Brian Sullivan is Commonwealth’s newly minted senior vice president, chief marketing officer, and he brings with him experience from a variety of industries, including academia (Northeastern University), sports (the Boston Red Sox), and consumer brands (Oreos, Bagel Bites). If given a moment, he’ll tell you that great marketing is all about storytelling and experience, and he’s worked with all types of marketing talent to create memorable and effective messaging. In some cases, that talent has included third-party marketing support firms, a resource that many advisors need at one point or another. So, I decided to sit down with him to talk through what’s involved when assessing the need for third-party marketing support and how to evaluate the best fit for any firm.
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To Hire Within or to Outsource
Before you evaluate who should execute your project, you must understand your goals. What are you trying to accomplish for your practice? Which audiences are you trying to reach, and how do you want to prioritize them? How is marketing going to help you achieve your goals? “Only when you tie your marketing to your business goals can you get into the executional support you need,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan likes to think of marketing support as a three-lane highway: “The first lane is internal departmental staff and related resources for executing marketing goals. The second lane includes short-term hires, including freelancers and temp or temp-to-perm candidates who can supplement current staff. The third lane is any third-party vendor or agency that comes in on a project basis. All of these lanes are leading in the same direction, and all must work in unison to get you where you need to go.”
When assessing what marketing support needs to be, Sullivan says to look at the highway as a whole. Depending on your goals, do you have the expertise in-house, and do you have the guidance and leadership in place to give the team the proper direction to execute? If so, then you don’t need to hire outside. There’s a caveat, though: You could have the knowledge but not the time or horsepower, at which point you may need to look at other lanes.
“If you feel like you could bring in the added horsepower, but you have the time or the expertise to provide that guidance yourself, or within the team, then look to temp or freelance,” Sullivan says. “With that arrangement, you’re not necessarily needing outside thinking, but you’re getting someone who will integrate with your team.” When you don’t feel like you have the expertise or capacity in-house, then it’s time to look to third-party marketing support. See what different vendors bring to the table and how each could supplement the team in a way that you don’t have the expertise or bandwidth to do yourself.
Executing Business Goals: Where to Start
Advisors feeling unsure of how to construct what’s needed—and who don’t have in-house help to figure it out—may need to look elsewhere for what they want to accomplish. But don’t search for outside help just yet.
First, search the resources available in the marketplace. “You’re not the only one having this problem,” Sullivan says. “There are community groups that can supplement your learning. Plenty of times I go to LinkedIn, join marketing groups, look at what is being said, and contribute to the conversation. You’ll find many like-minded people there.” Practice groups are also good resources for these types of conversations.
Once you know what to focus on—such as growing your social presence or improving your website—then you can begin looking. Narrow down the specific agencies to the ones that look to be the best match for you.
Finding Marketing Resources
It never hurts to begin with an internet search. Get a laundry list of potential agencies to work with, and then evaluate them. Look through their materials, and research if they have been referenced in the marketplace for their quality of work. Network to see if your own contacts have agencies they would recommend.
Once you have a range of options, it’s time to contact them to see if they have the capabilities to fulfill what you want to accomplish. “But—and this can’t be understated,” Sullivan says, “you also need to find out if they will fit with your way of working. This is a key part of working successfully with an agency arrangement.”
Start with technical expertise and capabilities. Does it look like they will bring some new thinking to the table? You’re looking for a specific expertise, but you also want to expand your existing marketing strategy. As Sullivan puts it: “You want them to take you out of your comfort zone, take you to places where you didn’t think you could go by yourself.”
When evaluating their capabilities, ask yourself whether they can deliver what they claim. What would their team look like? What is the background of their team? Request examples of other initiatives like yours to get a better sense of their technical capabilities.
“Second, which to me is equally as important, is how will they effectively communicate their vision with you?” Sullivan says. “When I talk to advisors about this topic, they want to know how they can evaluate a digital agency when they’re not an expert in digital marketing. This point of the process will provide that answer: You’re bringing them on not only for their expertise but for their ability to translate that expertise to someone who is not an expert. That is the whole point of being an expert—to educate others. They will need to do that as they hand over the work to you.”
Third, how is this agency going to work with you and your parameters and processes? “Too many agencies I’ve worked with have set processes,” Sullivan says. “They want to understand what you’re all about when you’re a potential client, but then they’ll try to fit you into their processes, and the results won’t be successful.” Agencies need to show a level of flexibility that they can work with you, whether that is with the resources you have, the expertise you have, the time you have, or even how you like to meet to exchange information. They need to show that they can be flexible with you, or you’ll never have a successful relationship.
Marketing in general, and your third-party marketing support, is always changing. You can’t expect to bring on an agency or a head count and then set it and forget it. That’s just not how marketing operates. You have to be willing to revisit your decisions. Decisions that worked well a year ago may not work now. Business has changed, and you’re in a different place with your brand. “All those factors shouldn’t make you feel like you are locked into an agency or a plan,” Sullivan says. “You can always take a step back and reevaluate. Marketing is ever changing, and you have to be able to change with it to stay relevant.”
Have you hired third-party marketing support in the past? What goals did you have in mind outside of growing your social presence or improving your website? Please share below!