Who needs an agency anyway? Primeast interview transcript

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

Axonn: How many agencies do you use at the moment?

Primeast: We use yourselves, obviously, we’re currently working with an agency around web design, we sometimes use a graphic design agency, but we do most of that in-house... there’s probably four or five.

A: Four or five agencies over the course of a year?

P: Yeah.

Axonn: And what’s the average tenure of agencies you work with at the moment? How long have you been working with them?

P: I would say probably five years plus.

A: And why would you say you use agencies?

P: We don’t have the resources in-house, and it is good to get a new perspective. And the time-saving element. Those are the key reasons for using agencies. We’re a medium-sized business, we have twenty employees, so we couldn’t possibly do all the web activities and graphic design and the content that you create ourselves.

It’s often about buying expertise as well.

A: That’s really important isn’t it? Because even though agencies will always say you have the most knowledge within your market... you will know about your industry than an agency will ever be able to know, but it’s actually getting the expertise of what to do in the digital space, or what’s coming up that’s new and cool in the graphics space, or how to develop a website, is that kind of what you mean?

P: Yes, absolutely. In terms of the service we use of yours, the content creation, we did for a number of years create our own articles and news but like any organisation there were only so many people who were happy to do that and happy to create content from scratch so actually using Axonn helps us. Clare [Humblestone – their writer from Axonn’s really good at picking people’s brains... instead of just sitting down and writing an article, having Clare to interview and ask the appropriate questions has been really useful. So she really brings the skills.

The other thing about it is we are able to be more consistent at putting content out on a regular basis, whereas it has been very sporadic in the past. Clare holds us to a timetable which is just great.

A: Brilliant. And obviously we’ve talked about the things you outsource – content creation, graphics, web design. How much do you think an agency reaches that expectation that you have? You mentioned getting a new perspective, time-saving, the expertise in the market. Do you feel that the agencies you work with at the moment reach that level? Do you feel like they could be doing more?

P: On the whole, they reach that level. It’s always interesting, I think it’s a fine line for the agency on how much they push their products and services on us and actually for them being proactive and saying, “have you tried it this way?”. I think on the whole they get it right in terms of informing us of what the possibilities are. On the whole I think they get it right – sometimes they could do more, sometimes they could maybe do less.

A: Less in terms of trying to sell to you other services and things that they do?

P: Yeah I mean we’re really open to hearing about other services that are out there but we are also quite clear about what we can and can’t do, and what we can and can’t spend.

A: And do you feel like from a briefing perspective, it’s very important for an agency to know and understand their client, understand their audience understand the goals of the company and what they’re looking to achieve, and for a digital agency how online fits in with all of that. How much would you say you proactively look to brief agencies if they don’t get it, or does that even happen? I guess in the beginning of you working with the four or five agencies that might have happened.

P: Yes when we think back Axonn is a great example. The client-agency relationship wasn’t an easy one to be honest, because we offer a service it’s nothing tangible we can show or demonstrate. So we took from you the best thing to do was to get the writer into see us, to meet with the directors, see what they had to say about the business and what our business is about and who our clients are and the directors really gave us their time to do that and it started out really well. Sadly you had a couple of changes of staff there so we had to go through that process a second time and thankfully that’s worked really well for us and Clare has been our writer ever since. So it really paid dividends for us even though it did take a lot of time and effort on our part but I think Clare really gets our business now and she has intelligent conversations with the people she’s interviewing and comes up with suggested topics for articles that we might not have considered.

The other thing about it is if something is not quite right we don’t mind saying “no no no, you’ve not quite got it” or we’ve changed tactic or whatever. We are quite picky I guess about what we say about ourselves and what we say about our clients and our sector. If somebody doesn’t get it quite right they will be told right away.

A: On that note, how much do you think it is important for an agency to care about your business and what your branding proposition is. How much do you think us or any other agency cares or at least looks like they care?

P: It is important that they care about our brand and that’s pretty key to the whole relationship. I think how much you or other agencies care depends very much on the individual in question. So there have been times dealing with all agencies when we’ve felt “they don’t give a damn – they’re just trying to sell us something” or they just don’t get us, you know, that was too quick a job, there wasn’t enough care taken over it. But now we’re lucky enough to work with a group of individuals within agencies who really do care about their job and providing a great service for us. But it’s kind of swings and roundabouts really. I think it’s about finding the right people within an agency. When people really care I think it shines through... We wouldn’t want to pay money for something we didn’t think was perfect. Clare is an interesting example, our writer at Axonn, because she has moved into a people development role and it’s clear the stuff that we do really interests her, so that really does make a big difference.

A: So not only getting someone agency side who has really been involved in your industry and knows about it, but someone who has a really strong interest in what you do because potentially it is relevant to their career progression and who they are as a person. You are obviously very lucky. You have Clare, we all value her a lot here because she does help pretty much every person in the company.

P: And that shines through. Her commitment to the company really shines through. If it wasn’t for Clare being there and having such a great job, we have had moments where we would have pulled the plug on Axonn. Purely from a technical issues perspective because we weren’t getting any answers but Clare was doing such a great job that she effectively rescued the account.

A: In terms of you continuing to work with us?

P: Absolutely.

A: Well I’ll make sure she knows this. I will obviously make sure we catch up with her after this to make sure she knows how important she is.

And in terms of frustrations you’ve had in the past with agencies that have pitched to you, first of all, and agencies that you have been working with. What are some of your frustrations?

P: I think people who... it’s easy to talk about the ones who weren’t successful but the ones that just don’t get us and think we have a commodity to sell and we don’t. It’s the absolute opposite of what we do. That’s our biggest frustration. No matter how many times we tell them what we do they are so tunnel-visioned with what they want to sell us they can’t see it. That’s our biggest frustration. I mean they don’t last long. We don’t suffer fools I’m afraid!

We just haven’t got time to do it. So that’s our frustration – when people don’t listen to what we have to say.

A: And overall, if you were to give a piece of advice to a company, medium-sized who didn’t have a lot of resource internally, if you were to give them advice on choosing an agency, what would that advice be?

P: That’s difficult! I would say there is a two-step process. Be really sure about what you want. In other words, what’s your vision for the project working with this agency, and the clearer and surer you can be about your outcomes the better off you will be. And choose very carefully, choose on fit. Choose a company that fits your values, your ethos, your way of working because it’s obvious to choose someone who produces quality content or quality graphics or quality marketing, that’s obvious. What isn’t so obvious is whether their values align, that your approach aligns.

A: That’s great advice

P: And I would add just to reiterate what I said before, how we set it up, I don’t know if it’s how your other clients set it up, but you do need to invest the time upfront to explain what your business is. Don’t make any assumptions that the agency will get your business and what you do just from looking at the website. You do need to invest time in front and make sure they do get the business and take it from there.

A: I completely agree with that actually because I think you can get the most success from being on the same page and that’s a lot of work on both sides. The agency should strive to get there on their own but obviously the gaps in their knowledge also need to be filled by their client

P: I see Clare as an extended part of our team here. You’ve got to be open and honest – that’s the best way forward.

A: Amazing. So again if someone your size, in terms of a business, so not necessarily speaking to big companies with loads of budget and, if anyone even has these days, plenty of resource in-house, so a team of a couple of people, if they, for whatever reason, didn’t want to go agency side and they wanted to try to do everything in-house, would you have any advice towards that? Is there anything you’ve thought or you probably weren’t doing in house but you would do now?

P: I would just say go get an agency!

A: It’s like we’ve given you a script!

P: We still do a lot of marketing in-house. We do try to do as much as we can in-house. And for anyone like that wondering whether they should or shouldn’t get an agency the best thing to do is look at what you can do realistically, what can you achieve by yourself without any outside help. If you are doing it now and it’s not working, why isn’t it working and go and explore, and is it worthwhile actually paying somebody else for their expertise. And then that frees you up to carry on doing the in-house stuff you’re already doing, that’s half of it gone, and so you can focus more attention on the other areas that you could perhaps have more success at.

A: I am so pleased Clare put you guys forward. She did mention you would have a lot of great things to say about working with agencies. I will definitely pass on what you said about “go and get an agency!”

P: It’s just about being realistic with your time. You can try but you end up trying to run just to keep up with yourself and most of the time in a job you are not in it to create content or marketing or whatever, you’re in your job to do whatever you do...concentrate on doing your own job that you know you’re really good at and buy your expertise from elsewhere to do all the marketing of it because that just makes more sense.

A: Do you have any common objections that you’ve heard from other people [about using an agency] and how you’ve responded to that? If someone says “we don’t need an agency because of X” what kind of objections have you come across, maybe from your own bosses? What have you come across in that sense?

P: We have come across objections. Most of them are around “we’re paying all this money for an agency that doesn’t bring us in business” and our answer is no it doesn’t, directly, but how do you know it doesn’t enhance our chances of doing business. It’s the measurability of what you provide, it’s always a bit of sticking point. Would we miss you if you weren’t there? That’s always the question. What would life be like without it? Would we be achieving what we want to achieve in marketing? Would we be sharing the Primeast story – well no, we wouldn’t be. We tried it before and well, it didn’t work.

And budget is another sticking point.

A: And how do you counteract that? Do you try to explain the amount of time and cost it would take for you to do that instead?

P: I think we are so far down the line now that if we stopped using an agency we just wouldn’t create any content. There are just too many things we e do in-house. There would just be no capacity to do that. Just about taking a sensible long-term view.

I think it’s all about seeing the bigger picture. We seem to get objections from people who are looking at the micro. If you can get them to see the bigger picture, seeing where the agency fits in is quite obvious and quite easy. But if you start getting hung up on whatever you have to pay a month for your agency you can see why people think “god that’s a lot of money and I’ve only had four articles, or 8 articles, that’s a lot of money. But you’re going up the Google rankings, you’re easier to find, when people do find your site there’s really interesting stuff for them to read. You can proactively share articles with your customers which proves you’re at the cutting edge and you’re thought leaders. And in a market like ours when we’re up against a lot of competition, and on the face of it we all do the same thing, but we can demonstrate we have got a whitepaper on the knowledge cliff. Just kind of demonstrates that we are one above the competition and that can never really be a bad thing.