What Should Digital Marketing Agencies Focus on in the Year Ahead?

A few weeks ago, I received a lovely email with an important question: what should digital marketing agencies focus on in 2021 and beyond?

Via Sebastián Cardozo of Noventaynueve

Wait… Why me? I don’t run an agency, and haven’t for more than a decade. Well, SparkToro has used a lot of agency help, we’ve got more than two hundred agency customers, and I spend a lot of time engaging with agency owners (both those who’ve struggled in 2020 and those who’ve had great success). So, perhaps, a few thoughts are worth sharing. I asked Noventaynueve’s founder for permission to turn his question into this post and he kindly agreed; thanks Sebastián!

In the many conversations and emails I’ve had with agency owners, employees, and clients, most challenges appear to fall into one of three buckets:

  • Struggling to attract or retain clients
  • Issues with proving value and earning buy-in for long term ROI projects (especially in services like content marketing, digital PR, and SEO)
  • Challenges with the team’s productivity, work quality, and/or retention

What can agency owners and team members do to help solve these in 2021?

1) Focus on a Single Model

Trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for disaster. That’s not just true in your personal or professional life as a human, but as an organization and brand, too. As marketers, we know that selling works best when we present products to potential customers that are clearly for them.

Just as shoppers visit the product page of an e-commerce site and ask “is this the right product for me?” so too do employees (potential ones, and those you currently employ!) ask themselves, “is this agency right for me?”

Clients do it, too. And again, not just those who are considering working with your agency for the first time, but also those wondering whether to stay with your services, or those who stopped working with you but are considering returning. Great digital marketers advise their clients to craft singular, resonant messaging that tells a clear, obvious story throughout the funnel. Yet far too few take their own advice.

Despite proclamations of “full service” and “right for any client size, type, or industry,” this one-size-fits-all approach is bad for both agency and client. Don’t design your services for maximum appeal like you’re a low-margin, high-volume B2C business. You’re not. Design the services, client types, industries, contract sizes, length, and structure that make you uniquely better than all those other agencies.

This isn’t just a better way to pitch and win clients, it’s a better way to retain them, a better way to hire a team, a better way to build partnerships with other services firms, and a better way to build a flywheel that turns with increasing efficiency.

2) It’s OK to Balance Right AND Wrong-Fit Clients

Remember how I advised a focused approach to your agency’s services structure and client appeal? You already forgot?! It’s literally one paragraph up from… never mind.

Well, sometimes, it’s OK to break the rules.

A client opportunity might come in that’s irresistible. Maybe they’re so prestigious that adding the name to your client roster feels like it will give you a huge boost. Or, they’re offering so much money you simply can’t say no. Maybe you desperately need to pay the bills and can’t afford to be picky. Or, perhaps, you swore an oath to a dying samurai in a dream ten years ago that if such-and-such ever called, you’d do whatever it took to land them.

But… if you’re getting into an “exception client” situation, or if you already have some clients aboard that you know are wrong fits but can’t cut lose (for any of the reasons above), don’t sweat it. Everyone takes those clients. The real danger isn’t saying yes to those deals, it’s bending over backwards and breaking your model or your team in an attempt to deliver for a wrong-fit client.

Agency owners have it tough; they’re almost always balancing (some) poor-fit clients that will pay the bills or add prestige against a lack of enough great-fit clients to never feel tempted by the poor fits. And sometimes, they’re facing this dilemma in a bait-and-switch situation, where a client looked like a great fit until month 3 of the engagement, when it became crystal clear that they’re not.

The solution: accept this reality and seek balance through equitable work.

Treat your poor-fit clients the same way you treat your great-fit clients. Don’t bend over backwards to do extra work or take on tasks (yes, even reporting) that you don’t offer to others. Be straightforward. Have a tough conversation about expectations and reality. If they walk away, so be it. That’s more room for a great fit client. If they begrudgingly stay on, that’s fine too. You’ve got another paying client for whom you’re doing great-fit client work (even if they don’t appreciate it).

The special-casing is what kills the agencies I’ve talked to—they work extra hard for clients that don’t appreciate them, under-resource great clients, and leave both unhappy. Chances are, those poor fit clients are going to be unhappy. Control what you can: your work. Ignore what you can’t: their relative happiness with what they want vs. what they signed up and are paying for.


That said, if you’re finding this to be a chronic issue rather than a rare misstep, the problem is you. It might be how you pitch, who you pitch, the delta between your pitches and your actual work, or the clarity of expectations you create. Figure out which one(s) are responsible, and get your house in order. Happier clients, a happier team, and far less stress are the reward when you do.

3) Build a Marketing Funnel that Matches Your Strengths

In my conversations with agency owners, I’ve been amazed at the diversity of how different firms build their client demand funnels. Events, networking, referrals, and content are among the most mentioned, but they’re far from alone. I spoke with an agency who gets almost all their clients through comment marketing, mostly on Reddit, Instagram, and YouTube (I was so surprised I asked to see examples).

I also found that client demand generation was often the top concern for owners. Even those with full rosters regularly sweat about future demand and whether they’ll be kicking themselves in three months for saying no to clients because they’re too busy right now.

The best solution: a consistent, high quality marketing funnel that can be invested in more or less as the situation demands.

No single model is a match for every firm, but there is a structure that works for almost everyone.

Channels and tactics that fit these three criteria:

  1. Areas where you/your team have personal passion and interest (i.e. if you hate Twitter, don’t invest in it, even if you’ve heard it’s a great channel)
  2. Areas where you can provide unique value to your audience (i.e. if you’re incredible on stage, make events part of your strategy; if you’re only “middle of the pack” at speaking, choose something else)
  3. Areas that reach your potential customers & their sources of influence (i.e. if you’re great at podcasts and love doing them, but none of your customers or the people they listen-to and respect listen, maybe turn those conversations into written, visual, or video content — if those channels do reach your audience)

This isn’t rocket science and it’s not especially novel advice, but I’m shocked at how often agency owners, often great marketing strategists themselves, can’t apply the superb advice they give clients to their own businesses. In case you needed to hear it from someone else to help it sink in… I’m telling you 🙂

4) Worry Less About Losing Wrong People, & More About Getting Right Ones On Board

The second biggest challenge (and sometimes the first) for most agency owners is the same one facing virtually every business owner/CEO: the people on their team.

Through all of my 20s and much of my 30s, I held the foolish belief that firing people was the worst thing a boss could do. It meant you’d failed to hire, train, motivate, and mentor. It was a sign of poor strategy, bad culture, and failed management. Wow… I sure was a dumb kid. But you don’t have to be.

Decades of team building (much of it poorly done) taught me that it’s OK to make hiring mistakes, so long as you’re building a consistent, transparent culture around it.

Imagine you’re interviewing for a job at Agency X. The team likes you, and they want to make an offer. But first, the owner calls up for quick heart to heart. She makes it clear that about 30% of new staff members don’t work out after their first 6 months. This is not unexpected or unwelcome, she explains, but rather because it’s impossible to know whether a team and a person will be perfect fits from an interview process alone. The only way to really know is to give it a try, and Agency X would rather assume the best, make some mistakes, and hand out a few extra severance bonuses than put candidates through an impossible ringer just to bring that 30% down to 15%.

A few agency owners I spoke with explained this as the only model they’ll use after bad experiences being scared to hire and fire. I plan to use it at SparkToro as well (if and when we start building a team). Letting go of wrong fits isn’t shameful or indicative of a problematic culture. It’s absolutely fine, so long as you do it empathetically and transparently.

The best part: you’ll take a few more risks on hires, and often find gems you otherwise would have missed. Second best: setting expectations and having structure for letting folks go will mean you don’t spend months and years coaching those who aren’t going to be great fits. You can get on with your business, and they can get on with finding a professional home that will appreciate them for who they are.

5) Optimize Your Team for Great Work, Not Hard Work

Deadlines and client expectations mean that agency deliverables are some of the least time-flexible work in the professional world. However, the value of great work is so many multiples that of “completed work,” that I’d argue it’s almost always worth waiting if better deliverables are the result.

Clients often don’t see it that way, though. That’s why your job as an owner or manager is to give your team time to find their great work, rather than optimizing for simply completing it.

Of the chats I’ve had with agencies, this has been the touchiest subject. Most owners recognize that great work and fast work don’t go together. But few are as receptive to the idea that great creative work can’t be summoned on command.

Either you’re working or you’re not, right? Either you’re giving it 100% or you’re slacking off?

Dead wrong.

Human beings don’t work this way. When given a problem, especially something complex, open to interpretation, or solvable in numerous ways, our brains use background functions to churn away at ideas even while our conscious minds are doing something else entirely. If you’ve ever wondered why so many high-powered CEOs, athletes, and investors aim for 9 hours in bed, 8 hours asleep, 90 active minutes, and multiple weeklong vacations each year, it’s because they’ve all read the research. Stressed brains suck at creative problem-solving. Relaxed, well-rested, psychologically-safe-feeling brains are amazing at it.

There’s plenty of research papers and dozens of pop-psych pieces on this topic, so I won’t belabor it, but the takeaway for agencies is crystal clear. Most of the time, most of your team is going to be working on high-creativity problems. If you build the time into your client engagements for them to be “on” 25-35 hours a week instead of 45-60, their deliverables are going to be 10X their overworked colleagues’. It’s science.

Hopefully, you read this and thought, “hey, this advice seems pretty universal and not specifically relevant to 2021.” If so, bravo.

2021 is the least knowable, predictable year I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and possibly the most volatile one since the end of World War II. None of us have any idea how the economic, political, sociological, or epidemiological picture will look in 3, 6, or 12 months. Predicting 2021 is a fool’s errand, doubly so for a niche like marketing agencies whose supply, demand, and pricing are simultaneously directly and indirectly affected by the pandemic (directly because of demand in sectors like travel, conferences and events themselves, macroeconomic factors, and then indirectly by things like the need for so many SMBs to shift to e-commerce).

So, instead of taking the bait, I’m sticking with advice I can feel good about, regardless of how the year pans out. But damn… I sure would like to see the people I love and get out of Seattle a bit. Fingers crossed for all of us.

If you’ve got additional advice, experiences to share, or disagreements with what I’ve written, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.