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Our flavour of empowerment, how we gained more by giving up.

As team leaders and marketers, you have to walk that fine line between making sure the day-to-day stuff is getting done, while ensuring you’ve got a great plan in place and it’s being adhered to. We all have those big goals, things we have in the one, three or five-year plan, but how often are you working on them? Do you honestly feel you have the time, energy and resources to affect meaningful change? How often do you feel like other teams’ activities can and do get in the way of your plan or process? If you manage a team, can you say they’re all working on the things that make the greatest impact – those things that really make a difference to meeting the objective, not just the day-to-day firefighting?

These issues are endemic across the vast majority of clients I have worked with, and the time needed to fix them takes away from the actual important work that’s required to drive change. 

Working smarter 

This is where your agency can become invaluable. The best agencies out there will see the rise of AI, the growing number of companies taking teams in-house, and analytics insights becoming easier to interpret as an opportunity to offer more to their clients, not a reason to be worried. Working smarter together can reap huge rewards. For us, it’s about getting the right people doing the right things. Because we get it – why would you spend money on an agency to post on social, or provide keyword research, when you can easily bring people in-house to do those things effectively, quicker and cheaper?

What we’re talking about is creating a single team, in-house and agency working together as one, and being honest and upfront about where the expertise is, where it should be kept, and removing any ego from the equation. This may mean that current ways of working need to be evaluated; you should be getting value from your agency that your team can’t easily deliver.

That might sound easy, but it takes time, effort and the ability of your team to let go of some things. Let’s look at one of my clients as an example. We were brought in to support the natural search (SEO) team for a very large retailer. On the face of it, things looked great and the in-house team were all smart and motivated, but when we scratched a little deeper things weren’t so perfect: 

  • The team lacked focus and had to deal with queries from all over the business
  • Senior team members were asked simple SEO questions, where a more appropriate person may have been available, or not asked at all 
  • The same questions were being asked (and answered) again and again
  • The majority of the team’s time was spent firefighting or fixing issues on the site
  • Little or no time was spent on gaining real insight or strategic planning; everything was de-prioritised in order to deal with comparatively small fixes
  • Ultimately, my team were doing a great job but we weren’t used to our potential.

How much of that list sounds familiar? From my perspective, this is more often the rule than the exception.

On the subject of the list’s final point, if the agency isn’t being used as effectively as possible then this should be a red flag. It’s all well and good being there in the trenches with the team, but unless you’re able to demonstrate that extra value, who cares? In my experience, that’s a very precarious position to be in; even if things are looking great, if we’re considered to be ‘just another agency’ we can and will be replaced. 

We all want to get the best results for our clients and although we know our stuff and have delivered amazing work, any other agency should be able to do this – or at least pitch that they can do this. What makes your agency any different from the others out there?

Our flavour of empowerment

What changed? Necessity required a change in direction. A massive migration was planned which had touch points across the organisation. The frequency of queries that were coming in and the lack of knowledge across the other teams meant that we needed to find a better way of serving the wider business’ queries, in order to put the time needed into the migration project. Basically, we needed to make all teams ‘a little bit SEO’. 

So, we started training sessions as an introduction to SEO, and developed a specific team training roadmap. What we wanted to do was:

  • Reduce the same questions coming through
  • Provide the teams asking the questions with the tools and knowledge to get some of the answers themselves
  • Give the natural search team some room to work on making those site changes
  • Provide senior members of the agency and in-house teams with the time and resources to deal with the upcoming migration

What this meant was that the way we worked, and the type of work the agency and in-house team did, changed. Content teams were now able to do their own keyword research, and planning teams could develop their own wireframes. Migration aside, effort was now re-distributed against more valuable tasks. Specialist teams were able to tackle certain areas of the site for optimisation, dormant projects could be picked up – and change could happen. By giving away a little control, the team were given the gift of time. The migration was a huge success, the agency was able to raise the profile of the SEO team both in-house and agency-side within the organisation, and, as a result, we made ourselves far more valuable.

Evolving empowerment

Sounds great, right? Well, kind of. I’m sure there are many SEO experts reading this in disbelief, and you’re right, sometimes a little bit of knowledge can be more damaging than none at all. Although we gave some of the skills to other teams, in many ways this raised more questions.

However, we had a plan. We didn’t want to swap one problem for another, so we started another initiative: drop-in clinics. These were advertised across all digital teams as a safe space to raise questions and ask for advice, be it on wireframing, keyword analysis, broader strategy – anything that may be causing a worry or concern. We also used these queries as a way to refine our training packages, creating new, hyper-relevant and bespoke courses for the varied needs of different teams.

We now have a suite of courses, all constantly being tweaked and improved, a dedicated resource for queries and a knowledge base with all learning documents easily accessible.

What did this mean?

It’s my philosophy that your agency should be providing you with something you can’t get elsewhere. As I mentioned previously, all agencies are expected to demonstrate expertise – it’s a hygiene factor. This work, however, allowed us to go much further – building stronger relationships with the natural search team, and creating strong perceptions as ‘experts’ across the broader business, with product leads and senior stakeholders.

Those invisible walls between teams have fallen and the in-house team and agency have much more visibility on other site changes, which means things are planned correctly and things rarely go wrong – and when they do, they are much easier to fix. The client can still rely on their agency to scale up where required, as there are always those tasks that demand additional resources, but it protects the time needed for additional thinking. 

Time can be spent on getting those changes made, tested and learnt from properly. The team have the ability to develop the plan – and the strategy can be developed and enacted in a way that has been hard to do in the past. We have been able to get people doing the right things at the right time, working as more than an ‘all hands to the pumps’ team of client and agency firefighters. This has empowered the client and enabled them to react to an increasingly challenging marketplace with continued year-on-year improvements. 

Still not convinced?

Perhaps giving our specialist knowledge away could be perceived as weakening ourselves. I don’t subscribe to this at all; I think it massively strengthens the relationship.  

If a client believes that our giving information or training to other teams mean they’ll no longer need us, then shame on them – and shame on us for not demonstrating our value to them. The thing that makes our agency different is our ability to provide critical insights and ways to solve problems. It’s about the experience we bring from working with all our other clients. It’s about giving the client something that they can’t create in house. But if the only thing you’re offering is keyword research, or a social post, I’m afraid your days are numbered. Your agency shouldn’t be in the position of mere implementation; you need to be an expert, not just another supplier. 

Adjustments might need to be made for clients who take a more traditional approach, but in my opinion it’s an amazing way forward for truly affecting change in a business and strengthening the marketing team’s credibility across the company.