The Lies Your Digital Marketing Agency is Selling You

CEOs and entrepreneurs everywhere are exasperated, wondering where the money they pay their digital marketing firm actually goes. This frustration has become alarmingly normalized and the rift between digital marketing agencies and the companies that hire them is nearly ubiquitous.

Standard practices in the world of corporate marketing have entrenched a business model and behavior that leads to client frustration, derision and creates a need for disruption.

That disruption will be inspired by marketing practices already utilized in a parallel marketplace in plain sight but rarely looked upon to save the day: politics. Political marketing firms work with fewer resources and time than their corporate marketing counterparts — with a massively large ROI. The political digital marketplace has exposed common deceptions demonstrating that corporate marketing firms are lying to their clients.

Companies and CEOs hiring corporate digital marketers sign unbreakable, long-term contracts. No matter what, the client pays the marketing agency for their work over a six- to 18-month unbreakable period. Their focus is on landing the contract; getting clients to sign on the dotted line to guarantee payment (and sometimes, even a “signing bonus” for the privilege of working with them!) before any work begins at all. This creates a security that kills incentive for innovation and results throughout the life of that contract.

When the contract, and thus the payday, is secured up front, the marketing agency wins before the client wins (and regardless of if the client wins). If their strategy fails, the agency still got paid, and it’s on to the next pitch.

In this front-loaded mindset, the daily drive to innovate and produce results for clients evaporates. For these agencies, this is how it’s always been done.  And it leads to foot-dragging, generic creative content and few or underwhelming results.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Long-term contracts don’t exist for political marketing firms. The firm works under a month-to-month contract; they can get fired at any time. And these political marketing firms work for a flat monthly fee, allowing the client to maximize the agency’s time at one consistent price.

Yet, the political marketer and the client instantly become a team with the same interests, because a win for the firm occurs only when the candidate wins. Thus, the goal of the client winning on the inescapable deadline of Election Day is the agency’s No. 1 outcome from the outset. Political marketers don’t receive signing bonuses; they only win bonuses — and this helps to maintain the drive to win throughout the candidate/agency relationship.

Corporate digital marketing firms often sell their clients on making a large investment in a testing phase, then ask for more money to implement a refined strategy after they’ve had the opportunity to analyze the results of that test.

In political digital marketing, we work with a very limited budget, so we conduct small microtests using a lean budget. We’ll put $100 or even $50 behind an ad or a series of ads and monitor those ads over the course of 24 hours to see if they are performing well and getting results. If they aren’t, change the creative, or pivot on message until we get a winning ad, and that is where we invest the majority of the client’s budget.

We test and refine on the front end to conserve the client’s budget and only invest when it’s worth it, which we pinpoint quickly.

Political marketers work under the finite, inescapable deadline of Election Day. There’s no extension, no extra time. And if you don’t win on Election Day, it’s all over. This very real (not self-imposed or even client-imposed) deadline forces political digital marketers to work quickly and test ideas quickly, in order to find the recipe that works, implement it and convert voters before Election Day.

Meanwhile, corporate marketers operate in a totally different plane. The need for speed isn’t there — in fact, working slower is incentivized. When you can bill for the hours spent on a memo, phone call or in meetings, things take longer, because that’s what makes it profitable for the agency, whom the client is now bound to work with via contract.

But I’m telling you, there are firms out there that can work quickly and get results faster — we do it in politics day in and day out.

The nature of the political marketing landscape makes political agencies’ financial and reputational success dependent on the candidate’s outcome: winning.

CEOs and entrepreneurs should ask themselves, “Has our digital marketing firm worked for our win before its own?” If the answer is no, demand they employ a political mindset.

And if the marketing firm says they can’t change their mindset, they’re lying. Fire them now.

Phillip Stutts, CEO of Go BIG Media Inc., is the author of “Fire Them Now — The 7 Lies Digital Marketers Sell (and the Truth about Political Strategies That Help Businesses Win),” which will be released Feb. 22.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult