November 3

How can you tell if a marketing agency stinks?


I didn’t start out wanting to be a marketer, or even run a media outlet.

I started wanting simple design, for a book that I wrote.

The first book we designed needed a designer that ended costing us $5850
The first book we designed needed a designer that ended costing us $5850

As I wrote more as a freelance writer for media sites like SPH, Dollars and Sense, I began realising that this wasn’t a sustainable way to live. I couldn’t make enough money to survive.

My previous business partner then encouraged me to stop doing the “social enterprise stuff” that I tried doing for good and just concentrate on what I did well.


In October 2022, that’s when we got our first client, somewhat coincidentally.

How? Simply by asking someone we had interviewed whether we could help with other things.

She asked us if we did websites. Having never done a website, but wanting to try, we agreed.

That was the first time we evolved into an agency. From simply being a media outlet, that published articles (that we wanted), to one that was now creating content and marketing collateral for clients.

But in the last 3 years of running a business focused on media publishing and a marketing agency, we’ve seen some pretty ugly things.

They tell you, “Do more social media marketing!”

Don’t get us wrong. We aren’t against social media marketing.

But it’s hard to tell if it actually does work.

Especially when it’s top of the funnel, designed to raise awareness about your brand, rather than prompt more checkouts.

And for the marketers who talk about the number of people who click and like and comment, please.

Likes don’t get you sales.

As Dan Kennedy, the author of No BS Marketing always says,

you can’t cash in likes and comments at the bank.

You definitely don’t want to be messing around with thousands of dollars worth of marketing.
You definitely don’t want to be messing around with thousands of dollars worth of marketing.

A simple question to ask,

What would I see in terms of revenue increases?

If they can’t answer, you might want to reconsider.

They can’t tell you their domain expertise

We confess.

One of our first clients was a biotech company, that we had absolutely no expertise in. We floundered and were lost by all the technical terms that they threw at us.

And in our own media outlets, we were going all over the place, talking about reviews around the Nikko AM REIT ETF one day, and then about monthly bus passes the next.

But we realised that we weren’t the only ones doing that.

The entire industry was like this.

Once, I asked my client why she hadn’t asked her web design agency to do the advertising for them, since it was fairly complementary.

Her reply?

Well it doesn’t look like their marketing and design departments actually speak to each other.

And I’m not sure they’d really understand what we’re doing.

Only top players like Oglivy insisted that account executives and managers had to have some form of training or qualification in the field. Like you had to have an engineering degree to advertise engineering products.

It makes sense. After all, when you study 4 years of pure, hard, university, you bet you know something more about the product than your average Joe who studied something nebulous like ‘business or marketing’ in university.

When we adjusted back to our domain expertise in social services (counselling, therapy, social work, charities), we saw the immediate difference.

We got clients their results, very fast.

They are constantly engaged in a price war and are probably cheaper than the rest of the market

In March 2021, I was close to eating grass. For the past three months, I had been pitching lower and lower prices in a bid to get more and more clients.

It didn’t work.

All I had was more and more lousy clients on my hands.

It is a balance.

Between making money, winning the client, and not leaving money on the table. This is not an easy tension to hold, and it’s why some people often find themselves, really, really struggling.

Which has convinced us that perhaps we had something to add to this agency model.

If you find someone offering to do it much cheaper, and throwing in discounts for good measure, you better be careful. They may have something up their sleeve.

The freelancers are difficult to work with

You might think it’s better to work with a freelancer, who’s disguised as an agency. If you ask him how many he has in his team, he might say ‘3’, but if you ask him, ‘how many of them are fulltime with your agency’, he might just say himself.

We’ve made that error. Many times.

Freelancers aren’t all bad, but some can make many demands and throw in quite a few spanners in your work.

For example we’ve faced freelancers that have been unable to commit, because they have many other gigs they have going on.

There are also other freelancers that are to the letter, telling you that you’ve to pay up, even though the initial work was not up to the standard set by the publisher.

I once had a designer who submitted designs for a book, only for it to be rejected by my publisher twice. When I asked her to edit them, because they didn’t pass the publisher’s standards (not mine), she said they would come at an extra cost.

Deep down, I was fuming because she had not met the basic outcome of ‘creating publishable graphics’, but she still insisted that she be paid.

The end result? We used 3 of the 20 she did, even though we paid $2000 for those 20 artifices.

How do you tell this is the case? Ask a question such as:

if your work does not achieve the final result, what would happen?

For example, if we aren’t happy with the final design created, after the 2 designs, what would happen?

Beware the freelancer. He may be the worst member of your team.
Beware the freelancer. He may be the worst member of your team.

The freelancer can only do one or two mediums

Whatever creative freelancer you are, you would be best at one medium (video, graphic, websites, or writing), but you and I know that to climb up the value chain, these different mediums need to be combined.

Again, this makes for an extremely difficult case for most freelancers because they want their freedom, and don’t wish to commit themselves to an agency.

And from what we’ve seen of freelancers, some freelancers can be much worse in terms of reliability compared to the traditional agency creative, which has a payroll and expectations to meet.

And hell hath no fury like a boss you see everyday and asks you where the work is.

Is there a happy middle where we can meet?

I think there is.

How we win

This is how we think we can offer something different to the model out there.

Undercut competitors with talent that will do more for less

Backs to the wall, you would choose the person who has the fire in their eyes, and is willing to work for you and give their all, and even forgo money in the meantime.

They are desperate just for the chance to make an impact.

They work hard. They grit.

Picking for grit is never easy, but it’s way better than a creative agency that feels entitled
Picking for grit is never easy, but it’s way better than a creative agency that feels entitled

And that’s why we choose them over and over again.

We are very clear within our agency about our model.

It’s built around students and people with something to prove.

We give them live client work, we guide them through the process, and we nurture them to be someone greater. We know it’s not for everyone.

In fact, we’ve burnt through more than 5 different creatives over the course of 7 months.

We know that this is not for everyone.

But we know that they come out on the other side, much, much better.

Better content, better product

When you start, you want to ensure that the product you have is the best in the market.

For us, that’s 3 things.

Everything starts from the writing, before it graduates to the graphics, and then the video.

That’s why we insist on writing our own books, even though we’re not sure if they’d sell. We did this because we wanted the experience of constantly growing our raw skills in writing , which we knew could only grow if we were getting

  1. Feedback from the likes of professional editors and publishers
  2. Doing something crazy that we had never done before
Credit: Petrosoniak et al. 2019 - Perfecting practice: a protocol for assessing simulation-based mastery learning and deliberate practice versus self-guided practice for bougie-assisted cricothyroidotomy performance
Credit: Petrosoniak et al. 2019 – Perfecting practice: a protocol for assessing simulation-based mastery learning and deliberate practice versus self-guided practice for bougie-assisted cricothyroidotomy performance

As you can see from the model above, if you want to grow, you can’t just practice.

But you need to practice right.

Marketing will get you the first client

but not the repeat client.

It’s the product that will get you the repeat client, and the referral.

Hat tip to Michael Port, the founder of Heroic Public Speaking for this concept.

The creative skill is the product. And as long as you keep growing that, you would be sure, that you would grow your skill, and your sales.

We believe in creatives that keep practising.

Better creatives, better product

That’s why on our ends, we’ve constantly worked on refining the fundamental skills of the freelancers we work with by pushing them to the extremes of who they are.

We insist that they go for training (which we pay for).

We do this because we know that when you’re freelancing and don’t know where the next dollar will come from, it’s hard to imagine yourself paying $300 for some training which you’re not sure will really affect you.

We insist that they show up on weekly calls, no matter what excuses they have.

We know freelancing is extremely lonely. That’s why we insist on bringing other solo-preneurs on calls together, no matter where they are in their journey.

We insist that they are constantly pushing to the maximum of their capabilities, and not just in a healthy middle.

We know freelancers can often enjoy the quick-in, quick-out, and the low level of relationship you enjoy with your project manager/executive, who’s liaising with the account for you.

But we also take an interest in you, we give you feedback that may hurt, and we love you.

Take for example Jon (not his real name), one of our freelance web designers. When he came to us, he was shy and scared after spending most of his time as a taxi driver.

We led him to see the many strengths that he had and helped him in terms of growing his raw skill in web development.

We constantly nurtured and grew him from scratch.

Lasting content

It’s not merely something that anyone else can do, but it’s something that lasts. It’s not another piece of content that’s sent out into the world, ready to be forgotten the moment it’s released.

Instead, it’s put out for a long time.

We create slow content that has the ability to resonate and impact people for longer, beyond just a quick scroll and flick.

That’s why we choose static mediums, because we know that in a noisy world, hitting more and more dynamic content like videos may just leave us more distracted.

Instead, when you can touch and feel and read slowly, we believe you lend yourself to being touched by the content.

What are you waiting for? Drop us a call as your next agency.



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