Posted by Michael Dowd

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You’ve narrowed down your RFP respondents to a few finalists. They’re flying in from around the country for their chance to give you their biggest pitch. They’ve all brought Fortune 100 case studies, industry legend executives, and a PowerPoint that doesn’t miss a single dotted ‘i’ or crossed ‘t.’ But now it’s time for you to make the people sitting in the room think on their feet a little and see what they’re really made of.

To help you see through the smoke and mirrors, here are a few questions that can help separate the partners from the pitchmen/pitchwomen.

1. Who will be working on my account?

Seriously, give me names. Can I speak with them? Teams aren’t always completely formed at the pitch stage, and that’s okay. But hopefully you can at least get a feel for the management side of things. Pitches are too often a bait and switch where subject matter experts and executive leadership detail out sophisticated strategies that they themselves will never execute. I don’t doubt the ability of the giant marketing agencies and consultancies to deliver award-winning work. I am, however, skeptical of their ability to maintain quality control across all of their employees, which leads to an uneven and unpredictable distribution of talent. Once the contract is signed, account teams are too often cobbled together from available resources with little or no consideration for the opportunity at hand.

In the end, the specific people working on your account are just as important as the agency. Pitches should be a chance for you to get comfortable with the team that you’ll be working with for years to come. Insist upon meeting those people face to face, and don’t be afraid to get personnel commitments in your contract.

2. What does your staff turnover look like?

Even if you can secure rock star talent from your agency, what will that team look like a year from now? The agency world has an annual turnover rate of over 30% (not to mention internal reorganizations), so for every three people working on your account, odds are that one will be gone by next year and replaced with an unknown quantity. There are articles all over the major ad publications about the wasted costs of training and onboarding new employees, but far fewer about the impact that turnover has on the clients. If it takes six months for a new employee to get up to speed as these studies suggest, that’s six months of below-average productivity inflicted upon their accounts.

If an agency has a high turnover rate, keep asking for details. Why is it so high? Is there a cultural problem that may impact your account? What are they doing to address it company-wide? What assurances can they provide that your account will be shielded from the impacts of high turnover?

3. How many layers are there between your point of contact and executive management? …and tactical execution?

A heavily stratified employee structure is a hallmark of the biggest marketing agencies and consultancies. Complicated titles make it impossible for an outsider to understand who reports to whom and who works on what. Typically, Account Directors are the main points of contact. To get from them down to execution, you go through media directors, managers, specialists, and planners. To go up to strategy, you go through more layers of directors, practice leads, managers, presidents, and CXOs. Maybe your company is influential enough that you can pick up the phone and speak directly to the agency CEO. But even then, dispensing strategy unilaterally at the executive level often feels like pushing a rope. There are a dozen layers for that CEO to cut through to make sure that discussion translates into tactical execution, which means a dozen opportunities for the message to be lost.

Understand the process by which each company builds and distributes strategy. Ideally, it will involve input from all parts of the company, but at the very least, look for evidence of how new strategies are built and applied to active clients over time. Too often, new strategy is used to lure new business while existing clients fall into more comfortable patterns because their account teams don’t have a reliable source of new ideas or enough incentives to generate their own.

4. How do your different departments communicate?

Just because your “holding company” can do everything under the sun doesn’t mean those people are talking to one another or even know who the other is. Agencies and consultancies like to issue acquisition press releases that make it sound as though they’ve acquired a fully integrated partner. In reality, acquisitions are about the consolidation of profitable companies, and on the back end, they usually operate as they always have – not just as separate entities, but often times as competitive ones, even within the same holding company.

It’s unrealistic to expect that companies will never need to bring on additional resources – especially as project scope grows – but don’t accept those partners at face value. Look for companies that are upfront and transparent about their relationships with both other marketing teams and outsourced partners and ask to meet with those teams directly. Understand how they have worked together in the past, how they unify strategies, and how the broader team is structured.

5. Does your company build and maintain its own MarTech infrastructure?

…why? When it comes to agencies, invest in people over platforms. The proprietary marketing technology arms race is an artificial competition created by the mega agencies to compete against one another. Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to invest in internal technology, and they generally center around the large-scale application of intelligence. For larger agencies, distribution of strategy and insights is a challenge, and technology can facilitate that in a way that more grassroots methods often cannot. But for automation and aggregation technologies, there are SaaS companies out there that are doing phenomenal jobs at democratizing their applications at affordable rates. And those third-party technologies are incentivized to integrate with other industry leading technologies instead of remaining siloed within a prescribed technology stack.

Even if you aren’t using their technologies, you are likely paying for their overhead. Ask your agencies how they break down development resources, how technology is funded, and what their incentive model is with any technology platform – internal or external. Otherwise, you risk paying for people and platforms that have no relevance to your company. If you’re concerned about conflicts of interest, seek independent review of technology recommendations until you’re comfortable with your new agency.

The common themes in these questions are people and accountability. Understanding your account team, their communication structure, their incentives, their culture, and their responsibilities will give you a better understanding of your partnership’s potential than any case study ever will. So be noisy, demand more up front, and set yourself up for long-term success with your new agency.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Photo credit: rawpixel.com

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Agency on Record, the podcast from Maark, just hit the eleventh episode of our weekly podcast. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a milestone for us. That’s because the beginning episodes were a trial run to see if we could do this podcast thing for real. Could we find the time? Could we come up with enough topics? Would anybody listen? Would Mike and I rip each other’s faces off? Would we even really like doing it?

And since the answers to all those questions is a resounding “yes” followed by a resounding “ish,” we’ve leveled up the podcast.

You’ll notice starting at Episode 9 a much, much higher sound quality. We’ve moved the studio from the Maark basement to its own dedicated room and invested in higher-end sound gear.

That’s right. Invested. We’re in this thing for a run.

In our first 11 episodes, we’ve tackled everything from GDPR (“Data Privacy: Secrets Never Stay Secret”) to UX engineering (“The UX Engineer as Unicorn”) to business storytelling (“Marketers vs. Storytellers”). We’ve welcomed on colleagues here at Maark to join the conversation when it touched their area of expertise. Our content seems to range, but that reflects the nature of digital agency life and work.

Soon, we’ll be experimenting with other features for the podcast, including an industry news segment and interviews with guests outside of Maark. It’s actually been a lot of fun figuring this whole thing out.

Some come on by. Give us a listen if you haven’t. Give us a second chance if you have. Want to know more about Maark first? Check out the most recent episode.

And keep checking back, as this is a weekly podcast that shows no sign of slowing. And that’s because it can’t. We have to in order to get our investment back on all the equipment we bought.

Oh, and if you dig it enough, throw us some stars or a review on iTunes. You listen to podcasts. You know how that goes.

Posted by Jason Ocker

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Hang out with a marketer for five minutes, and you’ll hear the word “story.” Or maybe we’ll say “narrative,” but that’s only because we said “story” 30 times that day already. It’s a simple word that usually goes directly through conversations unquestioned.

However, too often marketers mean something totally different than story when we say story. And that means that, too often, we don’t have a story. And that’s a cardinal sin of marketing. For example, I’ve seen each of the below items referred to as a story:

Message House A message house is not a story. The process for making a message house can be a valuable exercise. It can help you outline some of the important pieces of a story. But a message house, really, is just a series of bullet points. There are some basic flaws with message houses (for instance, you can create one without any internal logic and there is rarely a place in the house itself for the audience of the message), but for our purpose here, it’s just not a story.

Tagline A tagline isn’t a story. It can encapsulate the story, sure. It can even focus the story. I like to think of it as the title of the story, which is only as effective and relevant as the story that undergirds it.

Value Proposition and Customer Pain Points These items by themselves don’t constitute a story. Similar to the message house, they are very important pieces of a story, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get those pieces into an actual story.

An Offering with Features That’s not a story, that’s a product sheet. At some point, your marketing story needs to take the audience to some kind of call to action or to a product or solution they can buy, but the product or solution is never the story itself.

Stats and Use Cases These items are beautiful things to have on hand, and you’re far ahead of the game if you do have them ready. They can be used as proof points for a story or examples of the story in action, but they’re still not the story itself.

So what constitutes a story? What are all these ideas missing that makes them not a story, even as they’re all important parts of a story?

Every story blasted down to its bedrock is a progression. A connected sequence of ideas and observations. Something that goes from here to there—logically or emotionally or chronologically or all the other ways ideas progress.

A marketing story takes its audience from one place to another just as much as an epic fantasy quest novel does. From an insight about the market to an opportunity that needs to be capitalized on. From a business challenge to a business solution. We could get granular about other elements that need to be part of a story—empathy, characters, conflict, resolution, etc.—but all of those items, as well as the list of non-stories above, need to be exactingly woven together into an actual narrative, a connected sequence of ideas, for them to be effective.

By the way, there’s an even more practical test to see if you have a story. Do you have an official process in place for creating stories? Do you have an official document template for the story in its purest form that can be used to inform all collateral, keeping them on point and consistent? If you don’t (and all definitions aside), chances are you don’t have a story.

Of course, implicit in the question, “Do you have a story?” is the question, “Do you have a good story?” That’s a different set of criteria. Is the sequence of ideas tightly connected? How is it positioned against competitor stories? Does it resonant with customers? Is it too obvious? Does it reveal any new insights on the market? Is it true? Etc. and ctc.

But story itself takes its audience somewhere. Once you have that definition firmly in place, you can work on making the story better.

Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

Photo credit: Kenneth Lu

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The CMO who only delivers traditional marketing tactics wrapped in better analytics is losing relevancy

Much of what we do in marketing today seems anachronistic. We’re running campaigns to change minds. We’re chasing people around the Internet with banner ads. We’re still investing in the invisible value of impressions. Is that marketing in the 21st century? Is that what it takes to build a brand? While we try to shift focus from mere ad-making to data-driven, sometimes-automated ad-making, we may be missing the larger point. Digital transformation is not only about more relevant ads and content, it’s about better products. Actually, it’s mostly about better products.

You change minds when you change the product experience. The integration of data across channels and the personalization of content should be in the service of delivering a better end-to-end customer experience – because it’s the experience with the product or service that makes a brand today, and not much more. And that’s really what’s on the plate of the CMO tasked with spearheading digital transformation. They need to drive loyalty by delivering a better experience. Turn customers from one-time buyers of the product, which has traditionally been the goal of marketing, into lifetime users of the brand. From buyers to users, that’s the idea.

But to envision, and then ultimately deliver true product or service innovation is an extremely tall order for many CMOs. Connecting with a generation of digital natives – whether in B2C or B2B environments – is completely uncharted territory. CMOs raised in a pre-mobile culture, who have yet to commit themselves to learning the details of planning and executing leading end-to-end digital experiences, are finding themselves competing with CDOs (Chief Digital Officers) and CCOs (Chief Customer Officers) for ownership of their company’s vision for transformation.

CMOs who shunt the vision and execution of their digital transformation onto someone else ultimately put the company’s core value at risk. A financial services company, for instance, too narrowly focused on hard returns from their investment strategies, and not enough on the digital experience around consuming their products or services, won’t be saved from digitally immaculate competitors by investment returns alone. Core to the company’s value as those returns may seem, the end-to-end experience customers have with products and services is what ultimately determines whether they will be a lifetime user of the brand, or a one-time buyer of the product. It’s a new kind of CMO that both understands how critical the end-to-end experience is to the perceived value of the product, and how to get it right.

In B2B contexts, the challenge is the same. Take an enterprise software vendor who may be focused on delivering the broadest feature set in their market. As they look to attract a developer ecosystem around their products, they will struggle to compete for attention with outmoded portals, deficiently documented APIs, or anything in the way of startup-like usability. As good a marketing plan as they may have, they will have almost no chance against a competitor with a more limited feature set packaged in an experience that developers enjoy.

Everyone is competing on experience in nearly every industry, whether they’ve recognized it or not. No one is competing on marketing tactics. The CMO who is only delivering traditional marketing tactics wrapped in better analytics is moot. The value of the digital CMO is not that they mask customer experience issues with campaigns, but that they champion and deliver on a vision for a better end-to-end customer experience.

Marketing tactics are part of the job, for sure, but they should follow from the product experience. Amazon, for instance, can justify outspending Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Kroger and Best Buy combined in advertising because they can be sure that they have the experience right on the other end of the ad. Netflix spends a billion dollars a year in advertising aimed at driving potential subscribers to an experience that is so far superior to their cable cousins that they now have more subscribers than the top six U.S. cable companies combined. And while a billion dollars is a lot of money, Netflix has always been outspent by its competitors by many billions of dollars. Fortunately for Netflix, ads won’t make their competitors more attractive to consumers. They’ve got to first deliver a Netflix-like experience.

The digital CMO needs to think hard about the experience they are trying to deliver and how to be successful delivering it amidst such significant transformation. They need to think about how their product or brand strategy changes in the context of cultivating lifetime users. They need to think about messaging and how their narrative carries across the entire experience. Beyond “creative” as a brand or campaign deliverable, they need to think about experience design in general and how their brand standards and narrative are manifest in digital assets such as software interfaces. And what about those interfaces? How do you build truly exceptional software experiences? This is now core to the brand.

The successful digital CMO may need to have the broadest range of skills in the entire enterprise. They are being asked to outline the future of the company, the way it will interact with customers and the types of products and services it will create. They are being asked to craft a better experience, not to create better ads.

For more on building digital brands check out a recent episode from Agency on Record, our podcast about creativity and technology in a commercial world:

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Photo credit: Rick Miller

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It’s 2018. You’re making software. That means you’re making user experiences. And that means you’re dealing with UI designers. Even if you’re used to dealing with creatives in general, user experience design is still a more complex and nuanced engagement due to how directly involved the user is with that end experience, as well as the technology backing that experience. The UI team you hire is bringing creative, problem solving, design, interaction, and technology expertise to your project. And you need to manage that team and those skillsets while incorporating your own subject matter and product strategy expertise in a way that yields the best possible experience for your users. Basically, you don’t want your design feedback blowing the product up.

But your input will be required at many different points in the software-making process. Some of those points involve looking at designed mockups of what your website or app might look like. That can be an overwhelming or an underestimated task. We’re talking colors, fonts, organization of elements, page flows, interactive states, branding, imagery, and more. Even one seemingly innocuous piece of feedback can cascade into a less than ideal experience. Here are some tips for how to avoid that issue and get the most from your UI team.

Strategy vs. Tactics

As a stakeholder, you know your business and the specific business goals for this experience better than anyone in the room. That makes you invaluable to the end product. But that also makes you invaluable in a very specific way.

Giving strategic feedback instead of tactical feedback to a creative team helps them understand where a design might not be aligning with the business. If we only discuss feedback in terms of changing colors or fonts we’re not getting at the why a color or font should change. How does that color support our business goals? Is this font appropriate for our audience? How do the interactions on our site fit into a user’s workflow? Asking these types of questions of your creative team can go a long way to getting your app designed in a way that maximizes their expertise for compelling experiences and combines it seamlessly with your business goals.

Hierarchy vs. Size

The cliché design criticism is “make the logo bigger.” Which, of course, can be valid feedback. But instead of thinking about how big the logo should be right away, consider if the logo is the most important element on the screen.

That’s design hierarchy. Are the elements that are most important to your business and most important to your customers getting the right amount of attention in the right order?

Sharing what information is the most important to your message with the UI team can help them design a screen to draw the viewer’s eyes to the most important element in your message and then on to the next most important element, and so on, guiding them through the experience and the story. Sometimes this is done by making a logo bigger, but more often it is achieved by adjusting elements according to common Gestalt principals like proximity—adjusting the space between elements—continuation—visually connecting elements together—or similarity—grouping like elements.

Advertising Branding vs. Interface Branding

Most companies have thorough brand guidelines for print and advertising. However, most companies do not extend those guidelines to branding their digital applications. Often, this means the creative team needs to make assumptions and judgment calls as to how the brand should translate to a digital design.

We see this happen all the time. The UI team comes up with an innovative design that wields the brand in new ways, and the stakeholders are forced to kibosh it, not because they don’t like it or think that it’s innovative, but because they have no context for judging it. They feel it’s not in brand because there’s nowhere in the brand for it to be. It’s a tragedy.

The answer to that, obviously, is to extend your brand guidelines to user experiences, but in lieu of that, here are some general guidelines to consider with your UI team when translating a brand:

Color

One of the easiest ways to bring a brand to a digital platform is by implementing the colors of the existing brand. However, often, in digital applications, more colors are needed than exist in the brand. Digital applications may require more colors for error feedback, warnings, colors for alerting the user to changes, or large sets of colors to display data in visualizations. In that case, you should ask your UI team about the new colors and how they keep the brand’s essence intact, as opposed to judging the colors themselves based on vague personal aesthetics.

Typography

Years ago, you couldn’t use any font on the web except Arial. Today, more and more type designers license web versions of their fonts to be used in software and websites. Talk to your UI team about using the same fonts you use in other branded materials and securing the proper license. It’s worth the investment. However, if that isn’t a possibility, engage with your team and give them the freedom to put some thought behind what fonts will work best on a screen and fit with your existing brand.

Imagery

If your company already has a strategy for creating branded images across your existing materials, your UI team should be considering how to bring that over to your digital applications. When looking at design mockups, consider how imagery is being used, how it’s unique compared to the competition, and—just like every other design decision—how it supports your brand and your business strategy.

It’s 2018. You want to make intuitive, branded, and visually engaging software, and your UI team can get you there. But the process requires everyone involved to contribute according to their expertise. Ultimately, though, it’s your input around the business’s goals that will help your UI team make a great software experience for you and your customers.

Alex Carr is the Director of Creative Services at Maark, where he leads a team of illustrators and designers focused on marketing, branding, and product design for our clients.