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Interview Series: Karl Sakas

Interview Series: Karl Sakas

We caught up with Karl Sakas, an agency business advisor, over a round of pizza. We asked him a series of questions about what the average agency buyer should look for when hiring an agency to expedite creative, marketing, and digital work. Sakas’ company, Sakas & Company, works with clients on 5-continents giving expert business advice along the way.

What questions would you recommend a buyer ask when looking for a digital agency?

Is the agency good at marketing itself? Most agencies put their own marketing last. If an agency is doing well at its own marketing, that’s like a sign that they’re a well-run business.

Do they have a process for client service and project management? Plenty of agencies are good at marketing for clients. Not every agency is good at the client-facing side. Look for things like onboarding documents, a formal kickoff meeting, and a PM system like Basecamp or similar.

Has the agency chosen a niche? I’m a fan of specialization by industry, but some agencies do well by specializing in particular types of work (such as mobile apps) or particular types of clients (such as small or medium businesses in a particular geography).

You’ve seen agencies come and go in your career. What qualities do the successful ones have that the fly-by-nights don’t?

Successful agencies are committed to being better businesses. This includes moving beyond day-to-day crisis mode to focusing on things like staff development, internal efficiency, and creating client service processes.

Ask agencies about their approach to employee professional development. Best practices include doing lunch-and-learns, having a conference/training budget, and being active contributors to online forums. Digital marketing is always changing. You want your agency staying ahead… or at least keeping up.

Smart agency leaders are committed to building a strong company culture. The exact approach they follow will vary by agency, but look for agencies that are committed to being a good place to work. This includes being selective about deciding which clients the agency helps.

Happy employees who like their clients tend to create better work for those clients.

There’s a distinction between agencies who are “specialists” as well as those who are “full stack.” Is hiring a few groups preferable in your opinion than hiring one agency who can do it all?

The decision depends on a client’s goals, workload, and budget. I’m a fan of hiring specialist agencies, but coordinating multiple agencies takes more time than hiring a single agency.

If you hire a single agency, be sure they have enough of a track record doing work like yours. For instance, if yours is their first mobile app or first marketing automation project, they’re going to make a lot of mistakes on your dime.

Clients also need to be realistic about the management overhead connected to hiring an agency. If you hire an agency, you should plan to spend between five and 20 hours a week working with the agency.

This time includes making decisions, going to status meetings or reading status reports, compiling and reconciling internal feedback to share with the agency, keeping your team updated about what’s going on, and doing legwork you haven’t hired the agency to do but that the agency needs to move forward (such as writing content or collecting info from your internal stakeholders).

In my experience, hiring an agency without creating time in your own schedule to manage the projects or retainer is a recipe for disaster. You and they will be very unhappy several months from now.

Especially for small businesses, be sure to find an agency that has experience working with clients in your situation. For instance, if you’re a business owner and the agency’s usual day-to-day client contacts are primarily marketing VPs, the agency may not understand that marketing is just one of a dozen priorities for you, or that you don’t have a team of five internal marketers to delegate to.

What buzzwords should small business owners look for in a digital agency’s proposal? Are there any buzzwords that immediately sound an alarm?

Rather than specific buzzwords, my biggest red flag is agencies that talk all about themselves instead of about the potential client.

I regularly review agency proposals as an agency consultant. The worst proposals spend 80% of the time talking about how wonderful the agency is… and maybe 20% on the agency’s approach to solving the client’s business problems.

To be clear, I don’t recommend that agencies include specific marketing recommendations in their sales proposal. But agencies should describe the process they’re going to follow to help the client find the answers, and they should show they understand your current challenges.

The ideal is a proposal that gives clients options (with descriptions in plain English instead of marketing-speak) to help clients decide which approach is right. Generally, the more you spend, the better results you can get… but clients need to be able to decide if the likely impact is worth the budget invested.

What advice do you have for business owners doing business with an agency that isn’t local? What advice would you give agencies who are doing work with remote clients?

Many of my agency clients work with remote clients, and 95% of my own clients at Sakas & Company are remote themselves.

The key is finding the right way to communicate. This will vary by each client. I recommend that agencies identify whether a particular client prefers verbal or written communication. If a client prefers talking, an agency will frustrate them with round after round of long emails. If a client prefers to handle things in writing, an agency will frustrate them with endless phone calls.

Use technology that makes work easier, not harder. Use PM software that’s easy for clients to use. Use teleconferencing software like UberConference that lets you send automatic reminders and eliminates needing to use PINs and passwords. Collaborate using Google Docs instead of round after round of MS Word attachments.

And recognize that sometimes, you need a face-to-face meeting. Budget for this up front, or be ready to quote it along the way. For instance, an agency client who handles all clients remotely budgets for an annual trip to each client. Not everyone takes them up on this visit, but it’s an important bonding experience for those who do.

Got a big, remote client who’s at-risk? Sometimes agencies need to invest in a visit to preserve the relationship.

Some clients just aren’t a match for a remote agency. If they need to shake hands and look people in the eye, video conferencing and other technology may not be enough to build a strong relationship. Choosing a local agency limits who’s available to do the work, but some clients need this.

Do you see “digital” being a threat to the traditional marketing, PR, and advertising agencies?

I see traditional agencies adding digital to their repertoire. Sometimes they do this by hiring people, sometimes they do this by acquiring “digital first” agencies outright, and sometimes they just try to muddle through it with their existing teams.

Traditional marketing isn’t dead but most clients need digital help. If their current agency can’t do it, they’ll look for someone who does.

About Karl Sakas

Karl Sakas (@Karl Sakas on Twitter) has helped hundreds of clients since he started working in digital marketing in 1997. As president of global consulting firm Sakas & Company, Karl helps digital marketing agencies grow without the usual growing pains. He has advised agency owners on 5 continents about strategy, operations, and leadership.

Karl has written more than 100 articles on agency management, and he founded and runs an online community with 500+ agencies in 40 countries. When he’s not helping clients, Karl volunteers as a bartender on a 1930s railroad car. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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