whiteboard at a design consultancy
Agencies have transformed in the last three years, going from (in some cases) questionable investments to trusted digital transformation advisors PHOTO: rawpixel.com

CMOs, marketing professionals and agencies alike say the relationship between companies and their agencies have changed over the last three years.

Chiefmartec editor and ion interactive co-founder and CTO Scott Brinker listed approximately 750 tools in his marketing technology landscape in 2014. We were still talking about digital transformation in terms of shifting budget from traditional marketing programs to online and mobile channels. 

Marketing teams were more focused on acquiring point marketing tools to expand their digital reach rather than thinking about a long-term integrated technology strategy. At the time, when we spoke with CMOs about their biggest challenges, we heard the same things over and over:

  1. Staying on top of the latest technology.
  2. Making sense of an enormous and evolving technology landscape.
  3. Trying to find and figure out the right tools to test and try.

Life seems so much simpler then. 

What a Difference 3 Years Makes

What was particularly interesting was when we asked what role their agencies played in technology recommendation and acquisition, the responses were uniformly negative. The CMO perception was that agencies weren’t any further ahead than they were in understanding the technology landscape and its direction, and many CMOs were actively disengaging from their agency relationships and bringing all digital marketing in house.

We also spoke with a lot of agencies, ranging from small specialist firms to billion dollar “do it all agencies.” 

The small specialists were building core competencies in various segments of the technology landscape and successfully developing trusted relationships with their clients. Most of the large agencies we talked to (many of which had "digital" in their name) said they were struggling to make sense of the landscape and provide meaningful value to their clients. 

I’ll always remember one very senior agency VP saying to us, “they don’t pay me enough to figure this out!”

Fast forward to 2017: the marketing technology landscape has exceeded 7,000 products and continues to evolve rapidly. We certainly weren't seriously discussing artificial intelligence, augmented reality or virtual reality in 2014. 

Organizations have built or are beginning to build marketing technology and operations teams to stay on top of the technology curve, map a technology strategy and manage technology acquisition, implementation and performance. For companies that haven’t established those functions, the technology landscape is more daunting than ever, and has become complicated by the expansion of digital transformation goals, which now include customer experience, personalization and increasingly intelligent automation. 

Even for companies with marketing technology teams in place, the sheer pace of development and technology evolution is difficult to manage. More than ever, marketing teams need assistance with technology strategy and acquisition.

A Variety of Choice in the Agency and Consulting World

The good, no great, news is that the agency and consulting world has rapidly evolved over the last three years. Agencies have deepened their technology expertise and now offer new stack services. Today companies needing general or very specific stack strategy assistance have many options — there really is something for everyone, regardless of company size and industry.

The Stack Strategy and Development Approach

For large companies with large marketing budgets, top consulting firms such as Accenture and Deloitte now provide marketing technology services that range from strategy to implementation and management. These firms are smartly leveraging their IT expertise and experience to deliver a suite of complementary marketing services. 

And, with their acquisitions of digital and creative agencies, they are able to drive all the way from technology to campaign development and branding.

Traditional industry research firms such as Forrester are also expanding their services from broad-based advisory work to active client-specific consulting on stack strategy and development.

Large digital agencies that have historically focused on digital media are extending their services to include stack strategy and construction. iCrossing and Genuine are two innovative agencies in this area. Agencies heading in this direction are typically taking one of two approaches to getting their arms around the marketing technology landscape: 

  1. they are establishing key partnerships with one or two vendors in every category and then developing core expertise in those platforms or, 
  2. are staying vendor agnostic and knitting together a network of category experts they can call on to support client needs. 

Both approaches have merit.

The Specialist Approach

With a stack framework in place, category/functional specialists and agencies can deliver exceptional value once you know what type of technology you need. 

For example: David Raab is the first person I would call if I were looking for a Customer Data Platform (CDP). A long-time marketing technology consultant, Raab has immersed himself in the CDP world, including establishing the CDP Institute to showcase the many vendors in the space. He works with clients to identify the right CDP platform for their needs. 

You can find experts in virtually every technology category. Agencies that are category/functional experts (e.g. SEO, Digital Advertising) will in many instances source and then deploy and manage technology on their client’s behalf. This is particularly helpful in resource- or expertise-constrained environments and virtually mandatory in a startup environment.

Some of the most interesting agencies are those agencies created by founders with deep expertise in one or more foundational technology platform (e.g. Salesforce, Marketo, Eloqua) and then built leveraging that core expertise. If you already have your anchor platforms or know which platforms you plan to implement, these agencies can deliver tremendous operational assistance, help with platform integrations and can drive a sensible expansion strategy to make sure that all the pieces in your stack work well together. 

Three examples of these types of agencies are Heinz Marketing, DemandGen and DemandSpring. (As a side note: If you are an organization that is fully dependent on a single internal person to run your anchor marketing platform, I strongly recommend having one of these agencies on speed dial in the unlikely event your internal person decides to move on.)

Finding the Right Services for You

There is no right or wrong way to leverage agency and consulting talent. You could choose a single firm to drive everything, you could hire a consultant to pull multiple external resources together or you can serve as the strategist who reaches out to specialists and agencies as needed.

Regardless of the strategy you employ, there are a few things to consider beyond budget, basic capabilities and cultural fit when selecting the right partners:

  1. Do they have a bias toward a specific product or suite of products? If so, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and could actually be a good thing. But if they have a bias you need to understand whether that bias makes sense in your environment.
  2. Do they bring practitioner expertise to the table? In working with someone to help me evaluate and decide on a core anchor platform I would make sure they had either deep practitioner expertise in the product category or could connect me with reference companies that could provide insight into the complexity of installation and use and the ease of integration.
  3. What are the boundaries of their expertise: technology, depth and skills (strategy, acquisition, deployment, management, assessment)? You need to know up front where you might need to augment their capabilities or where they might need to bring in additional external capabilities.
  4. What is the process they employ to stay on top of the latest technology trends and innovation? Make sure your strategy won’t ultimately be limited by their lack of knowledge.

It's time to talk to agencies once more — you’ll be amazed by who you’ll meet.