Companies have more opportunities than ever to reach consumers thanks in large part to the proliferation of digital channels, but taking advantage of those opportunities can be difficult.

From display and mobile to social and video, figuring out the best way to use digital channels is no small undertaking.

So it's no surprise that many companies turn to agencies for answers.

A strong agency can help its clients succeed, but for companies looking to one or more agencies to help with digital, it's worth considering that there are things agencies aren't saying.

Here are five of the most important.

1. We're faking it, and hoping we make it

From social media to real-time bidding and everything in between, clients have increasingly turned to agencies looking for help with digital channels.

Unfortunately, because the number of channels is growing, they're increasingly complex and what works isn't yet firmly established, agencies often have just as much expertise (or, more appropriately, lack thereof) as their clients.

The problem: in many cases, agencies don't recognize this, and if they do, they're not likely to tell you.

2. We're not as big/small as you think

For many clients, size matters. So it's no surprise that agencies often lie about their size in an effort to win business.

The result: a client doesn't really know its agency, which can be, for obvious reasons, problematic.

3. You don't want us building websites

Many companies hire an agency looking for strategy and creative expertise, but end up relying on them to do commoditized tasks, like build websites attached to a marketing campaign.

This may seem like a pragmatic approach, but in many cases, clients are overpaying and, as evidenced by a commenter, agencies are underdelivering.

4. Juniors and contractors will be carrying much of the weight

It's no secret that agencies rely on junior staff and freelancers, and there's nothing inherently bad about this. But the extent to which less experienced staff and non-staff are involved in client delivery is often not transparent to clients.

This is frequently the case with commoditized services, like the implementation of websites, and, as noted above, leaves clients overpaying for deliverables of mediocre quality (or worse).

5. Our interests aren't always aligned

Any reputable agency will want to see its clients succeed. After all, a successful client is a happy client, and a happy client is likely to remain a client.

But this doesn't mean that an agency's interests are perfectly aligned with those of its clients. This can be particularly true when it comes to assessing campaign performance, as agencies have an incentive to show their campaigns in a more favorable light than an objective observer would.

In digital channels like social media, where ROI is a tricky subject, less-savvy clients may have little ability to call their agencies on questionable assessments.

Patricio Robles

Published 24 October, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (11)

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Adam Beizsley-Pycroft

A reasonably balanced article Patricio although I have to question your implied criticism of contractors in point 4. The majority of contractors / freelancers have to be good at what they do, otherwise they wouldn't secure any more contracts. Some of the best and brightest in the industry contract and have gained experience working in a number of different businesses, both agency and client side. I agree that it's not necessarily fair to charge clients senior rates for junior staff although the majority of good agencies will have more senior people check everything before it goes out the door.

almost 6 years ago



This article really infuriates me.

Why? because in points 3 and 4, website development is referred to a a "commodity".

I've spent ten years trying to explain to clients that it is absolutely NOT a commodity. A commodity is something which is the same whoever you buy it from, meaning you should always buy at the cheapest price (e.g. gold, oil, branded goods).

Web design and development are NOT a commodity because you'll get a totally different experience and product if you go to a good agency and pay a premium price compared to paying a cheapo web factory to knock out something to a template with no effort or love.

This is part of a wider problem: Marketers (and most people in corporate environments)consider web and mobile to be a function of marketing. A website isn't a product, to be used and appreciated and to create value, it's just another "marketing channel", part of a "multi-channel" strategy, and responsibility should be given to the marketing/brand manager who will farm it out to an ad agency (or digital ad agency).

The thing is that marketers and marketing companies rarely know the first thing about creating great websites or mobile apps.

It's funny, because nobody does this with bricks and mortar stores. You don't hire a marketer to build you a store, you hire an architect, a builder, a store designer and a merchandiser.

If you want a website which actually works for you then find yourself a good web development company with good designers, good UX experience and experience programmers and be prepared to pay a fair price. If you go to a marketing agency who's quoting the cheapest price don't be surprised to see the job farmed out abroad, or to be delivered on time.

Web development is NOT a commodity. You get exactly what you pay for.

/rant over.

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


As I noted, there's nothing inherently bad with contractors. But agency clients should understand that there are risks, particularly when the use of contractors is opaque to them. For one, quality can be uneven. The demand for good designers and developers is high in many geographic markets, driving rates up, so agencies may have trouble retaining the type of designers and developers a client thinks it's getting. Other issues include continuity (how much contractor attrition is there?) and the ability (or inability) to interact directly with those actually producing deliverables because of the structure of the contractor agreement.


You make fair points, but I think your note that "I've spent ten years trying to explain to clients that it is absolutely NOT a commodity" reveals the harsh truth: many buyers *perceive* these services to be commoditized, and perception counts.

Do all designers and developers have the same skills? Of course not. Do you typically get what you pay for? Absolutely. But it's also important to remember that there are different markets within the web design and development ecosystem. The type of work most agencies are likely to be engaging in (eg. building static microsites, for instance) *is* perceived as being fairly commoditized.

almost 6 years ago



Okay - but can you follow this up with a post called 5 Challenges of In-House Marketing, because in my experience the grass isn't that bright green on either side of the hill.

almost 6 years ago


Sorel Old, n/a

I totally agree with Megan. What's the alternative? In-house marketing is often less creative/innovative, more political, more restrictive (the neighsayers often come to the forefront) and very rarely deliver on time (due to competing in-house priorities).

almost 6 years ago

Richard Tidman

Richard Tidman, Client Services Director at Decibel Digital

Transparency has to be the key, on both sides as Megan states the grass isn't always greener on either side.

I passionately disagree that web development is a commodity and rather surprised that Patricio views it this way, even within the context of how it may be generally perceived.

Search visibility, usability, brand perception, brand engagement, conversion performance, commercial performance and more can all be negatively affected by a poor website solution - and the quality of the supplier you choose to work with, and the approach they use to deliver a website that performs against the objectives stated in the brief will influence the success or failure of a project - even a microsite.

If the agency who is tasked with delivering the campaign also delivers the campaign microsite then surely the opportunity for synergy is greater?

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


Once again, perception matters and there are different types of web development projects. Implementation of a static microsite, for instance, is not the implementation of a large dynamic and interactive website. As far as skills and market rates go, I don't think it's easy to argue that the former isn't largely a commoditized area, like it or not.

As for the opportunity for synergy: I'm not so sure. In many cases, the agency will be outsourcing the development to a freelancer anyway, and per the comment I linked to in my post (, the agency may still underdeliver.

almost 6 years ago


Louis Georgiou

I'm sorry, but this is the most ridiculous article I've ever read from eConsultancy (whom I thoroughly respect), and being the owner of a digital agency it irritated me enough to speak out.
I'll put aside the insinuation that all agencies want to lie to our clients and I'll just ignore the notion that agencies are always 'faking it'. Patricio, what kind of agency experience have you had??
It is totally true that agencies have junior members of staff, but these members would not be employed and would not be allowed to deliver client work if they weren't capable. At our agency, junior members of the team are often supported by a senior or by the team they work with so it's never an issue. In fact, there are junior staff I've worked with who by their hard work, enthusiasm and drive to learn are comparable with their seniors. As for freelancers, yes, like any other organisation would, agencies use contract staff. In those instances, these freelancers are experts in their respective fields and so why is this a negative. In fact, freelance staff cost an agency more than in house staff so it is in no way intended to cheat or short-change clients. At our agency freelancers are used to help get client work delivered on time (which is important to them!) and are brought in to support our team so we always retain the knowledge. Again, we're proud to work with some amazing freelancers with whom we've had relationships for many years and thus respect and value greatly.

almost 6 years ago

Geoff Paddock

Geoff Paddock, Consultant at GP Media Ltd

As a 'contractor' myself I'm not too upset by Patricio's piece, what he says matches my own past experience at a big manufacturing company 'buying in' the services of large agencies, when you would see their honchos at the pitch and then always deal with juniors thereafter. Small consultancies can often afford to charge the same rates as clients would pay for juniors from big ones, and in return the client gets lots of experience and support.

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy


First, I think it's important to point out that this post does not insinuate that all agencies are lying about all things to all clients. Please note the use of "often", "in many cases", etc.

Obviously, I can't speak about your agency specifically, but a few comments in your response to yours:

"At our agency, junior members of the team are often supported by a senior or by the team they work with so it's never an issue."

This is not only a standard line in agency land, it's a standard line in many professional lines of work like accounting and law.

What "supported by" means varies significantly. Unfortunately, the reality is that seniors cannot often provide the ideal level of support because, at the end of the day, these organizations are businesses, not schools. When you have lots of deliverables piling up and tight deadlines, for better or worse, you focus on getting the work done, not mentoring your youngest employees.

"In those instances, these freelancers are experts in their respective fields and so why is this a negative."

I have worked with agencies (both as a contractor and as client staff) and I don't see how this is anything but an inaccurate generalization. Not *every* freelance designer brought in by an agency, for instance, is an award-winning expert. If you're producing banner ads, chances are you're not bringing in a former art director to do the work, nor would you even want to.

"In fact, freelance staff cost an agency more than in house staff..."

In many if not most cases, this is simply not true. Freelance staff generally have higher hourly rates than employees, but when you factor in taxes and benefits, employees cost substantially more. Also worth pointing out: at well-run agencies, close to 100% of a freelancer's time is billable at margin. This is not true for employees.



almost 6 years ago


Digital ad Agency

i totally aggree with you... this is right/..But Transparency has to be the key.

over 5 years ago

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