Why Marketing Agencies Over Promise and Under Deliver

Over promising and under-delivering is a huge issue for marketing agencies. Ask any company that’s hired out to an agency before, and you’ll find at least one that’s had the experience of being sold the moon – and then watched as their campaigns came crashing back down to earth.

Failing to deliver on expectations gives our industry a bad name. It leaves customers unhappy with the results they paid for, and it causes them to be distrustful of future agencies – no matter how skilled they may be.

But in my experience working at my agency, Louder.Online, and with other agencies in the digital marketing space, I’ve seen that solving this problem isn’t as simple as saying “stop.” There are several reasons agencies over promise and under deliver. Eliminating the issue comes down to understanding each of them in order to identify them as they’re happening at your firm – or learning how to detect them when you select an agency partner.

They’re desperate to land the sale

Here’s the most obvious manifestation of the over-promising issue: agencies are so desperate to land a new client that they’ll say anything to close the deal.

This isn’t always done in a malicious fashion. Sometimes, agencies survive – even thrive – by deceiving customers and churning them in and out the door. But often, a willingness to upsell beyond a firm’s actual capabilities is driven by financial pressure.

There are more marketing and advertising agencies operating now than ever before. In this competitive environment, landing a new client can mean the difference between keeping the lights on and closing down for good. Firms may even assume they’ll be able to figure out how to deliver what they’ve promised once they’ve received their deposit check.

But this approach is clearly shortsighted. Unless a miracle occurs, and you’re able to pull unexpected results out of nowhere, you won’t be able to retain clients long-term using this approach. Instead, you’ll constantly find yourself back on the hamster wheel of new client acquisition – and your reputation is likely to take a hit in the process, making landing future sales even more difficult. 

They don’t know their knowledge is outdated

Other issues driving over-promising are more subtle. As an example, marketing – especially digital marketing – changes every day. That means, even if you did know how to deliver a specific result at one point, you may no longer be able to achieve the same outcomes if you haven’t kept up your knowledge.

Take SEO as an example. I’ve studied SEO closely for more than 14 years, and it continues to amaze me how far SEO best practices and expert advice have evolved over that time. Even today, I have to dedicate time every week to be sure I’m staying up-to-date on the latest developments.

If I’d have stopped paying attention to changes in the field even just a year ago, I’d have missed the Site Diversity update, the Maverick update, and the BERT update, among others. So even if I had successfully completed an SEO campaign a year ago, I might be selling based on a mistaken assumption about my skills if I hadn’t worked on similar projects or invested in ongoing education since then.

They don’t have a strong USP

One of the best ways to make sure your knowledge stays timely is to choose a specialization and commit to it. This is your agency’s USP, or “unique selling proposition.”

Continuing with our SEO example, imagine there are two agencies competing for the same project:

  1. An SEO agency focusing on e-commerce
  2. A “jack of all trades” agency filled with generalist talent

Both companies could bid on a potential SEO contract, but only one of them is likely to be able to give an accurate assessment of the results they can deliver.

That isn’t to say your agency should only focus on one discipline. It’s possible to cover multiple marketing strategies successfully, as long as you’re able to offer a compelling competitive advantage in each one. The real secret here is that, when you know your USP, you’re much less likely to over promise, simply because you’ll have a better grasp on what’s possible – and what isn’t – than another agency that lacks this type of differentiation.

They aren’t selling to the right customers

Finally, part of having a strong USP is knowing which customers you’re best able to support. If – as in the example above – I’m running an SEO agency that supports e-commerce sellers, chances are I’m not going to be able to deliver the same results to brick-and-mortar shops.

Sure, some of my skills will translate to this different audience. But I couldn’t promise the same results without having the same kind of experience I’d had serving my target customers. I’d be setting myself up to over-promise, and then under-deliver.

 It’s one thing to see these issues happening behind the scenes. But when you’re trying to choose between different agencies – all of whom promise stunning results and astronomical ROI – how can you tell whether or not what you’re hearing is realistic? Knowing the factors described above provides important clues as to how you can separate great agencies from pretenders:

  1. If the agency you’re talking to is placing undue pressure on you to close the deal, this could be a sign that they’re desperate to close the sale. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. Consider the agency’s merits in full before making a decision.
  2. Knowing that agencies must keep up their knowledge to remain competitive, ask what they do to stay current. If they aren’t regularly reading, testing new offerings, attending conferences, or taking other proactive action, they may not be able to fully deliver on the promises they’re making.
  3. Whether your agency’s USP aligns with your needs or whether you represent their ideal customer can be easily uncovered by asking questions such as, “Have you worked with companies like mine before?” Other good ones to ask include, “How familiar are you with my industry, and what results have you delivered on these projects in the past?”

Of course, these aren’t the only ways you can identify a potential underperformer. Your gut is one of your strongest tools. If what a potential agency partner is promising you doesn’t seem realistic, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to deliver.

Looking from your agency’s perspective, it’s usually quite clear when you’ve over-promised and under-delivered. You’ll get off a sales call feeling worried about what you told the prospect you’d be able to achieve. Or, if you manage to close these deals anyways, you’ll hear it from dissatisfied customers who don’t like the results they’re seeing on their reports.

Use these and other signals to clue yourself into the kinds of situations where you’re likely to over-promise. 

  1. Is it happening when you’re feeling most stressed financially?
  2. Is it happening when you’re selling a particular service?
  3. Does it occur more frequently when you’re pitching a specific type of client?

Pay attention to how over-promising is manifesting in your own sales process – and encourage your salespeople to do the same, if you lead a team. Over-promising and under-delivering is a common problem among marketing agencies, but with some extra focus on the issue and a commitment to staying true to your word, it’s one you can easily overcome.


5 Ways to Foster Better Collaboration in Your Office

The Importance of Defining Decision Making Roles