I was intrigued to read a recent post by David Raab, a leading analyst in the marketing automation space, on his blog, “Customer Experience Matrix,” in which he writes about the role that agencies play in the sale and management of marketing automation systems (bold emphasis mine):
“It seems that just about every (marketing automation vendor) now touts special features to support marketing agencies that resell the system to their clients or operate the system on the clients’ behalf. This isn’t exactly new but what once seemed like a niche strategy now looks more like a standard approach. It’s always been obvious that agencies were a sensible channel for marketing automation vendors to pursue, but I’m beginning to wonder whether agencies might turn out to be the primary channel for such systems, excepting only direct sales to large enterprises.
If this happens, the reason will be that agencies provide the missing skills that have prevented so many companies from taking full advantage of marketing automation systems by themselves. Vendors have been knocking themselves out for the past five years trying to educate marketers to run their systems. Perhaps having agencies run them is the real solution instead.”
You’d probably assume at this point that, as the co-owner of a technology-driven B2B marketing agency, I’d applaud the notion that firms like ours are becoming a primary sales channel for marketing automation. But, actually: no. Even though marketing automation is indeed a primary business driver for Spear, I’m not convinced that the particular scenario that Mr. Raab predicts is in our future.
One reason is that agencies aren’t structured to sell software. Most agencies are professional service organizations, staffed and optimized to sell and deliver services. The staff, the expertise, the content, the sales cycles required to sell software effectively are very different. Some agencies will adapt, and be successful at it. Most won’t, I suspect, because it takes them too far outside their core business focus.
The second reason is that, in my experience, most B2B companies, even though they may indeed lack the manpower, expertise or resources to manage marketing automation effectively, aren’t prepared to surrender that responsibility in its entirety to a third party. Our firm works with dozens of marketing automation customers, for whom our technical team is intimately involved “under the hood” as it were, but few if any of those clients are interested in surrendering complete management of the software to us. Granted, that’s in part a self-fulfilling prophecy because we don’t actively promote or sell managed services. But even then, the question rarely comes up.
It is true (as Mr. Raab points out) that many B2B companies are missing the skills and expertise to get the most from their investment in marketing automation. And moreover, it’s also true that agencies may play a significant role in closing that knowledge gap. But I suggest that companies are more interested in a consultative relationship, in the acquisition of best practices, and in achieving knowledge transfer to a fledgling marketing operations staff, than they are in telling their agency: “Here, YOU manage this stuff.”
In addition to supporting the resale and “renting” of their software via agencies, marketing automation vendors would do well to also support – in every sense – a healthy ecosystem of professional service partners: agencies, consultants, and similar firms, who may not aspire to selling more software, but can, in the end, help make marketing automation clients more successful. Successful clients in turn drive technology adoption, license renewals, and revenue growth. It’s a win-win-win.