Let’s run through a scenario that agencies see from time to time (not just in Q4, but the stakes are higher across the board right now):
On the client side, a main point of contact is relatively new to the team. It’s Q4. They’re feeling stressed.
On the agency side, things seem to be going well. KPIs are in line with established goals, there’s a strategy in place for the next few months, weekly calls haven’t surfaced any concerns, and there’s a healthy test-and-learn methodology in place for creative optimization and channel expansion.
Then the email drops: counter to what the agency is seeing, company data shows that the marketing team isn’t hitting goals.
If things don’t improve quickly, there are going to be some tough conversations about ending the partnership.
What happened? And how could the agency have prevented it?
I’ll dig into the answers in this post.
1. Treat alignment as an activity
Agencies and brands are generally diligent about aligning goals, KPIs, and data sources as part of the onboarding process.
But the agency can’t assume brands will automatically alert all parties when things change internally.
Factors that agencies must plan to solicit regular updates on include:
Every marketing department I’ve ever worked for or with has changed goals from time to time.
Whether it’s pivoting from lead gen to site traffic or shifting focus from driving growth to improving CPA, change is a constant.
This needs to be reflected in your campaigns and reporting, or you’ll be driving headlong down the wrong road in optimizing the wrong KPIs.
Internal dashboards are always a big point of discussion in onboarding and kickoff calls, but the conversation can’t end there.
Attribution models change and improve, tech stacks evolve, internal business intelligence teams build dashboards, etc.
Agencies that aren’t asking for access to that data are flying without a map.
One important component of internal reports that agencies need to know is the fields that client dashboards use to attribute to advertising.
We use UTMs and campaign IDs, but clients may be able to attribute advertising-influenced actions beyond that first touch that we can bake into our reporting and optimization.
If a client is using HubSpot, that can add an extra layer of complication.
HubSpot reports are hard to export and look at in a clean way. The data needs to be analyzed in a native environment in order for agencies to tie campaigns to offline data.
While HubSpot data can be pulled into better reporting environments like Salesforce, which can build reports based on any specified UTMs (e.g., ad group or keyword), any advanced offline insights will rely on client resources to build the reporting.
In short, those conversations, and how to share and reconcile different data sources, are important to have to maintain a similar construct around campaign performance for whatever layer of analysis you’re seeking.
We all know, on the consumer level, that retail discounts are all the rage in Q4 – online, offline, and both.
In the B2B world, it’s common for brands to incorporate an end-of-year sales push, or buyer incentives, that could include more motivation to book meetings.
Agencies that aren’t asking for that information right around now will likely suffer from a lack of lead time in setting up plans, including how to monitor and adjust to pipeline data and funnel flow (e.g., lead-to-meetings booked rates could artificially increase, which could have bidding and budgeting ramifications).
Websites and landing pages
Websites and landing pages change all the time.
Maybe there’s a homepage banner advertising a brand-new report or new CTAs in rotation on a demo-focused landing page.
Or maybe the client has done some brand tweaking to update messaging and value props.
That report would make a great sitelink for brand search ads. Those CTAs and value props should be reflected in ad copy and creatives to keep the user journey as friction-free as possible.
Those might seem minor, but little things can compound over time if you’re not keeping track of a client’s owned media updates.
This is an extreme example, but imagine you’re watching the Super Bowl, and you see a commercial for a client that you had no idea was about to happen. Your search budget could be blown by halftime.
When clients have major campaigns afoot beyond the ones you’re managing, you need to know in order to effectively prepare for any downstream ripples.
Make sure you’re checking with your clients – especially those working with multiple agencies – on whether they have initiatives outside of your partnership that you should be aware of.
This includes things like billboards, radio commercials with discount codes that could make for cool sitelinks, CTV or podcast campaigns, etc.
2. Build – and stick to – a communication cadence
Do not wait for QBRs to bring up big topics like goals. Internal marketing teams don’t plan their strategy around agency meetings.
At my agency, we’re working on a strategic planning template that we’ll review quarterly with clients in 2023, but we’ll supplement that by bringing up goals regularly on weekly calls to build the habit and make those conversations second nature.
Along with reporting on progress to goal, as most agencies do in weekly calls, we’ll manage alignment by:
- Asking if anything has changed.
- Getting context and providing initial feedback on feasibility if goals have changed.
- Openly discussing possible concerns and brainstorming solutions.
Once those steps are completed, we’ll revise the current roadmap or build a new one to make sure we’re fully incorporating the goals into our partnership.
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3. Err on the side of over-communicating
Over-communication can make the consumption of important content challenging, especially in today’s digital environment. (Quick, count the number of log-ins you do daily to keep up with company and external goings-on.)
But under-communicating is a worse option.
Simply put, you can ignore the questions or content you don’t have time to read, but you can’t respond to something if it’s never put in front of you. That’s the approach agencies should take, especially in relatively busy/chaotic times like Q4.
Repeat info. Overshare updates. Ask questions (politely) until you get answers.
In general, assume your client contacts are busy and under pressure and don’t have “keep agency up to speed” first on their list of daily priorities.
4. Work backward and build project plans
As agencies well know, it takes time to plan properly for initiatives like end-of-year software sales discounts and ecommerce promotional calendars – especially since there’s also a lot of daily rigor and optimization that needs to happen in the meantime.
I like to set an ideal endpoint (“We launch on X date”) and work backward to schedule every preparatory step needed to hit the goal.
- Give the client a heads-up that you’re working on a project plan.
- Detail each step and assign rough dates and owners.
- Send the proposal to your clients for review ASAP.
Once their feedback is incorporated and the parties are aligned, make sure you’re tracking and updating the project somewhere common like Asana to keep all parties on track.
For both the client and the agency, the absolute worst time to surface any possible issues is after a long stretch of misaligned perspectives of performance.
Prolonged misalignment often results in the end of a partnership and missed goals on the client side.
It’s especially important for agencies to establish a rhythm of questions and proactive communication in Q4, with the bonus that you’ll condition both parties to keep lines of communication open and enable better longer-term planning.
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