By Doug Kessler published April 24, 2013

4 Truths About Content Marketing Clients

Joe Pulizzi recently wrote a blog post, 4 Truths About Content Marketing Agencies, that gave us agency types a good kicking.

Of course, Joe is right: Many “content marketing agencies” are just old-school marketing agencies with a shiny new label. And, tellingly, there wasn’t much squealing or protesting responses from the agency community. (I guess we all read it and thought, “You nailed it, Joe. Those pretenders are making us real guys look bad.“)

But, while criticizing agencies is like shooting big fish in a small barrel (low barriers to entry means our average performance is shockingly low), I thought it was important to turn the tables a bit and look at this issue from the other side.

So here are my own thoughts on the issue, compiled as four truths about content marketing clients. If you’re a client-side marketer, rest assured: I don’t mean you — I mean those clueless guys in the office across the way.

Most importantly, if you’re one of Velocity‘s cherished clients, this has nothing whatsoever to do with you. You’re brilliant, you look fabulous, and you are in very capable hands.

So here’s my list. Does any of this hit home?

1. Most clients see content marketing as a tactical, tick-the-box exercise

Damn. We need content. Go get some content. It says here it has to ‘map to personas and buying stages,’ so let’s do a matrix and make sure we’ve got content in every box.

If agencies are failing to create solid content marketing strategies, it’s often because clients come to them with short-sighted, tactical briefs. Yes, it’s our job to transform those briefs into strategic gold, but that’s hard to do if the client is in panic mode.

Marketers need to stop seeing content as a flavorless fluid to be pumped around their marketing machine. Instead, they need to see it as the only way to engage with prospects early enough to shape the purchase process. That means it’s a strategic asset, not just a box in a matrix.

The lesson for agencies: Marketing is a service business, and you need to give the clients what they want. But it’s also your job to get them to want the right things. If a given client fails to accept your advice time and time again, you need to find a new approach — or a new client. Don’t blame the client if you become stuck in the “Land of Tactics.” It’s your job to reach the higher ground — and then pull the client along to meet you there by any means necessary.

2. Too many content marketing clients don’t understand their own business

A lot of content marketers — especially, but far from exclusively, in B2B companies — aren’t really professional marketers at all. They kind of backed into marketing via sales or some administrative or operational role.

Real content marketers know their own market, business, products, and customers inside out. It’s a lot easier to get great work from an agency if you know the themes, topics, and issues that drive your prospects — and if you’ve actually met some customers.

But too many brand-side content marketers are really just process people. They know how to manage a project and hope that the agency will fill in the Siberia-sized blanks.

That can be okay — agencies have had to get good at creating our own briefs and mining our own input — but it’s far, far better if there’s a professional marketer at the table with us who knows her stuff.

The lesson for agencies: When you do find skilled content marketers, bend over backwards to make them embarrassingly successful. You can invest thousands of hours trying to turn a process wonk into a content marketer and never really get there. Better to find and invest in the ones who produce great work — and recognize it when they see it produced by others.

3. Most content marketing clients hide from accountability

Businesses invest in content marketing to make money. But far too many content marketers stop far short of discussing revenue metrics.

They pack their slide decks with all the vanity metrics in the book and are surprised when their sales people or board members yawn and answer their emails during review sessions.

This is the era of accountability. If you’re still taking out your tap shoes when it’s time to talk money, you’ll soon be tapping off into the sunset.

The lesson for agencies: Work hard to connect your work to revenue — even if the client is reticent about it. Put in the time to align your programs with your sales teams’ goals right up front. Get them to agree on the definition of a sales-ready lead, and make sure that’s what you’re delivering. Use lead nurturing, marketing automation, and CRM integration to prove your programs are generating revenue. Remember: Money talks; bullshit walks.

4. Most content marketers have a weak power base

As a result of points two and three above, most content marketers don’t have a lot of power and influence in their own companies. They haven’t earned it.

But content marketing demands more than old-school marketing. It means you have to champion this new model and become the main catalyst of change in your organization, if that’s what it takes.

If you want to tie your content marketing efforts to revenue (as I’m sure you do), you need to get the sales team on board. If you want to earn some runway for your content program, you’ll need buy-in from above. And if you want your content to be packed with authentic value, you’ll need the product guys to invest their time.

In short, content marketing success often requires a cultural change within an organization — and top marketers are the ideal people to lead the charge. But they need to assert themselves, make the business case, and get other team members on board to reach their goals, and that takes power — or at least respect.

The lesson for agencies: You can play a hugely important role in helping your clients rise to the challenges of cultural change; but not if you ignore the issue and hope that they can earn all that power and lead all that change by themselves. Together, you can attack the change management challenge, instead of becoming the victim of it. The need to sell in content marketing shouldn’t be viewed as a barrier to you doing your job — it is your job.

The bottom line

There’s never been a better time to be a marketer — and content marketing is probably the biggest, most exciting opportunity of all.

As Joe pointed out in his post, there are thousands of agencies out there that will offer to help your business on its branded content journey. And unfortunately, it’s true that many of them don’t know their asses from their elbows.

But this is your brand and your company. You get the agency you deserve. So get your act together, and deserve the very best of the bunch.

For more guidance on selecting marketing partners who can put sound content processes in place for your business, read “Managing Content Marketing” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi. 

Author: Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is co-founder and creative director of Velocity, the London-based B2B marketing agency. He helps clients tell great stories, then drive those stories into the market using content marketing. Doug wrote Velocity's 'The B2B Content Marketing Workbook' and 'The B2B Marketing Manifesto'. Doug is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. You can follow Doug on Twitter at @dougkessler.

Other posts by Doug Kessler

  • dougkessler

    Who the hell is this “Doug Kessler” and where does he get off criticising the people who pay his wages?

    The nerve.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      That’s exactly what I was asking.

      Seriously Doug…great take on this.

  • Chris Agro – Agrotising, Inc.

    In your face truth will always rise to the top. Nice job Doug.

  • Scott Vetter

    Good points Doug, and well articulated. Hopefully they are taken to heart by both agencies and clients. I would add a fifth point (or build on point 1) that drives the impotance of a developed and approved content marketing strategy that syncs with the overall corporate marketing/business development strategy.

  • Barry Feldman

    This is great stuff from a man who speaks the truth. I want to add my take where Doug writes, “Marketing is a service business, and you need to give the clients what they want.” I’d argue “you need to give the clients what they need.” What they want sometimes won’t serve the cause.

    • Greg Chambers

      Right on Barry. I’m guilty of focusing on a “solution” with a client without stopping to ask, “Wait, what does success look like again?” It’s better when the focus is on results and the value of those results to the organization – then working the solution.

  • ronellsmith


    I’ve had similar experiences with clients. Many know they need content, but they are wholly unaware of what form that content should take–then shoot down any and all good ideas. Others think only in terms of social media, not beefing up their website’s content.

    I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Malcolm Gladwell: “People often don’t know what they want until they’ve seen it.” Very, very frustrating.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.


    • Muhiiga Katashaya

      You and I sail the same boat. Many clients focus on the social media followers, likes, views but are not ready to invest in content that get them the ‘social currency’ that they so crave. I’ve had to decline business before because a potential client wanted to ‘use social media for branding and for that you need to get me the numbers’. I asked him, ‘what of content? how do you expect those numbers?’ TO which he replied, ‘that’s going to be your job’.

      People forget that Facebook belongs to Facebook and Twitter belongs to Twitter. Your website belongs to you. It is your identity. It is your online branch. No one wants to invest in content, or even in a proper web management policy in the least. Several are still running online brochures and calling them websites.

      By focusing so much on one aspect of the content marketing cycle, some clients expect the impossible. Knowing full well that we can’t deliver piecemeal content and expect maximum results, I’d rather lose the income than tank my reputation, that of my business and our content marketing industry.

      • ronellsmith

        That really is sad. What makes it worse is it happens far more frequently than it should.

  • Sam Brennand

    Doug, you most assuredly know your ass from your elbow.

    • dougkessler

      The bendy one is the elbow, right?
      Just checking.

  • Greg Bardwell

    I have the same conversation several times per week, with customers and prospects. The biggest source of failure is strategy — which includes all stake holders. Well summarized.

  • Shelly-Ann Roper

    Useful article for both marketers and business owners. Thanks Doug.

  • Russell O’Sullivan

    Coming from the client side (and someone who has been in content marketing since 2008 at the time with a large UK insurance company)… I agree with some of the points above, the “getting buy in”… perhaps these days that’s a given as we all know the importance of content in both product and purchasing cycles (whether its pre-purchase or post)… the advice I would give to any agency when approaching content marketing for their client – make sure you are an extended part of the brand/company team and thats how you are seen. There are far too many ex-seo’s, who have become the new content marketers out there that are touting the same wares as before.

    A client needs to be able to rely on an agency as one of their own employees, someone who can focus, make decisions, advise on quick wins and long term gains, be both strategic and tactical… and at the same time be able to knock back a bad idea from the client, using data and informed decisions. What they dont need is an agency telling them that Vine is the next big thing and infographics are amazing and “do well”.. all good sharing the mediums, but I would prefer an agency that I can talk to frequently and understands my business model and needs.. Cheers Russell

  • Mark against Bullying

    I agree that it shouldn’t be just a box you check off, and many don’t understand their business… I’d say I’m having a hard time figuring it all out, but slowly reviewing analytic to figure things out.

  • Craig Hodges

    Doug– Loving this…. especially the accountability side. Im amazed when we end up with a recycled client who says that “this content marketing stuff” hasnt worked for me and the site has been running for a year and we get no traffic/sales/downloads/love etc etc….. and I bite my tongue…… and ask politely why you havent measured it to the nth degree like everything else you spend money on and fixed it much earlier! But the great thing is this is happening less and less clients are measuring the content strategies against the rest of the spend… which is where we always wanted to be…in a seat at the big table!

  • Craig Hodges

    Doug– Loving this and more importantly the accountability aspect. I’m really looking forward to not having to discuss this anymore!

  • Rebecca Caroe

    I really like the ‘make the client marketer the hero’ angle. You can be sure that’ll pay off later during her career.