I’m going to tell a story that’s a bit embarrassing to tell.
A little over a decade-and-a-half ago, I decided to turn my advertising photography studio into a full-service marketing agency.
My photography clients kept asking me questions like, “Could you help us design an ad?” or, “Do you know anyone who builds websites?” and, “We need a new logo. Who should we call?”
After a while, I thought, “Maybe I should be the person they call.”
So, I recruited a creative director, brought in some designers, developers, and copywriters, and my small ad photography studio became a slightly less-small marketing agency.
Back then, our ideal client was “anyone who can help us pay the electricity bill.” Still, we ended up with a client roster that was heavy on some pretty niche industries: aerospace manufacturing and distribution, healthcare, clean energy.
We still specialize in some of those spaces today.
What those clients liked about us was that we treated their customers just like any other consumer. We figured that even airline executives at a big annual conference would still appreciate an invite to a cocktail party that made them chuckle.
We imagined that electric-utility executives might get a kick out of getting a package with a burner phone inside, with our client’s number pre-programmed in the address book.
And, we were mostly right. Our projects stood out from the B2B crowd, helped our clients win some big contracts, and even let us take top prizes in a couple of awards shows.
But, the part I’m embarrassed to tell you is that our philosophy of treating B2B customers just like any other customer was only part of our motivation.
The other half of the story was that, back then, we didn’t really understand how our customers sold their products, whom they were selling them to, and what motivated them to make that purchase.
What happens after you get that airline executive into a cocktail party? What is that electric utility executive looking for when they pick up that phone and call your sales rep?
What exactly is the sales process like for an electrical disconnect in a Boeing 737-800?
We really had no idea.
It wasn’t much of a problem so long as we stayed in a prescriptive role. A CEO or director of marketing would say, “We need this!” and we would say, “Absolutely! We’ll get right on that!”
But, we were essentially order-takers who were pretty decent at fulfilling orders.
We weren’t partners, at least not in the sense of being able to propose solutions that drove growth. This was not because we didn’t want to be, but because we didn’t really understand how our clients’ often complex businesses worked.
Not An Unusual Spot
The truth is, many marketing, creative, and media agencies fall into the “order taker” category. If that sounds diminutive or dismissive, I don’t mean it to be. Sometimes, you just need a specific marketing task executed, and that’s it.
Maybe you have the time, resources, expertise, and experience to develop your own strategy and see it implemented. Maybe you’re already working with an outside marketing consultant or strategist.
Maybe, in these cases, all your marketing agency needs to say is, “Yes!”
But after a few years, we realized that we could deliver a lot more value to our clients if our saying “yes” was backed by a real, in-depth understanding of how their businesses operated.
We started out with an informal process. We’d tag along with sales teams at conferences and conventions. We’d ask for tours of their factories and facilities. We’d jump at invitations to internal meetings or events.
What we learned was that the more we understood about our clients’ products, businesses, and sales processes, the more value we could deliver as a marketing partner.
The Solution: Overinform Your Marketing Agency
“Getting to know your clients well” isn’t a new concept that I came up with. George Felton, the copywriting guru, author, and Columbus College of Art and Design professor emeritus, gave some excellent advice to creatives in a book that was first published in 1947:
“Steep yourself in information. Become an expert in your client’s product and its category. Get overinformed […] the more research you do, the better: It will pay you back.”
Being overinformed is valuable when you’re marketing consumer goods. It’s essential when you’re marketing things that have a more complex marketplace, audience, and sales process.
If you’re a CMO or CEO looking to give yourself an advantage with your marketing and outreach — especially if you’re operating in a complex marketplace — start by overinforming your marketing agency.
The Way We Overinform Ourselves
Today, that informal process of getting to know our clients has become formalized into the way we start every client relationship, and something we update regularly as those relationships progress.
We’ve named this research and strategy process our “Brand Catalyst Program”. It has several key components:
First, we let our strategy team loose on your brand and industry. They analyze everything they can find on how your brand, your products, and your marketplace appear publicly.
Next, we interview your internal teams. We talk with members of your C-suite, your sales teams, product experts, engineers, and customer service teams. We want to learn how your products or services are made, what needs they fill, where you have the most opportunities, and how your customers move through the interest, purchase, and sales cycle.
After that, we talk with your customers. One of the most valuable pieces of data we can collect is to learn how our clients think they’re perceived in the marketplace, and how that compares to the way their actual customers perceive them.
Often (though not always) we add in some employee, customer, or marketplace surveys to answer specific questions that might not be covered in one-on-one interviews or external research.
To make sure we’re accurately understanding your competitive landscape, we’ll also do detailed research into your competitors, their products, their online presence, and marketing and customer acquisition channels.
Finally, we put it all together. The tangible end product is a book chock-full of information on our client’s brands, products, customers, competitors, and marketplace, along with actionable strategies based on that info.
The big-picture result is being able to help our clients create marketing initiatives that don’t just check a box, but actually help them solve business problems, compete effectively in their industry, and drive significant growth.
Remember the example earlier about the sales process for an electrical disconnect in a Boeing 737-800? That wasn’t hypothetical.
We’ve been working with Proponent since way back when they were called “Kapco Aerospace” and we were called “Michael Schaffer Photography”. Over those 15+ years, they’ve grown into the world’s largest independent aerospace distributor. They really do sell electrical disconnects for Boeings (along with 400,000+ other parts), and, back in the beginning, we really had no idea what that process looked like.
But, a few months ago, I realized how much things had changed as I sat in on a meeting with our team and Proponent.
Proponent had come to us with a challenge. There was a group of customers that fell outside of Proponent’s core demographic. They weren’t sure how to address this customer group, or even if they should dedicate resources to addressing them.
During that meeting, I listened as our data analysis team presented the results of a deep-dive into Proponent’s customer database, and concluded that, yes, while these customers weren’t their core demographic, they drove significant revenue in aggregate that was worth addressing and even working to cultivate.
Next, our strategy team presented the results of interviews with Proponent’s sales team, as well as customers in this group from around the globe. Our team segmented this customer group into four unique sub-groups, each with a prioritized list of specific needs and motivations.
Finally, our creative team presented a series of automated nurture campaigns, one for each customer sub-group. The messaging for each campaign spoke directly to the needs and priorities of those specific customers and tied to unique advantages Proponent has cultivated in their competitive landscape.
Over the next few months, I watched as this campaign was implemented, then met and even outperformed the KPIs for growth we’d set with our client.
Overinformed marketing partners can lead to overperforming marketing campaigns.
In many ways, Proponent’s marketing team is a perfect model for a client/agency partnership. They invited us in and facilitated us becoming overinformed so that we’re not just order takers: We’re problem solvers.
If you’re struggling to get the results you’re looking for from your marketing partners, I’d suggest you take professor Felton’s advice, and overinform them.
“Why You Should Overinform Your Marketing Partners” was written by Echo-Factory founder, Mike Schaffer and originally published on CSQ.com on July 27, 2023.”