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why 70% of marketers don't feel listened to by outreach agencies

05 / 10 / 20

70% Of In-house Marketers Aren’t Listened To By Outreach Agencies


JBH - The Digital PR Agency

11 minute read

The shift towards a natural, PR led approach to backlink acquisition, comes with so many positives.

We have seen an increase in job opportunities for a brand-new discipline, an overall higher standard of work, and it has led to the birth of a flourishing community under the SEO umbrella.

But this doesn’t come without its drawbacks. A lack of understanding or synergy between the client and the agency can result in frayed early relationships and burned bridges before any contract is even won.

But why?

We got in touch with 15 senior in-house marketers to find out what it’s really like to be pitched to by Digital PR & Outreach agencies. And they didn’t hold back.

We asked them about the internal challenges they face when electing a supplier, and we sought to find out whether agencies are sympathetic to these challenges during initial conversations.

Of the people we spoke to, more than two thirds said that agencies had failed to listen to their requirements in some way, and had neglected to understand their internal situations and nuances.

Andrew CoCo, Senior SEO Manager at the Walt Disney Company explains how he feels like his requests fall on deaf ears when working with outreach focused agencies:

“Most of the time I feel like I am being talked to rather than truly listened to”

Richard Shove, SEO Consultant for Samsung, told us:

“There’s a big difference between being listened to and being heard by outreach and PR agencies.”

Let’s unpack these comments so we can understand why the client agency relationship is so disjointed, and identity ways to make everything more aligned.

– So where are agencies going wrong?

Drop the dictatorship because clients aren’t laymans

The notion that agencies know best and that clients need ‘educating’, isn’t new in any industry, and it would seem that SEO and digital PR agencies are no exception.

In a quest to ‘pioneer’, agencies often neglect to consider that clients are knowledgeable specialists that understand the business and industry that they work in much better than us.  Outreach agencies know what will get links, but we can’t just assume that a one-size-fits-all approach will work for every client.

Chris Hutchings, CMO at Quidco, captures this sentiment:

“The very best outreach suppliers always engage the client in the process, particularly as they know that we (should) know our own business and sector inside out.”

Support and collaboration is what will help us to forge solid working relationships with potential clients. It’s also worth remembering that many in-house marketers have worked agency side.

One of those is Richard Shove, SEO Marketing Manager at Samsung. He told us that agencies need to be humble and really listen to what their clients are saying:

“My experience is that agencies believe they know best and this is to their detriment. The mistake that they have made in the past was to assume they naturally had all the answers”says Shove, who has also headed up organic search for brands including, Farfetch, and global agencies such as OMD.

It’s easy to see how relationships between outreach supplier and client can go this way. Agency cultures centred around being ‘leading-edge experts’, have helped to cultivate this toxic way of working.

We wrongly assume that we need to enlighten the client, and even replace what they and their teams are doing, rather than operating as extensions of them (something we’ll discuss later on in the post).

This can mean that we dictate rather than listen, and we ultimately end up sabotaging working relations before they begin.


Understand potential clients before you attempt to work with them

Turgay Akar, who heads up Global SEO at Playstation, explained that he often feels as though he is looked down upon as ‘just a technical SEO’ by agencies who pitch outreach strategies. Commenting further, he went on to say:

“Agencies can make the mistake of wrongly assuming that I have no understanding of what gets shared or generates links. They fail to understand what technical SEO actually means in that respect.”

We doubt this particular agency would have made this mistake if they’d had Hannah Bryce, Head of SEO at Holland & Barrett, on their team.

“Just checking your prospective clients out on LinkedIn should tell you whether they’re likely to have built links themselves before, or worked with others that have… In my opinion, the worst thing you can do as a potential partner is to assume your client knows nothing and pitch at that level. Do your research and your clients will listen instead of inwardly rolling their eyes and switching off while you explain what Domain Authority is.” 

We need to get our fact-finding down to an art. Before we get to the first conversation stage with a prospective client, we should have a solid idea of who we are going to be speaking to if we are to pitch at the right level.

Are they at a level in the business that would be pretty far removed from any granular understanding? Or like Tugay, is being ‘schooled’ the very last thing they need. It’s a minefield, but we need to consider these things. We can’t even begin to prepare for the next stage without this knowledge.

Also referring to a need for outreach agencies to do better at pre-pitch due diligence, Hannah Bryce of Holland & Barrett says :

“It’s hard to pitch to every level in the room. So make sure you research your key contact and spend time talking at their level before pitching to a group of people who probably know far less about the ins and outs of outreach and digital PR.

Hannah warns against going into too much detail and losing the room:

“Similarly, if you go too granular, people who don’t know what you’re talking about can switch off and if they’re the ones holding the key to the budget, it’s easy to lose your chance. Very rarely (if ever) do I get asked ‘how much do you already know about this?’ or ‘How much does your director know about this already’ before a pitch goes ahead.”


No question is a silly question

Outreach agencies need to be certain that they are on the same page as the prospective client. So many of the scenarios cited above could have been avoided if the right questions had been explored by the agencies.

Typically, they should make it their mission to be clear on the following:

  • What success really looks like for the client. Is it really just the links or are other KPIs going to be a factor?
  • Are you dealing with the decision maker, or are you going to have to tailor the pitch to other stakeholders?


Be aware of any red tape in order to get a head start

It’s not just the people we need to be familiar with. Internal restrictions, processes and ways of working are also something we need to be fully up to speed with as much as we can before we pitch.

Offering a solid example. Owain Lloyd Williams, SEO Manager for PeoplePerHour told us:

“Any good in-house SEO will be familiar with issues like internal politics, CMS restrictions and project feasibility, and there is where there can be a disconnect with the “blue-sky thinking” that agencies sometimes bring to the table, which can be time-wasting”.


Don’t compete with internal teams – win their trust

For example, as outreach specialists we know that we operate in the same arena as the traditional PR team. This isn’t news.

Whether agencies like it or not or whether they agree with what they are doing, they are also the client. We need to work with them and to gain their trust.

Richard Shove talks about a need for agencies to understand and acknowledge the fact that  although outreach and digital PR suppliers are working towards SEO goals, the nature of our strategies mean that budgets may need to come from other departments too.

“Agency credentials won’t be known outside of the SEO team… Sign off processes are the real killer – There is often a question around budgets for outreach and whether they sit under PR and brand as well as SEO”.

This means that the PR teams are our client too!

Kieron Hughes, Director of Organic Performance for PortSwigger says:

“You then add digital PR to the mix, which is trying to be more agile and gain online coverage/links on a regular basis, and it can lead to a difficult relationship – The challenge is in working to establish respect on both sides. It will help to remove friction, but also help to achieve more collaboration which will ultimately deliver better results.”

One surefire way to break the ice between agencies and internal teams is to go in and pitch the very things they are already working on.

Manisha Mehta, PR & Outreach Manager at Mojo Mortgages describes a situation where the pitching agency was essentially pitching for her job!

“I’m from an agency background, and one thing I noticed when I moved in-house was that a good few agencies who pitched to me didn’t realise that I was actually doing the work they were pitching to me, or the fact that I actually had a strong digital team around me, so I had a fair amount of knowledge about anything that was technical SEO/outreach related.” 

You’ll start to spot a trend here, because Kelly Edwards, SEO Manager at insurance specialist Howserv, believes that, in her experience, outreach agencies need to make it their business to be familiar with the people within their organisation, and to be more aware of the work that is going on behind the scenes.

“I have been pitched to by a few outreach agencies  who have announced that they’ve stumbled onto some amazing opportunity that we’ve clearly missed…Not only ca this be incredibly patronising to assume that we don’t know what we’re doing, but in a pitch is dangerous as is making assumptions on the business or direction without having embedded into the business or understood our priorities”.

Owain Lloyd Williams of PeoplePerHour, cites another example:

“I’ve had examples where an outreach/Digital led agency has emphasised avenues that the in-house team has explored previously because they haven’t properly probed on past efforts or brand history”.


Agencies are extensions of internal teams – not replacements

As Digital PR specialists, we have all had our media lists reviewed by the internal PR team, or have to field requests from branding teams wanting to to display large company logos on our campaigns.

But have you ever stopped to consider the intent behind the requests? To do this effectively, we have to understand how an organisation works and what makes it tick. This includes understanding the people that work there. What are they contributing and what is most important to them?

The answer to these questions will enable us, as service providers to nurture strong relationships with internal teams and be able to relate to their own challenges. Only then can we truly begin to deliver something of value.

A great example of effective client-agency workings came from Stephen Morris, Head of SEO at high-end furniture retailer OKA.

I spoke with him at length about this topic, and he explained the following:

“We’ve tweaked how we work with our agency slightly, so instead of them creating a list of “agency tasks” and us doing “in-house stuff” we compile everything that needs working on into (our workflow platform of choice) & consider all the work in its entirety across the entire available resource. So now we have one overall picture of what needs doing and we allocate it to whoever in the team is best-placed to do the work when it needs doing – whether that be someone in-house or someone at the agency. We’re one team working on one project.”

He goes on to say;

“We still discuss new tasks monthly – some originate from us, some from the agency, but everything goes into one project plan and is prioritised, regardless of source. As the client I “own” the plan and it’s totally flexible – we can change priorities more easily if something new comes up, we could scale up resources to get things done quicker or if someone leaves or – God forbid – we change agency, the plan goes on.  It’s totally open – everyone can see everything and everyone’s input is welcome, because we’re a team, whether we’re directly or indirectly on the OKA payroll


It’s time to build bridges

Once you have familiarised yourself with the who’s who of the organisation, it’s time to build bridges with them

A lack of synergy between internal and agency teams can exist due to a reluctance from the supplier to spend time forging healthy working relations with them. Either way, the strains are real.

Manisha Mehta, of Mojo Mortgages reveals that synergy is important when you have a lot of moving parts to manage.

“Agencies need to work with others and collaborate if they are to work with us long-term. If you have different agencies for different marketing channels, then there’s no doubt that your digital PR/outreach agency will have to work with them at some point, and synergy is really important – An agency that’s able to build consensus with others is a huge asset and you’ll be able to see that collaboration shine through in the work they produce” 

When discussing an absence of any effort from agencies to build relationships with internal stakeholders for the brands she has worked at in the past, Hannah Bryce of Holland & Barrett said:

“They (outreach agencies) need to be able to work with internal stakeholders and potentially existing external PR teams.”

Supporting this, Wayne Thompson, Head of SEO at Colewood Internet informed us that the final decision is often above his head and nurturing those key stakeholders will pay dividends in the end.

“When outreach/PR agencies pitch to companies, from my experience, they really don’t take internal stakeholders into consideration”.

And Chris Hutchings of Quidco adds:

“Agencies need to take into account that the client will have their own stakeholders/internal challenges to consider.” 

PortSwiggers Kieron Hughes, talks about his struggles when it comes to building effective working relations between outreach agencies and his internal PR team.

“For larger businesses, they likely already have traditional PR expertise either in-house or agency. The biggest challenge I’ve experienced is in achieving the right levels of collaboration between traditional PR and digital PR.” 


Understand the business, the brand AND the industry

Owain Lloyd Williams explains that, more often than not, he does not feel listened to by outreach and digital PR suppliers who fail to understand him and the business.

“Agencies will of course want the best for their clients from a purist SEO standpoint and will convey this during the pitch process. What they fail to do is tie things back to actual tangible business objectives and internal goals.”

Richard Shove once again sums this up perfectly, saying:

“The best agencies are the ones which really listen and understand the nuance of the business, and adapt their strategies/proposals to reflect that.”


A lack of industry knowledge can cost you the pitch

Andrew Dipper, Global Head of Digital Marketing for Frank Recruitment Group, explains that a lack of niche industry knowledge from the agencies he has encountered in the past is one of the reasons why building a mini agency in-house proved to be a better option for him.

“Over time our team has developed a strong understanding of our business so know what our story is, who our key people are, what tactics work and what won’t, how our competitors in the market operate. It’s that business and industry knowledge that’s essential for me, and an area I think marketing agencies sometimes struggle to develop and maintain when they’re juggling plates across multiple industry verticals and clients.”


Are we valuing creativity too much over client goals?

The cracks in client-agency relations may come from our fixation on creativity and a desire to be ‘specialist experts’ above any consideration for business objectives.

Often agencies get a client brief, it states that they want x amount of high-quality, topical links per month or quarter. Tunnel vision will inevitably creep in and we put forward self-centred strategies rather than those that take other channels and stakeholders into account.

An all singing, all dancing campaign about Love Island that will appeal to ‘mass media’ will get the links. Right? Maybe so, but unless that ties in with their overall business objectives and goals, then internal stakeholders are never going to see the value of what we do.

Sam Pennington, Head of SEO for Missguided, agrees;

“I have been pitched to many times, and most agencies do not understand the company at all. The requirement is far more complex than just gaining links”.

Dylan Mazeika, SEO Manager at told us that he’s looking for agencies who are the missing piece of the puzzle

“The best pitches I’ve had really started with a meeting where we all got on the same page about what my organizations KPIs were, where this agency etc fit into that puzzle, and how their work would directly impact the bottom line for those KPIs.”

“There ultimately has to be a balance, but at a very basic level, I would expect an agency to have an understanding of why we need links, and what type of activity would it take to achieve the performance goals” – says Kieron Hughes, of PortSwigger.

And what if you win the business?

Although we’ll cover effective onboarding within the next post of this series, the bare minimum of what we should be doing is familiarising ourselves with every nuance from the get go.

Every way of working that may affect the delivery of what we do should be clear to us, and we need to continue to ask the right questions so that we are aware of any internal politics, the organisational structure, and the active projects and work that the internal teams are already doing.

Bryce who is also cofounder of the SEO SAS podcast, explains more about her view on the research process:

“Once a client is onboarded, kick off meetings are key to ironing out ways of working while learning what their internal teams are already doing or have been doing. Until you have done this, you don’t even know if you are delivering any value with the strategies you put forward.”


We should indeed be delivering innovative work, but it shouldn’t be at the expense, or in ignorance of the overall business goals or unique situations of clients. 

We also shouldn’t be assuming the client has completely neglected to think of these strategies themselves, and unless we take the time to find this out in the beginning then we risk alienating them from the offset.

  • As agencies, we need to start seeing ourselves as extensions of existing teams and not replacements
  • By being better at understanding a business before we push strategies, we stand a better chance of hitting the mark for them
  • We also need to be greater at understanding and empathising with roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder and the challenges they might be facing internally
  • Following on from the above, we actually need to listen too. Because as Richard Shove of Samsung explains: “There’s a difference between being listened to and being heard”

Once we do this, we stand a better chance of building long-lasting working relations that can be nurtured over time – equally beneficial for both client and agency.