They don’t make ’em like this anymore…or do they?

What, exactly, is a full-service digital marketing agency (besides a mouthful)? Digital marketing includes a lot of things; claiming to be full service is no small task. Even looking at individual channels, it’s hard to truly be full service.

However, as marketing channels collide and attribution turns us into one giant digital marketing family, more and more agencies will strive to offer the whole she-bang. Some will be better at some things than others, so let’s take a look at what these areas of expertise are. (In order: service, performance, goals, strategy, channels, creative.)

Let’s break ’em down.

Service

You can’t run a full-service agency (or any halfway-decent agency) without great customer service. Tacking full service onto your name puts you on the hook for lot more than just weekly meetings. When I think full service, I think in-house availability. Agencies should strive to be extensions of their clients’ teams, with service measured the same way you’d evaluate a colleague.

Are they reliable? Are they responsive? Do they do their fair share or just skate by? Are they organized? Do they communicate well? These are just a few of the questions one should ask. Full service means you’re there – all the way. Site outages? Your team should be there to turn campaigns off. Retail business with demanding Black Friday needs? Your team needs to be there. Bottom line: act like you’ve got some skin in the game – not just your fee but your client’s success.

Performance

Like service, this one seems obvious. If you take on a project with a client, you should be responsible for the performance. This, however, is dictated to a point by how much control you have over things.

A search marketer can drive leads to a sales team and have them pass the smell test, but what happens when the field rep blows the deal? Better yet, what happens when that lead turns into a referral for an even bigger deal? I suppose this is the question attribution strives to answer. That said, your sphere of influence should be defined early in an engagement. Using the words “full service” can set some pretty lofty expectations. If you don’t define where you draw the line with a customer, you’re in for a nasty (and possibly short) ride.

While your team may not be programming masters, they should have some sense of tracking code’s function and its general mechanics. Don’t QA javascript, but have some idea of which variable represents what. Hell, knowing what things like “global include” and “header” mean probably makes a lot of sense.

When it comes down to it, a good agency takes responsibility for pulling whatever levers they have at their disposal. If you’re running someone’s AdWords account, you should control everything that can be done in it. Same applies for any platform you work through – from different channels to management tools like Marin or Optimal. Even if one isn’t proficient with a certain lever, a true full-service agency will find someone who is. Having a solid partner network is important – just don’t pass the buck to too many partners, or you might shatter your full-service image.

Goals

I can’t count how many times a client has asked me what their ROAS targets should be. The full-service digital agency doesn’t decide what the goal is; companies need to have a sense of their own financial objectives. An agency should, however, help the client figure out what’s achievable under different conditions. I might not be able to tell you if 300% ROAS is better than 250% for your business, but I can tell you how these different targets might impact your digital programs.

A good agency should work with their customers to identify the right measurement strategy. Again, I might not be able to set your CPL target for you, but I better be ready to tell you if CPL is even the right metric to optimize to.

Strategy

Much like setting goals, this one can get tricky. Is it really an agency’s place to tell a client that “now is the time to strike, competitors are leaving the auction and we have a unique chance”? The tricky aspect is framing it the right way. I don’t think many agencies want to take the risk of pushing strategies like these; rather, they want to give their clients options. Research and critical thinking that lead to forecasts, storyboarding different scenarios – this is what sets great agencies apart.

The fear of going out on a limb is always there so, again, this goes back to setting expectations. An agency rep should feel free to talk about any idea, as long as it pertains to the client’s business. Now, you can’t spend your days going on wild tangents talking PR strategies if you manage someone’s Facebook PPC, but recognizing places where channels overlap and how they might influence each other makes for robust strategic discussions. It’s a win for everyone.

Channels

When it comes to defining roles, setting expectations, and figuring out what levers you’re pulling, channel selection is key. What drives me crazy about this is that no agency truly is a full-service digital marketing agency! The name implies that you do EVERYTHING digital. Now, this might be the goal of every holding company mega-agency, but is this really possible? The phrase that comes to mind is “jack of all trades, master of none.” It’s nearly impossible to be a true one-stop shop.

Now you might say, hey buddy, isn’t PPC Associates trying to do this?  In short, no. We aren’t tackling email, we don’t do PR (which has a digital component), we don’t do rich media. Bottom line is, we don’t splinter our efforts to the point of diluting our existing A+ services.

All of that aside, I also think that expanding into 2+ channels/services makes you something more.  If you think “Full Service Digital Marketing Agency” is a mouthful, try “Full Service, Integrated SEM/SEO/Display/SocialPPC agency” or “Full Service Digital Marketing Agency minus email, video and 10 other digital things I can’t even think of.” These don’t sound very sexy.

So, there’s a trade-off. Just make sure to clearly define what channels you DO cover before you sign yourself up for a project you aren’t equipped to fully service.

Creative

PPC Associates isn’t a creative shop. Yes, we offer design services to our clients, but we aren’t world-class design experts. Well, you might ask, how does that affect our status as a “digital marketing agency”? Aren’t banners and landing pages part of digital? Are we really full service if we set your bids, pick your placements, interests and demo targets, but don’t create the banner assets? Are we really full service if we buy keywords and drive them to pages we don’t control?

As with all things on this list, it comes down to scope definition and setting expectations. PPC Associates excels at optimization and recognizing what levers to pull. We might not know all connections between colors and emotions (though surely we’ll be reading some article about it), but we can tell you that you have too many form fields and that the test on your landing page just lists out features rather than benefits. Our strength is in copy and text and testing methodology. Does it make us less full service?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that full service is more of an ideal than something tangible. There’s something aspirational to it, but there’s no way any single entity can do all things digital well.

The expectation you should have of a full service digital shop is that they’ll be A+ at the things they tell you they do, and show a passion for finding answers for the things they don’t do. If you expect anything different, or try to find someone that tells you they can do it all, it probably won’t end well. Best to get this stuff figured out before getting a nasty surprise.

– Sean MarshallVP of Business Development

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Sean Marshall
Sean Marshall is the CEO of Intended, an SEM agency founded in 2013 to provide industry-best service for SMB clients. Before Intended, Sean was the VP of Business Development of PPC Associates (now 3Q Digital). He is a huge Cal fan and has been known to win a buck or two playing online poker.