Who needs an agency anyway? Interview with Hatstand

The interview below was conducted by Axonn with Hatstand for the ebook "Who needs an agency anyway?" in November 2015.

Axonn: How many agencies do you regularly work with?

Hatstand: We use you for almost everything. We also have one agency for web hosting, that kind of thing, we have one much smaller design agency we use for tiny little projects we need turning around quickly. We also use a PR agency quite heavily, that’s really useful, and I suppose if you can call them an agency we have a printer and a designer. So we don’t use too many at Hatstand, obviously I’ve used others in the past... but the main focus for me at the moment and Hatstand is the design, the printers and the PR really.

A: And so if you were to summarise some of the reasons why you work with agencies, what would they be?

H: It depends on the agency, for example if we’re using a PR agency we purely use them for their expertise and knowledge they have in that sector. We can’t get things published in particular publications because we don’t have the contacts they do. Knowledge, expertise in that particular sector which is probably a key thing. It’s also useful to get an outsider’s view on things instead of having it all in-house because I think things can get quite blurry when you’re in that space all the time so it’s good to take some time out of that. So it’s good to take some information outside of that and get someone else’s opinion, whether it’s a graphic that we’re trying to create or whether it’s a piece of content we want to write I think it’s good to get external people involved. I think one of the main reasons I use an agency is purely to outsource work. We are a team of three but we operate globally across four or five different offices we are quite stretched a lot so it’s great for me to just ping you guys or whatever agency it is and say “can you turn this around by this date?” and then I don’t have to worry about it. So I think that’s the key thing. Another thing is of course we can’t do everything in-house. If it’s web hosting, or again if it’s some kind of graphic design, we don’t have the tools to do that so we need someone that does. So those are probably the main reasons that we use agencies. So to sum it up, time and expert knowledge really.

A: And from your experience working with agencies with Hatstand and maybe previously, what’s it like using agencies? And what we mean by that is what the positive are, what the negatives are, in the relationship, the amount of work they do for you and how quickly they respond, versus having everything in house.

H: So I think one of the advantages is that outside viewpoint, so you might get a different level of creativity that we don’t have in-house. I think it depends on the kind of agency you’re working with, but for me for example, I tried to persuade our board to get a PR agency involved a few months ago and they were very against it, they felt that PR was just a very sharp, aggressive sales tactic. But the company I’d previously worked with I knew they weren’t like that at all - they’re much more about working with the client and trying to understand our business objectives and goals instead of doing what you think is a generic view of what PR is. So I think the relationship is really key and knowing what me and Hatstand really want to achieve is a really good way of working with a client. If we use Axonn as an example I think what I find great is that we obviously have quite tight deadlines that our company work to, “Hi Chris, we need this information and we need it by tomorrow”. I just don’t have the knowledge or the time to do that myself, so sending it out to someone like Axonn for example. So the positives are, or from what I’ve gather from working with you, you can usually turn it around in a day, or less, which is great. And in-house, we could probably do it ourselves but then everything else we are working on at the time gets stopped. So the marketing function unfortunately doesn’t operate as it should be. So outsourcing it out is definitely the best way – the positives outweigh the negatives 100%.

Obviously there is the cost element attached. But I use agencies all the time and I will continue to use agencies all the time. I think the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

A: So on that, on the positives side, if you were to think of marketers out there who maybe struggle to choose the right agency – obviously there are so many agencies out there, how do you know? If you were to give them a breakdown or two or three signs that that agency is a good one? What would the signs be? And obviously bear in mind that these people may not know how the agency works, so what should they be looking out for?

H: What would I look for? Well first of all being really simple, I would always judge a company on their website for a start. I know that sounds quite cynical. That says to me how they see themselves and their presentation... When you meet someone you too you want them to, obviously they’re in this for themselves but see that they’re in it for you. You know, you’re the client and they’ll go out of their way to help you and I think I’ve had many agencies, especially PR agencies, who will say “you should be doing this, you should be doing that” when actually they don’t understand the business or anything like that. It’s definitely important when you’re being pitched to that they do understand what Hatstand does and have done a bit of research into that. For example the PR agency we use at the moment, I’ve used them previously at a different company, but when they came in to pitch for us they’d done their research on the company, they knew the individuals that were senior, they just had an interest. They weren’t just in it for X amount each month. I think that’s an important thing to think about. Pushing agencies aren’t great, you know the ones that constantly badger you, email you, call you every week. It’s not great. Depending on how you work I suppose but I like to build relationships. It’s not just an “us” and “them” – we’re all working towards the same goal. So I think that’s quite important as well.

You hear it all the time but I guess I get sold to by the actual individuals. The amount of times I’ve been pitched to and they’ve been giving me the details of their company, so “we were founded in 1950 or whatever”, I don’t really want to know about that. I just want to know the now and what’s in it for me. I think it does vary with different types of agencies and different kinds of people.

A: What you said really resonates, that the sign of a good agency, that marketers can and should try to almost “test” agencies, not test but really find out how much work and research they have done, but that should come across in the conversations they have, so I really agree with you.

H: Definitely, but it came down to you guys, you assured us you would work with us all the way through the process and I think what put us over the line was the fact that you invited us in for an open day and a couple of us came down, there were a couple of your clients came down as well, and it was just quite informal, we got to meet the people behind everything and you realise that you are real people. And I think... we could have gone for something established, but we went with you guys. I think from my personal perspective someone was trying to get Hootsuite in, huge organisation but we just wanted to go with someone a little bit smaller where you can just pick up the phone and speak to someone and have an account manager, instead of I imagine, a huge company, finding someone to speak to can be difficult sometimes.

A: Thank you so much Chris, that’s great feedback. In terms of, from our point of view, we do also feel, as an agency you can perform as well as you can if the client gives you the best chance. So what we mean by that is we need to truly understand who you are as a company, so if we’ve got our head around it a bit but we’re still not there yet, we still rely on you to help us and to make sure we get it. When being briefed and to be able to get the point where we can turn things around quickly we need to make sure we are being briefed properly. So what do you think from, from a client perspective, you can do to get the most from an agency?

H: This kind of thing cropped up with you guys the other week. We were really up against it to get some graphics produced in the right way and to do that there was some ad hoc emailing with members of your team, can you do this? Can you do that? And what came out of that is that we were going to set up monthly telephone calls to plan for that month ahead so we can give you guys the appropriate notice for you to do your job properly, as opposed to throwing stuff at your at the last minute because then you get stressed and you can’t do your job properly. So I think it’s just planning ahead. The agency understanding exactly what they are being used for and why they are being used is important. So goal setting and planning.

A: And would you say communication is important on both sides?

H: Yeah I think it’s not always possible but I think if you have an account manager that person needs to be on top of things, needs to be contactable most of the time, and if they’re not around there needs to be another person you can get in touch with. Which we’ve found, with you guys especially, is absolutely fine. What we try to do as well is,  what we haven’t done in the past, is utilise your expertise. Find out what your strengths are, whether that’s content writing or web hosting, throwing you to design graphics is  probably the best use of your time and probably the best use of our retainer cost. Cause we have a smaller company we can use for that. I like to use you guys for the higher level – whether its website development or content writing. Well it’s probably our fault if we don’t give you the correct brief as we should do.

A: I know Jake from the graphics team loves working with you, and the whole team do.

H: I’m surprised he’s not fed up with me to be honest. He is amazing at turning stuff around. Literally if I call him with an urgent request it’s amazing how quickly he can turn that around. So that’s fantastic.

A: I think he loves it because the graphics team, the bulk of their job is to create infographics which even they are bored of them, whereas the stuff they have done for you, the GIF work, and presentations, they just love it. Every Friday morning we do a presentation on a different team, a different team presents what they’ve done, and we were presented with the work they’ve done for you guys. The team are very proud of the work they do for you.

H: They’ve been fantastic. We had a whole campaign and there were a lot of assets to be produced and they’ve done various animations, and they’ve actually produced a video for us as well. We heavily rely on you guys and Jake and I think, this comes back to one of your previous questions about how you know if it’s a good agency, if I go to Jake with a brief he’ll produce something on the back of it, and if I don’t like it and want to change something he doesn’t have a problem with that, he might come back with “maybe you should look at this or that” but he never forces that on me, it’s always my decision at the end of the day.... if he produces something and I say, I don’t really like it and he says “well this is the only way it will work” it gets my back up a little bit. I know he’s a designer so we need to meet in the middle somewhere and Jake is really good at that.

A: Well we’ll pass that on to make sure he knows that. So the last question really, we’re looking at objections and you’ve mentioned this briefly the objections you might get from the business owners or directors, but in your experience what objections have you come across when you’ve tried to put an agency through?

H: Well it will come down to a couple of things. One of them is cost, that’s one of the things that you have to justify, what’s your ROI. The majority of the time whether it’s PR, printing, telemarketing, design, whatever there usually comes an annual retainer so there’s a long term commitment you have to justify. It’s not just paying on an ad-hoc basis, paying whatever ten grand a year, it can look like quite a large sum and it can scare off a lot of the senior people because they don’t know necessarily what the agency does. So I think cost can be a big one because they’ll just say “why can’t you do this in-house?”. So it’s easier to justify when you have a PR agency for example, because you can probably get the argument across for that especially at Hatstand when you’ve only got three of us. Compared to say, telemarketing for example, I feel it’s extremely hard, not that I want to, but I think they’d just say “why can’t the sales team do it?”. With design work again, we just don’t have the resource in-house, we have a limited amount of software and the team to do it. So the main thing they worry about is cost, and I suppose if you were doing things on an ad-hoc basis on a budget sheet it wouldn’t look so bad... but I need to make sure I’m using that most effectively and managing my units, which when I first joined we 100% weren’t. When I first joined I think my boss would say “what is this huge cost that coming out on a monthly basis? What are we getting out of it?” and the marketing team just couldn’t provide any evidence about what you did. It wasn’t your fault, it was an internal issue on our end. But now we could list all day the amount of stuff that Axonn does. So there are all these objections but I think they are objections from people who don’t understand and don’t use agencies on a day-to-day basis.

A: And so would you say it is important for marketing managers out there who have to build up a business case for those people who maybe don’t use agencies or don’t really know what agencies will be doing, how should they combat those objections?

H: I think what I find useful, talking about our PR agency again, when they pitched to us we had ideas about what we wanted and they obviously had ideas about what they thought as well, and what they did was pull together a “key deliverables” document and it just listed really simply in bulletpoints what they were hoping to achieve on a monthly basis. We’d get three articles published in three different publications per month, something like that. Senior people are not going to read pages and pages of stuff so if you put it into one page, bullet points, and all I had to do was pass that information over on what we’d get on a month-to-month basis so that was really key. What else would I do in that situation? I think it’s that really. Just keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate it. What you guys will do just in bulletpoints.

A: It’s important to show that as a marketing manager that you are responsible for the relationship between agency and company, but showcase it you need it to be quite succinct to what the agency is doing and why the need is there

H: Yeah because I think with Axonn you were already on board with Hatstand when I joined and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what we were using you guys for because I didn’t know what you did, I thought it was purely just content writing so I thought “wow, we’re spending all this money on just content writing, this is crazy!”. Then we had a few internal changes and I took over more control of stuff and I realised you do this, you do that, I didn’t know you did design work and it’s the same with the printing agency we use. Only after meeting their account manager, which nobody had done previously, I found out they do design work as well... and I literally thought they just did printing work. So definitely on-going communication is key to prove why an agency is on board. When I first joined here I think we had four design agencies on a retainer basis which was just crazy stuff.

A: Thank you so much Chris, this is all such great information. Do you have anything else about agency experience that you want to add?

H: No I don’t think so... I guess to sum it up the reason we work with an agency is purely for that specific targeted knowledge and expertise in that area, the creative thinking of people outside of our internal bubble and to release time for me to do other stuff, I think that’s why I in particular use any kind of agency.