Why “Full-Service” Agencies Are Lying To You

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt, CEO of Truly, has over 20 years experience in market research and strategy on both client and agency side. She wrote one of the first books on how the social web is changing business, was named one of 2013's Entrepreneurial Women to Watch by Entrepreneur Magazine and one of the Most Influential Women in Technology in Fast Company. She has built an engaged and enthusiastic business audience online of over 345,000 followers, including a significant number of thought leaders. Tara combines a data-centric with a human-centric approach to building an audience, leaning heavily on insights into consumer patterns and behaviors while keeping an eye on online trends and changing expectations.

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You need help. You need an agency. So you ask around, or hop online and start looking. While doing your research you find respectable-looking firms that specialize in one thing or another. You’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for, but you keep looking. Suddenly, there it is: 

“We’re a full-service agency.”

The easy answer to all of your problems. It doesn’t matter what you need, because they do it all, right? 

*Insert buzzer sound*


They’re not a “full-service” agency. Nobody is. In fact, they’re doing themselves AND you a huge injustice just by claiming to be one.

Too many times, I’ve seen marketing agencies who claim to also be social media experts, website developers who claim to also provide expertise in content marketing, content marketers who claim to also be brand development experts, paid planners who claim to also provide top-notch creative and storytelling, and social media marketers who claim to provide public relations expertise… You get where I’m going. I’m not saying that you can’t have expertise in these pairings of (or any multiple) marketing disciplines, but from my experience, the majority of those who claim this do NOT.

There are a few reasons why this happens:

  • The term “marketing” is vague and nobody really knows (or agrees on) what it means
  • Marketing approaches, tactics, and platforms have grown faster than anyone can keep up with, so “expertise” is a hard term to really define
  • Agencies, who have been squeezed and commoditized, seize on this vagueness (and the clients’ confusion) to get more business and more of a budget

Let me explain a little more…

What is marketing anyway?


Picture a dog. Hold that picture in your mind.

What came to your mind? Was it a specific breed? I bet I thought of a different dog than you did.

That’s the state of marketing today.

When one person thinks of marketing, they may picture ads, whereas the next person thinks of PR, or media coverage. Others imagine it as lead generation, while the person next to them thinks of brand recognition. I recently watched The Imagineering Story and I would guess that Disney thinks of creating great experiences as marketing.

The truth is that marketing is all of the above. A more official definition of marketing is:

Connecting companies with customers through understanding the market, development of the right product, finding the right channels to distribute, and creating the right strategy.

So, when someone thinks of a dog, they are right, but so is the person next to them. It’s a broad term used to encompass all of the disciplines that help connect companies with customers, including research, product development, design, brand development/awareness, PR, content, community, customer service, social media, influencer relationships, paid media (ads), events, experiences, word-of-mouth, and so on and so on…

But here is the rub. Each one of those disciplines:

  1. is more or less effective based on how their approach aligns with your audience (where are they on their journey?) and your goals (what’s your desired outcome?). For example, Disney can rely on creating incredible experiences as marketing because they already have incredible brand awareness.
  2. requires knowledge and experience in order to maximize that effectiveness. If you subscribe to the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hours rule (or even if you don’t…because it’s also tied to natural ability or something), you’d have to practice something for at least 3.2 years (60hrs/week practice + study) in order to be an expert at it. Some people may think that the violin or performing surgery is more complicated than connecting a company with customers, but I’d surmise that it’s a different kind of complicated. Perhaps 3 years is extreme, but asking your team to learn something over a weekend is insufficient.
  3. changes in a hot-minute. If you do have expertise in an area, you are also following along with the changes. The best Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts follow every single algorithmic change on every single search engine and adjust almost daily. Because people aren’t static, nothing about marketing is static, either. In most fields, what worked yesterday (or for someone else today!), won’t likely work now.

Agencies: we’re all opportunists

I get it. I run an agency and feel the squeeze, too.

Here is the list of requirements from pretty much every client I’ve worked with:

  • Achieve significantly better results
    • …on a significantly reduced budget
    • …but also be “innovative” and forward-thinking (translation: can you throw some [insert latest trend] in there, too? Oh…and not for more pay.)
    • …while not rocking any boats (ie. the CEO wants this messaging, so we need to make it work…even if you have reams of data that says it won’t work)
    • …and if you don’t achieve #1, you will be replaced by someone who promises they can

And, because agencies have a whole group of people employed that are looking to them to keep them that way, they comply as much as possible. If the client says, “Can you build a website?” and they can find our way around WordPress, they say, “Yeah! Of course!”

…because, really, how hard can it be?

Ha. This is the rhetorical question that paves so many roads to hell. It’s also a question that gets assigned to marketing more than any other discipline. Though there are plenty of DIY examples, you won’t hear as many people say this about law or accounting or other business services:

“Defending our company against a lawsuit. Really, how hard could that be?”

“Getting audited by the IRS. Really, how hard could that be?”

In reality, I think artificial intelligence will replace lawyers and accountants before they replace marketers, but that’s a conversation for another day. Marketing is nuanced and requires a lot of art alongside the science of it. It’s as much about the relationships and understanding human behavior and subtle cues that a machine can’t (or at least can’t yet). It’s changing by the minute and requires a whole lot of “gut” instinct to do right. That instinct is improved by experience.

I hope you understand why your agencies are (sometimes) failing you and realize that marketing is more complex than you give it credit.

But what to do? You brought in that agency because bringing in expert voices can help grow your business. However, that doesn’t have to mean just agencies or consultants anymore. With the right guidance, you can do it yourself, or even build your own in house team.

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