Confessions of a frustrated marketer: ‘It’s easier to be a fraud at an agency’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Agencies have their share of pet peeves when it comes to clients — and often, rightfully so. But there are plenty of grievances flowing in the other direction as well. This week’s installment in our Confessions series is from a digital marketer on the brand side who has also spent time at agencies. Today, this client primarily works on the digital parts of the business and bemoans the number of “frauds” in the industry.

Excerpts, lightly edited:

What don’t people get about your job?
The first thing people in the company assume is that we have a button we can push to make things go viral. We can magically get fans. They make comparisons: “So and so brand has 5 million fans; why don’t we?” The answer is usually because that so-and-so is spending 10 times what we are in marketing. It’s astounding how there is still this theory of “build it and they will come.”

Really? In 2015?
There is an unbelievable lack of understanding of digital and social in the C-suite. In some ways there is this insecurity in some of them. They like to have higher expectations of digital because they’re insecure about their own results. They don’t understand it, and so they’re afraid to show it. They also say things like, “We should be on Instagram,” because they are taken out to dinner by some big executive at Instagram. No.

So is there a lot of courting of brands by the platforms?
Yes. I’ve never been the kind of client where I felt like I had to be wined and dined. But yes. Actually, the platforms are replacing the agencies when it comes to wining and dining. It’s all about Facebook versus Twitter trying to show us who is better. The agencies are doing fewer fancy dinners and more constant contact, like remembering my birthday. Which is nice.

What’s the biggest difference between being at an agency and brand-side?
It’s easier to be a fraud at an agency. The agency world shelters you from internal accountability. If the CEO or CMO at the client isn’t happy, you won’t feel it as much at the agency as the brand people do. There’s a level of detachment.

But the problem on the agency side is that they’re the easier thing to throw under a bus. If you have a big MBA client, he or she will always say it’s the agency’s fault. Frankly, the client needs to own up that they’re the ones who approved the stuff.

You mentioned fraud.
Yeah, the agency people have weird made-up positions. So I think it’s easier to be a fraud if you’re an executive with a chief evangelist title. Some of those thought-leaders at agencies can be safer, because there is a risk with firing them because they have a public persona. Sure, a CCO or whatever may not be adding a lot to the business, but they have a dope Twitter account with lots of followers.

How do you pick an agency?
I mean, when I’m researching a new agency, I look on Twitter too, along with Google. I’m looking for people who think like I think. That isn’t apparent on the agency site. It’s like the cobbler’s son has no shoes, the agencies have the worst websites. So, if you’re looking for people who vibe with you, you look at Twitter. Like R/GA has a hilarious Twitter. I have no clue if the rest of the company is that funny, but the Twitter is great.

What’s the most broken thing inside brands these days?
People in positions of power haven’t realized that the people they hire may know more than them when it comes to digital. I’m not the best Snapchat user, but I hire people who are. You have to be comfortable knowing that a 22-year-old intern might have a better strategy, and traditional MBAs and corporate America don’t prepare you for that. I do my best not to hire MBAs. I find them rigid. I remember this one person who I didn’t hire who wanted to be promoted. He didn’t have a Twitter handle. He wasn’t on any social platforms. And when I told him that wasn’t acceptable, he wrote me a memo defending that. I got rid of that person.

What about the C-suite? You mentioned that they don’t know very much.
God, so many people who went to Ivy Leagues and headed companies, they do expensive TV buys because some random person mentioned to them they liked this show. I have watched tens of millions of dollars be spent because someone drove down a street and thought a billboard should be placed there. This is despite us having a huge and expensive media team. There is no accountability. There were a lot of frauds. The frauds are best at the political game.

How so?
They’re very good at covering up after themselves. They would point to other departments and say they’re underperforming because they’re underperforming. I swear, every company saying print is their best-performing program right now is lying. No millennial is picking up a magazine and saying, “I love this print ad.”

How do you spot them?
Anybody who talks big in meetings with big statements but doesn’t follow up. On the other hand, there are some that are quiet and “thinking” throughout and say “let’s think on that” because they have no idea what’s going on. The worst are thought-leaders. I always think what a great job they have, “leading thought.” Wow. What does their Monday morning look like? They think so big they can never be accountable. I think every company needs to have like a chief bullshit officer to sniff those people out.

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