Marketing agency partnerships are often critical to the process of scaling a business. Agencies can provide on-demand skills and execution at a lower cost (sometimes) than hiring internal talent. But this doesn’t mean they’re fool proof. If approached poorly, you’ll get something both ugly and costly. In fact, effectively engaging marketing agencies requires a mature understanding of both agency innerworkings and the true purpose of agencies.


Here are five common ways businesses mishandle their agency partnerships, and five corresponding ways to make it right.

1) How to Lose: Expecting your marketing agency to fill your marketing void

Many companies need to improve their marketing efforts, and they know it. When internal marketing resources are light or absent, it may seem sensible to think of marketing agencies as turnkey solutions. In fact, it is a common mistake to fill the absence of an internal marketing department with the sole addition of a marketing agency. The hope is that they will function as “a marketing department by proxy”. Wishful thinking.


On their own, marketing agencies are not adequate replacements for many in-house marketing functions, and should not be sourced as such. This is because agencies require marketing leadership from the client to provide priorities, business direction and integrate them into a greater marketing plan.

How to Win Instead: Ensure all outsourced service functions are a part of a larger marketing plan

In order to fully reap the benefits of working with a marketing agency, internal marketing personnel should work closely alongside the agency. Agencies are far more effective when treated as supplementary support for an existing marketing plan, and the services have a much higher output when their purpose supports a greater framework. It is much easier to assess if agencies are providing sufficient ROI under the lens of supporting larger business goals.

If an agency function supports a larger internal marketing plan, and the marketing plan supports the strategic business plan, each supporting function benefits from synergies, clarity, context, and scrutiny.

2) How to Lose: Believing all marketing functions can be outsourced

Agencies will never admit it, but many marketing functions simply don’t work in the hands of a 3rd party.


Issues include:

  • Conflicting motivations between the focal business and the agency (e.g. you want business growth, and they want to sell you more of whatever it is they do—ad management, SEO, video creation, etc.).
  • 3rd parties care more about “their channel” than the whole picture.
  • Agencies are delegated tasks by you. Although they may exercise certain types of leadership along the way, they are not leaders of your organization.
  • Agencies are highly susceptible to smoke, mirrors, and puffery. Many critical marketing functions by contrast require true grit, diligence, pride, and care.

Effective marketing agencies are puzzle pieces, not the puzzle assembler.

How to Win Instead: Ensure the functions you outsource aren’t inherently internal functions

Businesses that want to scale up successfully with marketing must seek to own the critical aspects of their marketing in-house. While “critical” aspects of marketing differ across companies and industries, they typically boil down to functions like these:

  • Leadership
  • Project coordination
  • Corporate marketing strategy
  • Content strategy
  • Knowledge management
  • Operations
  • Brand management
  • Website messaging
  • Planning and prioritization
  • Analytics and data management
  • Tech stack
  • Upskilling

These aspects can (and sometimes should) be outsourced for a period of time—but only with the intent of bridging the gap internally and taking ownership in-house at a defined time. The benefit of owning these aspects are:

  • Higher likelihood of marketing-led growth
  • Ability to align efforts and achieve synergies
  • Clarity to guide projects consistently
  • Alignment of motivations from internal stakeholders
  • Freedom from inefficient long-run agency fees

3) How to Lose: Trusting your agency to work unencumbered

Agencies want to work unencumbered—unwatched, trusted, autonomous. This is the traditional business model. Some clients squeeze them and get what they pay for (or more), while other clients are asleep at the wheel. Guess which one represents the cash cow?

Agencies can, and do, work well when trusted to do so, but human nature is unrelenting—the longer you keep the pressure off, the less motivated they will be. While juggling projects and time, an unchecked agency will always coast more than they will admit.

How to Win Instead: Ensure internal leadership is in place to actively manage agency services

The unfortunate truth is, it’s the more-involved clients who get the most attention from agencies. To reduce the risk of agency loafing, businesses must have internal marketing leadership in place to hold agencies accountable, scrutinize and ensure they do what they say they are going to do. Internal marketing leadership is also imperative to ensure that the agency efforts are aligned with the internal marketing plan and business strategy.

4) How to Lose: Allowing services to stagnate

Agency contracts are often most effective just after the outset. This is because the service plan was created specifically for the current need. But, client needs are dynamic. They change. They evolved. At some point, the services rendered no longer reflect what is best for the client.


To stress test this, use this thought experiment: Ask yourself, “If I were to re-engage this agency again, today, from scratch, would we come to the same exact service approach?” In many cases the answer is no. Yet, with month-to-month agency services it is easier to default to another month of the same than to hit the reset button.

How to Win Instead: Reassess and adjust service contracts regularly

As a business grows, so should the strategy and marketing plan. Revisiting agency marketing services quarterly, semi-annually, or yearly is essential to ensure activities align with needs.

5) How to Lose: Staying with your agency until the partnership crumbles

Let’s face it. Agencies like to hold onto clients for as long as possible. And this reality isn’t always in the client’s best interests. From the client’s perspective, staying in the same “marketing stage” can prohibit growth.


Under this framework, clients are the ones forced to broach a “break-up”. Which is a shame, because breakups mean that something didn’t go to plan. As it happens, there is a better way.

How to Win Instead: Have an exit plan

While working in a partnership with the right agency can reap a number of benefits, businesses should not plan to stay reliant on the agency forever. When an internal marketing team is confident they can take over independently, a strong agency should help pass the torch.

Outwardly communicating this as “the plan” from the get-go helps to align expectations on both sides, aid the transition of knowledge, and increase the chances of a win-win scenario.

Written By:

Darcy McGilvery

Darcy lives at the intersection of art, business, and science. His esteemed work with hundreds of brands spans a mix of marketing leadership, operations, and strategy. Armed with degrees in marketing, psychology, and business, Darcy has obtained a holistic understanding of the modern consumer. His specialties include building marketing systems, content direction, and fostering high-functioning teams.