In an over-supplied, increasingly commoditised market, agency owners understand that they must invest in their own marketing function if they want to grow, and that they have to run marketing programmes that are appropriate for the size and aspirations of their business.

Agency marketing – ‘marketing the marketers’ – comes with its own peculiar set of challenges. In particular, when fee-paying client work always takes priority, how can agencies avoid cobbler’s children syndrome – where the children of cobblers are always the last ones to get new shoes, if ever?

Whilst the solution to this challenge will depend on the culture and ambition of your agency, and where you are on your growth journey, here are some hard-earned insights from the battlefield.

1. Start with strategy

An up-to-date, clearly defined, and meaningful marketing strategy will get buy-in from your staff and provide a framework for internal and external comms.

This sounds like stating the obvious to marketing professionals. But it’s surprising how many marketing agencies don’t have a current strategy for their own business.

This might be because agency owners don’t have clarity on their strategy, or because the strategy is not disseminated effectively to staff.

A quick diagnostic tool is to ask your staff a few questions on strategy, such as:

  • What are the agency’s strategic priorities for the next 12 months?
  • What are our core services?
  • Which markets are we targeting and why?
  • Why do clients buy our services as opposed to our competitors?

If you’re like many of the agencies I talk to, you’ll get a range of conflicting answers, or – even worse – blank looks.

2. Clarify your brand positioning

Nailing your brand positioning and differentiators is easier said than done.

Agencies are prone to mirroring the latest big thing, such as data-driven marketing, which can make agencies look and sound the same to clients and prospects, and results in dull messaging and ineffective value propositions.

Discussions on brand positioning can also create long, passionate and sometimes divisive internal debates, with conflicting views from stakeholders, each an expert marketer in their own fields.

Ultimately, however, your views, and those of your team, are not what count: you are not your own target market.

What counts are the perceptions of the buyers in the markets you are targeting. These are the views that should inform your decisions on where you should aim to compete, and how you are going to win.

An independent survey can progress thinking on this issue, starting with your clients, but potentially also covering ex-clients, partners and pitch losses. Carefully crafted interviews, undertaken by experienced strategists, will also send a positive message to clients and prospects about how you ‘take your own medicine’ and follow best practice.

When done correctly, well-structured interviews will also provide you with valuable insights into your competition, and into clients’ future needs, which will inform your key account and service development plans.

3. Review and refine your brand messaging

Once you’ve nailed your strategy and positioning, you can review and refine your brand messages.

Ask yourselves:

  • Does your messaging achieve your goal of positioning or re-positioning your brand?
  • Are your differentiators clear, concise and, and are they compelling: do they speak directly to the needs of existing and prospective clients?
  • Are your messages authentic and defensible i.e. based on the reality of your core strengths and your brand values, and evidenced by work you have published, rather than an aspiration?

There is always a risk of paralysis in these discussions, as people run out of time and/or energy. There are some steps you can take to reduce this risk:

  • Firstly, appoint a small panel of decision-makers. Accept that achieving consensus is difficult, so provide a clear remit for the decision-making process, specific deliverables, and timescales.
  • Secondly, bring in externals if needed. External copy writers, for example, will not be subject to political bias, and can help speed up the process of drafting, consulting, reviewing, and refining.
  • Lastly, don’t forget that getting it right is sometimes more important than delivering on time: keep going until you settle on a set of brand messages that sit well with your gut instinct – and make you smile.

4. Embed your brand messages – internally and externally

Embedding your brand messaging into the culture of your business is a business-critical campaign.

Like any campaign, success requires a consistent and persistent approach across multiple channels.

Map the journey of your internal target market – your staff – from prospective employee to (hopefully happy) leaver. Identify the touch points that present opportunities to embed the messaging into the DNA of your business, and build a library of resources that makes it easy for staff to generate on-brand content, including:

  • Up-to-date brand guidelines, including a tone-of-voice guide.
  • Profiles of the personas you are targeting. Again, bring in specialists if you don’t have the skills or resource to do it in-house.
  • Cut-and-paste versions of standard messaging.

Build in opportunities to explain the ‘why’ behind your messaging by referring to your strategy; from induction training, to personnel reviews, to team meetings. Understanding the ‘why’ will help motivate internal resources to produce content for your campaigns.

When needed, however, give your marketing team the executive support they need to get good quality content delivered on time. This might require difficult conversations and consequences if staff fail to collaborate, or they produce sub-standard work.

Give someone responsibility for policing your brand and spot-checking internal and external comms. Give them the executive support they need to take remedial action. This might not always be popular, but it is better than the alternative – messaging anarchy.

5. Treat yourself like a client

The final – and most important – step to avoiding cobbler’s children syndrome is for your marketing team to get your account management processes in place.

In other words, treat yourself like a client. Aim to be your best case study.

If you haven’t done so already, create an account in your campaign management software. Allocate resources appropriately, based on the budget. Work out an appropriate recharge rate for any internal resource invested in your campaign, log the time and report on the results as you would for a client.

Drawing on internal expertise that is often in high demand from clients means that you should plan at least six months ahead, particularly for events and content-based campaigns.

But leave some slack for agile, opportunistic tactics.

If accessing internal expertise is too hard to sustain, then outsource to external experts to make sure the job gets done.

In return, directors and senior management teams should aim to act like the perfect client: expect realistic costs; set clear and achievable goals; and hold the marketing team to account for meeting them. Budget for a sustainable allocation of time, internal resource, and advertising/media spend.

And just as you would advise a client, don’t expect short-cuts. If the plan looks too ambitious, it probably is. For all but the largest agencies, encourage your marketing team to aim for sustainable, consistent, high-quality delivery, with just a sprinkling of creative genius.

Summary

Avoiding cobbler’s children syndrome is a challenge, particularly for successful agencies that are experiencing high levels of growth.

With a strategic approach, strong internal buy-in, and executive support, it is achievable, and will help to ensure the future growth of your business.