Truthiness and Getting Fired: What’s an Agency’s Role?

Ian Lurie

I may be engaging in excessive honesty in this post. If you’re a client, or thinking of becoming one, you’re getting a look at the closest thing to dirty laundry that Portent has. Some folks might tell me this is a bad idea. I disagree – there’s a valuable lesson here.

We got fired today.

Well, it was a mutual firing, actually. The reason: We were too slow to respond to requests for things like a new image on the home page, or edits to an existing page. The client wanted 24-hour-turnaround. We couldn’t deliver that. Our attempt to do so took away from our marketing efforts.

I said so, and we decided to go our separate ways.


Role Confusion = Unhappy Clients = You’re FIRED

So here’s the question: What’s the internet marketing agency’s role?

We’re not a job shop. We can do things like add graphics to web sites, and we often do because we’re the only ones who can. But that’s not our primary mission.

I don’t mean to imply that an internet marketing agency doesn’t build web pages. Of course we do. But we do so in the context of our real job:

  1. Formulate strategy.
  2. Execute the strategy.
  3. Assess the results and learn from it.
  4. Give great advice.We can’t be great marketers and efficiently provide on-demand site maintenance at the same time. The economies aren’t there: The same team that’s great at designing an effective landing page, setting up Google Analytics and running large campaigns can’t simultaneously perform 30-minute or 1-hour site maintenance tasks.If they do, mistakes and slip-ups are inevitable.

A Hard Lesson

That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

In this case, we started to drift into the job shop role, and it destroyed the relationship.

We got some amazing results for the client: More leads (45% increase over 4 months) of higher quality and at a lower cost. That was our job.
So this is a hard lesson: If you settle into the role of site maintainer, the overarching goal is forgotten, and the successes get lost.

Separation of Church and State

Don't be like them.

You can keep your role a little clearer:

  1. Don’t start! If the client asks you to perform site maintenance, you can say ‘no’. But that’s not always reasonable. If no one else is available to make those essential SEO edits, chances are you’re going to have to do it.
  2. Bid separately. Set up a retainer that covers the marketing consulting. Then price everything else out on an hourly basis. This can be annoying, but it’ll clearly define the two roles.
  3. Build tools. If possible, provide your client with tools to let them maintain their own site. Again, this isn’t perfect. But for a few of our clients, moving pages such as their press section to a simple Movable Type template made a world of difference.
  4. Partner up. Partner with another firm that can handle the production work. The downside here: If they fail, you fail. So find someone you trust.

There’s no easy answer. After 13 years you’d think I’d have one. But you can’t keep big clients without doing some production work. And when they realize you can do all the work that drives them crazy, every client will pile it on.

So, my solution: In the mind of your clients, build a big, fat wall between your production and marketing functions. They must be kept separate.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Sorry to hear of the situation. I’ve been there a few times myself.
    What I think a lot of agencies miss, and have missed for a long time, is that you shouldn’t focus on the execution, but the thinking. Execution is cheap. It’s easy. Someone else can execute. Certainly, if you have enough manpower and can, as you say, separate the doers from the thinkers and process the work internally, that’s great. But the old agency of the past — produce my TV commercial, design my brochure, build my website — is dying. Execution is now a commodity. The strategy and planning behind a communications plan can’t be found for cheap.
    The setup varies from firm to firm, but if you can sell yourself upfront on what agencies really deliver and not what everyone and their brother can, you win more in the long run. Convincing clients of that approach is a challenge, but the ones who value your thinking over your physical output will pay a high premium for your work.
    Hang in there. Clients come and go. Some of them even come back.

  2. Speaking as one of your clients, the message in this post is important to internalize. It is true that some of us do not have an alternative for some of this maintenance work and if not Portent, then who?
    That said, I don’t expect my dentist to brush my teeth. I hope your agency can develop a relationship with some job shops so that those of us who need a recommendation can get it.
    Sort of like the banks that have a list of approved appraisers. Pick anyone on the list and they’ll probably be fine.
    Last thought…sometimes it is clear to you, the agency, that something is a maintenance item and it just is not clear to the client. Especially coming on the heels of a website development job.
    Are we done? Aren’t we done? Is this just tidying up or is it something else?
    If, for example, we need to move something from one ‘folder’ to another and it does not pop up on the side navigation like someone at Portent said it would, where do we find someone else who is good at Movable Type to do it for us. Or is this the type of thing that we go ahead and pay Portent to do on an hourly basis…even though you’d really rather not? I do not have the first clue how to find someone who knows about Movable Type and can do that type of job for us.
    And another example, scheduling the blog post is not working as it was said it would. I know your team is working on it and that feels like part of the site creation piece to me. But I can imagine someone feeling like the client still is not satisfied.
    Murky…murky…murky. I applaud your efforts to get more clear…and am sorry you lost a client in the process.
    I’ll still be recommending ‘my’ internet marketing agency even having read your post.

  3. What an excellent post and great comment! I am totally inspired by this as the age old dilema has plagued me everywhere I go. It is very difficult to pull both off effectively.

  4. @Jason Falls:
    > What I think a lot of agencies miss, and have missed for a long time, is
    > that you shouldn’t focus on the execution, but the thinking. Execution
    > is cheap. It’s easy.
    Indeed. Witness: the reason Google and Amazon are so successful is because selling things on the internet and a “search engine” are such brilliant ideas. Execution, feh, that’s a commodity.

  5. Good old fashioned service( that is anything that is economic and cannot bedropped on your foot) Is the difference between being a mediocre compny and a great company.
    Jason execution is never cheap. If the thinking and doing ain’t right then you have an unhappy punter.
    Punters want the packet so they can get on with what they do best.
    Thanks for the post though. get as much joy as you can every day.

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