By Tom Sandford on February 01, 2019

Perfection Vs Productivity: The Toxic Tug of War at the Heart of Agency Marketing

As agencies, clients pay us for quality. But the value we deliver to other businesses is the very thing that holds many agencies back in our own marketing.

Our eye for detail and commitment to quality simply stops us getting marketing done.

Agency teams either lack time to execute their marketing plans – as explored in our last article – or, worse, are crippled by perfectionism.

So how can we break the deadlock?

We asked 16 of the UK’s leading agencies how they’ve boosted their marketing productivity as part of our Good Agency Marketing study.

Here’s what they told us.

Simpler marketing planning

London agency Matter of Form once scrapped 16 websites in a row in pursuit of marketing perfection.

Partly, this was down to the agency’s positioning shifting, says founder Anant Sharma. But equally damaging was the founder’s own eye for detail:

“We are quintessentially cobbler’s shoes. I don’t think we had a website for our first three years.  We then designed one, but never got around to building the CMS, so that didn’t get updated for a further two years. Then, in a moment of deep panic, we used a WordPress template to get something up as quickly as possible, which we then didn’t update for a further eighteen months. I am now banned from the design department.”

“I think it’s a real point of frustration to my business partner and operations director, who just wanted to get shit done and get it down there. I’m quite involved in the craft and the proposition within the agency, but that overcomplicated things.”

To overcome their perfectionism, the agency had to simplify their marketing plans. The team hired a head of agency marketing to own and focus on their marketing delivery.

“That definitely was a turning point,” says Anant. “It was now someone’s responsibility to run marketing like a project, with a phantom budget, delivered through the agency. This is difficult when you’re in growth mode, because then you tend to invest all your resources into what you think is going to generate the most short-term return, which is client work. It takes a lot to take a step back and say, ‘Actually, we’re going to turn this work away or we’re going to prioritise this piece of internal agency marketing because it’s key to our future.”

Building and rebuilding marketing materials isn’t always an issue. Digital agency Kyan, for example, told us how they’ve recorded and recorded their first podcast to find the right ‘feel’ for their agency. But Kyan are already a long way into their marketing journey – hosting a calendar of successful events and promotional activities – where Matter of Form were only at the start of theirs.

To get your agency marketing off the ground, start small and simplify your approach.

Reduced marketing friction

Studies show that creatives are, on the whole, intrinsically motivated. They’re more likely to be driven by creative curiosity and craft than money. That’s excellent for whipping up stand-out creative for clients, but crap for getting your own marketing done.

For Kent agency Reflect Digital, the answer is to make it as easy as possible for creatives to get involved in agency marketing.

CEO Becky Simms explains: “We had one of our marketing team to manage our internal campaigns by writing guidelines that went out to each of our teams, which worked. For example: if Halloween was coming up and we’d planned 5 articles around the topic, she would then write a brief for each person writing the article – one that was already well thought-out, so that the creative didn’t have to do too much thinking. They might want to take another angle in the piece, but we’d made things simpler for them, and that’s the key thing for teams that aren’t naturally marketing-focused. It’s important to make it easy for them, because if you just say, ‘Write me an article, I need it by this day, this topic,’ it’s not going to be necessarily the best piece of work, and your marketing will suffer.”

Small changes in the way teams work can have significant results. At Future Content, we naturally focus on delivering creative for our client before own, typically pushing our own marketing work to the back end of the week.

Too often, this means shunting our internal projects into the following week – where the cycle repeats itself. The solution? Do our own marketing work at the start of the week – where we’re forced to work with greater focus and productivity. Try it!

People and positioning

Events agency Rapiergroup initially hired a part-time marketing director to take stock of their position and set a strategy for the future. But these plans might have stayed on paper, had the team not decided to also hire marketing manager Luke.

“It’s fine defining a strategy and your overall business goals,” says director Rob Brazier, “but it was only really when Luke started that we got some momentum. We had someone here with a fresh perspective on the agency, and the energy and appetite to push things through.  Then to work with the wider team to make sure marketing actually happened. The reason that happened is because Luke was here as a full-time resource.”

Employing the ‘right people’ to get marketing done doesn’t only mean hiring internally. For B2B branding agency Rooster Punk, looking beyond his own team allowed founder James Trezona to tackle deliverables like his agency’s website with speed and clarity, preventing them holding back the rest of the business’ marketing.

“Something I often say to clients is, ‘Look, you’re hiring us in because we’re experts, and the reason we offer value is because we’ve done this for 20, 30 other clients this year and we are a third party – which means that culturally, we are set up to make creative leaps and take risks.’  

“Of course, it’s bullshit if you then try and do your own marketing because you can’t have your external creative leaps and third-party point of view if you do everything in-house. So, as painful as it is to outsource responsibility and therefore the ownership of some of our own stuff to a third party, it’s actually a mature thing to do.”

“I often think that people use ‘client work comes first’ as a proxy for, ‘Actually, [doing our own marketing] is painful, and agencies don’t bother writing a clear brief because it’s their own work; because everyone gets it. They don’t. You might be working with your CEO, who is very opinionated and hard to work with, for one. It’s more painful than working on a client brief with a clear set of parameters and a clear process, whereas with internal work, there’s a whole load of emotion invested; it’s not just about the time and resource.

“Everyone puts off stuff which they’re a little bit worried about. That’s often the case with agency’s own brand, because everyone’s got an opinion. ‘This is going to be a little bit painful.  Oh, fuck it, I’ll do the client work first.’ That’s why we outsource a fair chunk of this work.”

Weeding out perfectionism

Crucial to dealing with creative perfectionism is to recognise – and deal with – the danger it poses to marketing productivity.

The marketing success of London agency Smoke Creatives depends on balancing the creative and sales sides of the business. This is made simpler by the fact that the agency comprises two sisters – Susie, focused on business development, and Katrin, on creative.

Katrin explains: “Susie gives me a right kick up the arse most of the time, to say ‘Perfection is the enemy of good’, and say ‘Do you know what? We’ll just put it out there.’ Some of the things go out, I think ‘Oh, they’re not quite-,’ but I think it’s an impulse. This is a good thing – as you know what your standards are, but I think agencies need to keep a healthy perspective on the fact that no-one obsesses about your work nearly as much as you do.”

Partly, this perspective comes from recognising that marketing materials only need to reflect where an agency is right now.

Katrin continues: “The website that we have now is our third website in five years, and we’re still, probably thinking ‘There’s still a need for this, and it’s not quite right there,’ and I try not to look at it sometimes, because I think, ‘Oh, it’s going to really upset me that the copy isn’t quite right, or that isn’t expressed perfectly,’. But sometimes you just have to think, ‘Well, it does the job, and it’s where we’re at now.  When we can afford to do something new, we’ll commission new illustration or freshen things up, or get a copywriter in and spend more time making it pop,’

“Actually, people who go to our site always look at it and say they feel like it’s really different. The reaction we get from other people is positive, and sometimes, even though we’re not feeling that positive about it and notice a million and one things that need to change, we just have to accept that it’s doing the job that it needs to do for the people that it needs to do the job for. We just have to get over ourselves.”

This isn’t easy, says Katrin. “I do a lot of throwing things out and saying, ‘No, that’s not right, that’s not right, that’s not right,’ and Susie just puts it up anyway. Then it exists, and then that’s it. I’ll get over it, or I’ll never go and look at that page again. That’s largely how it works!”

Smoke Creative’s experience shows that managing perfectionism must be an ongoing job for agencies. Otherwise, creative teams are likely to slip back into their comfort zone – producing quality creative too slowly for their marketing to be effective.

The value of mistakes

Creative perfection takes time – a luxury that agencies don’t have.

To do marketing, then, agencies must get comfortable with publishing work that they might not be 100% happy with.

“If you take an experimental approach, you’ll improve so much in twelve months that you’ll find it hilarious to look back at the content you put out before,” says Lab sales and marketing director Tom Head. “That’s the marker. You should look at your content twelve months ago and cringe slightly, because if you still think it’s shit hot then you haven’t improved it.”

The ‘suck it and see’ approach doesn’t only help boost marketing productivity. Crucially, it also provides teams with the wisdom of experience; marketing insight that they can sell to their own clients.

For agencies, the lesson is clear. To do marketing, act fast and get comfortable with failure.

It might be the most valuable thing you can do for your business.

Image via Unsplash,

Published by Tom Sandford February 1, 2019