How Agencies Buy Marketing Technology

Technology vendors hate agencies.

I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I’ve been a marketer at many different marketing technology companies at different stages as well as on account teams at many different marketing agencies of different sizes and disciplines. I’ve also spent time on the brand side and am fascinated by how the three legs of the marketing stool integrate to drive business outcomes.

Because I’m a digital marketer I’m most interested in the relationship between marketing software vendors (social media management, analytics, CRM, etc.), the agencies (traditional, media, digital, PR, etc.), and the brands they all serve.

Today, brand teams are challenged with an ever-growing set of marketing opportunities, dynamic consumer preferences, and a dizzying range of digital platforms. Most brands of significant size look to agency partners to help fill in their gaps in talent, keep an eye on emerging consumer and marketplace trends, and generally advise and execute on marketing strategy. As a result of these complexities, groups of software vendors have emerged within every imaginable nook and cranny of marketing. The industry has been trying to map them for years, but it’s quicksand – constantly shifting and expanding.

Who’s the Ideal Buyer?

All of these marketing technology companies are competing for brand dollars, desperate for logos on their homepage, customer success stories, and the chance to land and expand into these giant organizations with massive marketing budgets. Every tech marketing and sales manager wants to sell directly to the brand. It seems like a clear path to success – the brands have the dollars and the power to define what and how things get done. But in reality, because brands rarely invest in the means of production or the specialists and tools required to reach consumers across key touch points, they disseminate dollars and authority to agency partners. Even brands with marketing technology teams buy very little tech directly – there is just too much perceived risk, too many niche offerings, and traditional IT teams have little interest in trying to harness marketing’s fascination with shiny objects.

Tech marketers and salespeople must accept that, in most cases, brands are influencers and not direct buyers.

Agencies are mandated to solve their client’s marketing challenges – big and small – elegantly, effectively, and at reasonable cost. Our model incents keeping every dollar we earn and we are hesitant to pass any of it through to third-party vendors. Yet, we’re also deeply client-centric and service-driven. Long-term client relationships are essential to our success and we keep clients by delivering great work, however it gets done. Additionally, the complexities of digital have put more pressure on agencies to keep up, be more effective and efficient and always be aware of the right tool for the job. Agencies can no longer have all of the expertise or consider building all the tools they need in-house. As a result many agencies are becoming much more open to working with marketing tech vendors.

In this structure, it is agencies that are most in need of great marketing technology solutions.

Why Agencies Don’t Buy

On one hand, agencies must be constantly exploring, pressure-testing, and building relationships with the best solution providers. We are required to understand emerging trends, be able to apply creative thinking to every new platform, device, or partnership, and execute flawlessly. But beyond the financial incentives to keep our money, there are a slew of challenges keeping agencies from buying more tech.

  1. Time: We rarely have time – read: client dollars – to plan and execute true vendor selection processes. Daily, account teams across the globe find themselves needing help accelerating the process of discovering, exploring, comparing, testing, validating, and ultimately selecting technology partners. Additionally, even if we’ve already selected a vendor or one’s been selected for us, we rarely have the time to get up to speed on a new tool and master it to the point where we can deliver flawless results. Time-to-value is always a huge consideration and ends many conversations early in the process.
  2. Choice: Most marketing technology disciplines are nascent and have core strengths in niches within niches. Finding a solution that’s perfect for the exact type of content curation, for example, required for a specific client can be a real challenge. We know we can’t be expert in every tool so we don’t even try.
  3. Trust: So many marketing tech companies are start-ups or have little brand equity. It’s difficult to trust a tool you’ve never heard of and for agencies, there’s too much risk in picking the wrong one. While the big marketing cloud vendors and some well-established independents have generated momentum, there’s constant fear, even with enterprise vendors, that tools won’t be able to deliver what’s promised.
  4. Hard to Buy: Believe me, I’ve spent many many hours going round and round on pricing models, annual versus campaign licenses, free versus paid POCs, etc. It’s incredibly difficult to find a fee structure that serves the needs of both agencies and vendors equally well, every time.

How to Sell More to Agencies

While there are myriad challenges to selling in to agencies, there are also many opportunities that marketing and sales folks should invest resources and creativity in exploring.

  1. Help Me: Make it incredibly easy for me to understand your market, competitors, and who does what well. Be honest! If you can prove your expertise and be a true trusted advisor from the beginning, your chances for success are much greater. Accelerate the selection process and minimize my risk, or fail.
  2. Guide Me: Give me a caveman simple crawl/walk/run path with success at each stage. I have an idea I’ve sold-in to a client, I know what needs to happen at the end, and I’m accountable. I’m not yet sure all the features I need yet and I’m not willing to pay for what I don’t need. You’ve been through this process a million times, trust that as I mature I’ll need more tools and services and that I will spend more money, but don’t force me into a square hole from the beginning.
  3. Get Me in Quickly: [Don’t kill me] Make just enough of your product free. I know, I know. Vendors fear the word “freemium” more than anything else in the world. I’m telling you, the only way to spread across account teams within an agency of any size is by getting people using your tools quickly. Invest in low-cost (to you) ways for people to get in and experiencing your value. Not every feature, but they must feel it quickly.
  4. Buyer Enablement: Rarely can I commit to an annual license out of the gate. The best way for you to get there is to push for an agency-wide MSA and preferred terms. Do this before or as you’re selling to specific account teams or centers of excellence. The easier you can make buying for account and production teams, the better, and we’ll be much more motivated to do the heavier lifting if we’ve already solved one, two, and three above.
  5. Create Products People Love: I hate this, too – it’s obvious, you don’t manage product, I get it. You don’t have a prayer with agencies if your most important goal isn’t to create evangelists. People who love your products because they WORK, they’re FUN/EASY/MAGICAL to use, they help GENERATE RESULTS THAT MATTER, etc. If you don’t have tools that people love, you won’t be able to make a significant dent in selling to agencies.
  6. Facilitate, Don’t Create: Every agency has built or is building a culture where campaigns and learning are shared. Internal knowledge sharing is essential in every marketing agency and this culture can be your largest asset or biggest obstacle. This is a peer-to-peer network. You can share your success stories but until internal folks can tell theirs, success will be elusive. And be warned, bad feelings spread quickly and die slowly. One catastrophe will end all hope.

Get Creative, Build Relationships

I’ve seen many marketing and sales people pull their hair out when working with agencies. We often engage vendors when we’re still pitching and opportunities with significant investments of time and resources can evaporate into thin air. Agencies tend to need considerable guidance up front and customization through the process, all while pushing hard to lower fees. This is frustrating. But knowing this and building efficiencies internally is half the battle.

For agency folks, believe that marketing tech can make you better at what you do and help you grow revenue, profits, and the breadth of your teams and offerings. But respect the realities of running a lean organization focused on solving challenges in an incredibly dynamic environment. You may need to work with an account person, a support person, and an existing customer to get all the information you need. You might be able to get costs down by sharing your story publicly and within your organization, etc. Get creative and strive to understand quickly what tools and partners can meet your needs.

Regardless, those on all legs of this stool who embrace the realities that we’re all on the same team and that we can make each other better will see success. Let the healing begin.

Image via Shutterstock.

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