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Four Big Secrets Digital Agencies Don’t Tell: Part 1 of 4

The more I work with digital agencies, the more I’m noticing a few trends in common across all of them.

1. While they want to be a full service digital agency, they tend to excel at one thing, not everything.

2. Some are repackaging services under new labels and jargon, but what they deliver hasn’t changed.

3. They are frantically trying to hire, but can’t find the right combination of skills.

4. Knowing this, most still aren’t training the talent they already have in-house.

I have a few ideas on why these things are true, and how you can benefit as a PR pro. Because this topic is rather lengthy to discuss and I’d like to elaborate on each one of the above points, I’m splitting it into four posts.

This is the first.  

Most Full Service Digital Agencies Aren’t Truly Full Service

It’s hard to shove your stake in the ground and claim one small area of the mountain. It means letting go of the adjacent land and, in the case of digital agencies, letting go of potential revenue that doesn’t fit within your core competency.

But it’s also the difference between one gardener tilling a quarter acre of land versus one hundred acres, with resources spread so thin that little is actually accomplished. If that gardener is only responsible for a small plot of land, you can bet it will burst with vibrant, fresh herbs and vegetables. If that same gardener is working one hundred acres of land all alone, important tasks end up neglected because there just isn’t enough time in the day to do it all.

Working from dawn to dusk doesn’t do the trick.

Agencies Are Rebranding Themselves

Because demand for digital services has exploded, agencies that offer any kind of service related to online visibility AT ALL are suddenly labeling themselves as digital agencies. Calling themselves advertising agencies or interactive agencies feels dated, and while they might have a public relations department (or person), calling themselves a public relations agency is too limited – so they substitute the word digital.

Digital agency – doesn’t that sound impressive and in demand?

It’s more fashionable.

But does it mean they have expertise in everything digital? Not usually. But clients and prospects don’t know that. They assume a digital agency offers everything digital.

Let me give an example. If you are an advertising agency who’s primary income is derived from print and broadcast media buys, odds are high that your business took a steep dive when advertising spends dropped. Companies are investing in social media advertising and sponsored content, true, but the bulk of their budget is now spent on content generation instead of ads. Dollars spent on advertising just aren’t what it used to be.

The most logical move to create revenue is adding content marketing to your repertoire. So you redo your website and tout yourself as a digital agency. Your sales people jump in and start selling, since they know all the right buzzwords.

But then it comes time to fulfil what was sold. Clients that have trusted your agency with advertising budgets expect the same great results from the new services, because you’re the expert, right?

Wrong. Employees are scrambling to service the accounts with no clue how to do it. They are learning on the client’s dime or they fake it. For example, they are fantastic at writing copy but NO CLUE how to do content strategy.

The same thing is reflected on the client side – they are asking their marketing team to become content marketers but since it is new territory, they have trouble putting a strategy and metrics in place and just generate content. But the difference is that the client side knows it is new to their team – agencies are selling it but not admitting it, so clients end up with unmet expectations.

Many SEO agencies are in similar boats. They can’t sell link-building services quite like they did in the past and SEO best practices have drastically changed, yet clients are still demanding outdated practices PLUS they have to re-build their revenue base. Since there are similarities between SEO-based content and content marketing, they claim the digital agency label and start selling content. Whoops.  It isn’t quite the same.

Both of these two agencies took one core competency, then used it as the foundation of their new services.

Don’t get me wrong – this is absolutely the right approach. But where it goes wrong lies in two places: they labelled themselves as digital agencies instead of a content marketing agency or an online advertising agency. Their garden is too big and they can’t do it all. They can do amazing work in a corner of the garden, their core competency area, leaving the rest neglected.

Adding another layer, clients that love their agency for that core competency ask new services of their agency because they trust them. Rather than turning the business away, they take on the task, learning as they go. That happy client ends up unhappy. They had high expectations because of the past success, but ultimately end up dissatisfied with everything else. They grumble and look for a new digital agency, never realizing they will fall into the same trap elsewhere.

They don’t know how to hire an agency and identify its core strengths, jumping from one to the other in search of the perfect “Jack of All Trades.”

That Jack doesn’t exist and it’s time for agencies to admit it.

Few Digital Agencies Can Do It All Successfully

In my opinion, agencies who chose a single core competency AND BOLDLY MARKET THEMSELVES THAT WAY will be the ones who experience fantastic growth and client retention. Agencies with large teams who invest in their talent having strong core-competencies will also come out ahead, if they aren’t lost in silos and are able to successfully integrate.

Small agencies who continue trying to deliver too many services will ultimately fail.

How does this impact you, if you aren’t an agency owner or principal? Agencies need skilled employees who aggressively learn new digital tactics. SO GROW YOUR SKILLS. Become the digital expert everyone needs!

Since demand is high and supply is short, learning the right skills puts you on a fast track to demand much more money.

Like every orchestra needs a conductor, agencies need senior account executives and leadership who can map out an integrated strategy across PR, content marketing, social media, SEO, email marketing and other disciplines. They need employees skilled in building community, connecting social media to sales and customer service, integrating digital practices into traditional public relations, and more. They need, period.

What specific skills do agencies need? Search the word “digital” in LinkedIn and read the job descriptions you find. It should be enlightening.

The more you learn about online marketing and PR, the more money you’ll make. Set some goals for yourself to learn new skills and hold yourself accountable. Invest in learning. The ROI is fantastic when the market is hungry.

Just don’t wait for someone to train you. Proactively do it yourself.

(Read part two here.)


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