sunday afternoon because the thing happened that I can pick up the phone and call my agency partner, and they're gonna help me. And it is a very, very, very different experience.

Drew McLellan: We have to remember, in most cases, our clients have not had that in an agency relationship. They've been burned by their agency before. They have been treated like the agency is a vendor and so, you know, that trust takes a while to earn because they've been disappointed in the past. We have to be tolerant of their mistrust for a while until we've earned their trust.

So we're like, what the heck? We're trustworthy. We show up. We take the call on Sunday. That's lip service to them until we actually do it. We can't be offended that they don't believe us just because we say it. Because other people have said it to them before and not kept their promise.

Tim Curtis: When you do arrive at a [00:35:00] place, and this is kind of where it sort of organically grew for me. When you arrive at a place where your clients begin to reach out to you, not only for your domain expertise, but it's that listening ear. I've had them call me with personal issues. I've had them call me because there's a trust established.

When you value your position as Switzerland, and you're able to dispense advice and you're able to give them candid feedback, but you're able to do it in a way that supports and uplifts them, that's when the agency relationship gets really special. I think that's the goal for an agency partner, is to achieve that level of trust with a client. It really is an element of fidelity and it's something that when you experience it, you recognize, oh, this is how this should be. Not every client can do that.

Drew McLellan: Nope, and not every agency does it.

Tim Curtis: And not every agency does it. Exactly, but it is helpful.

Drew McLellan: But keep in mind that when we do that, a couple of things happen. Number one, the emotional bank [00:36:00] account has a lot of deposits. So, we have to remember that point of contact inside our client organization is also the one that defends us or throws us under the bus. So, when we have a depth of relationship with them, they are much more likely to defend us when we make a mistake, 'cause sooner or later we're going to, or when we don't run to the fire quite as quickly as we should, because sooner or later we're going to miss the call. Whatever it is, they're going to defend us.

Again, back to what I said before, most CMOs last at the most three years. They're going to go somewhere else, and when you've developed that kind of trust, they take you with them. A good agency will be able to point to a client or two and say, yeah, they've changed jobs four times and every one of those four businesses is still a client of ours. Because they took us with them, we did good work, and when they moved on, we got to stay.

It's also about client retention. Honestly, it's also about job satisfaction. I think most people go into the agency world because they do want to genuinely help the clients in a meaningful way. They don't want to just make the thing, [00:37:00] they don't wanna just be a vendor. And so when you extend yourself and you become that thinking partner, that safe place, it's also fulfilling professionally and personally for the people on the agency side.

Tim Curtis: It completely is. It puts a spring in your step.

Drew McLellan: Yep.

Tim Curtis: Well, so as we start to wrap up here, I want to get your thoughts. If you could leave the listeners with one piece of advice, what would that gem be?

Drew McLellan: I think the key to a great client/agency relationship is vulnerability and honesty on both sides of the table. You cannot expect your agency to open the kimono and show you their pricing and do all the things if you're not willing to let them know that you're under pressure because this is happening, or here's your real budget or the challenges you had with the last agency.

You have to come to this relationship on both sides with a willingness to be humble and honest and really [00:38:00] listen to one another and recognize that there's nothing cookie-cutter about this relationship. That you have two unique entities with unique people in each of them that are coming together to form a partnership. That takes effort and time and commitment and a modicum of trust. Yes, trust can be earned over time, but you have to start by assuming everyone has the best of intentions. And then talking about it whenever you get a sign that that is not the case.

Like, you don't go back to your office and just get mad. You ask the question. You have the hard conversations, but you have to come to the table ready to also be a good partner. And then, I think, finding the right partner and nurturing that relationship. You know, there are a lot of agencies and clients that have been together 20 or 30 years. That doesn't happen by accident. That happens from a lot of effort on both sides of the equation.

Erik Martinez: Yeah, I think all of those things are true. Both Tim and I have been fortunate to experience both of those things from both sides of the table. [00:39:00] Drew, thank you so much for your time today. It has been illuminating, and I hope our audience understands that in today's world, because of all the different vocations and all the different things, it is absolutely critical to have some agency relationships in your business working with you as partners to help you get those things done.

Drew McLellan: Pretty tough to be successful today, Unless you are Nestle or somebody like that. And think about it, even the largest enterprise businesses that have marketing departments bigger than most agencies have agencies. So, if they need it with all of their resources, if you're a mid or small-size business, how in the world do you succeed without an agency partner?

Tim Curtis: Exactly. It's tough.

Erik Martinez: Well, Drew, wanted again, thank you for coming on today and sharing some of your expertise.

Drew McLellan: That was fun. Thanks for having me.

Erik Martinez: Yeah, we really appreciate it. Hopefully, we can do this again someday.

Drew McLellan: I would love that.

Erik Martinez: That would be fantastic. Well, that's [00:40:00] it for today's episode of the Digital Velocity Podcast. I'm Erik Martinez from Blue Tangerine.

Tim Curtis: And I'm Tim Curtis from CohereOne.


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