By Joe Pulizzi published April 13, 2013

4 Truths About Content Marketing Agencies

content-marketing-agency-truthHave you noticed the recent proliferation of “content marketing agencies” popping up on the scene?

You may be wondering why, but this trend has been happening for years now. In the search for “content gold,” providers of marketing services have been “heading west,” as more brands continue their move toward creating owned media programs and establishing content marketing dominance.

The fight for content

The battle royale to establish or increase budgets for content development and distribution is being fought by both the usual suspects and the uninitiated in our industry, including:

  • Pure content marketing agencies, formerly known as custom publishers
  • Advertising agencies that have a new-found appreciation for branded storytelling outside of media placement
  • Traditional media companies that either have editorial teams or full content divisions dedicated to working on editorial and branded content projects
  • PR organizations that are starting to focus less on placement and more on owned channels
  • Direct marketing agencies that are moving from “offer-focused” to “engagement-focused” content
  • SEO companies that are shelving the SEO business in response to Google Panda and Penguin updates
  • Social media agencies that are realizing that it’s not the channel, but what goes into the channel that counts
  • Web content and user experience agencies that are moving away from solely technical website production, audits, and analysis to advise on multichannel content
  • Digital agencies that are pairing interactive services with consistent content production
  • Research organizations showcasing industry experts and thought leaders for strategic content and consulting assignments

These agencies and more are battling for content marketing dollars from brands… some with legitimate budgets and some with a pile of Monopoly money trying to figure out the secret to social media success.

Whatever your feeling is on who owns the rightful mantle of  “content marketing agency” really doesn’t matter. The truth is that thousands of agencies formerly touting any one or a number of the above banners are now trying to “ride the wave” to content marketing salvation.

Reality bites

Brands have it tough. We receive multiple calls, emails, and inquiries each day at the Content Marketing Institute asking for content help… from strategy to blog posts, visual content, content distribution, integration, hiring, research, and everything else under the sun. Here’s what we’ve learned: There is good help out there, but it’s hard to tell the partners from the posers.

Below you’ll find some truths about content marketing agencies, and how smart brands should view the outsourced marketing services provider of the present.

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” — Steve Jobs

1. Most content marketing agencies don’t market with content

I hear it all the time: the “shoemaker’s shoes” conundrum. Agencies of all kinds have a long history of producing advertising and marketing programs for clients, while forgetting to market themselves. No clearer examples of this exist than with content marketing.

Marketing services organizations are notorious for focusing on sales-led marketing programs, where cold calls and sales relationships rule. Whether a lack of resources or a lack of patience is cited as the reason, agencies that offer content marketing services very rarely produce epic content that attracts and helps to retain their own customer base.

Excellent content marketing examples, such as Imagination’s Orange magazine, Pace’s research reports, BrandPoint’s blog, or Story Worldwide’s seem to be the exception, and not the rule (disclosure: these agencies are all CMI clients).

The lesson for brands: Before you hire any content marketing agency, ask to see the work they’ve performed — on their own behalf. Take a deep dive into all of their content. Is it truly great content, or is it “me too” blog content that you can find anywhere?

2. Most SEO agencies don’t know jack about content marketing

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an incredibly important top-of-the-funnel tactic. As Google gets smarter, it’s almost impossible to game the system. Today, getting found through search engines has more to do with amazing online storytelling than most anything else.

I had a recent conversation with an SEO executive team, and they were seriously contemplating taking the entire company in a new direction… to content marketing. Why? Their reasoning was (besides pure SEO budgets drying up) that the value they used to provide to customers (which used to be immense) simply wasn’t there anymore.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of SEO agencies are in the same position. I’ve seen a few — such as TopRank Online Marketing and Vertical Measures — make this transition incredibly well. Others have simply put the “content marketing” moniker on their SEO content production service and called it content marketing. Yes, they’ve added such services as infographics creation, video production, and blog content creation, but content production is only one small part of the content marketing process. Strategic planning aspects of mission statement creation, audience persona gathering, internal content integration, and measurement outside of content consumption metrics are often absent.

The lesson for brands: A holistic content marketing strategy includes up-front planning and multiple goals, which in turn must bring in non-digital channels (such as print and in-person vehicles). SEO is just one very small part that covers a few marketing objectives. Make sure your content marketing strategy goes beyond top-funnel considerations.

3. Most agencies are less concerned about strategy than they are about execution

Want to hear a dirty little secret that content agencies subscribe to?

Give away the strategy to get the execution.”

I was guilty of this many times. I would give away whatever strategic insight I needed to in order to win the content project. It was the ultimate “value add.” Why? Planning lasts just a short time, while execution can last forever. The thinking was that giving up the planning guidance for free could result in a content project contract (like producing a serial blog, custom magazine, or video series) that may last for years or more.

Like it or not, strategy and planning weren’t viewed as a useful service to customers, but rather as a closing strategy to get the execution business. This also meant that the majority of internal talent went to execution, not strategy.

And today? This is exactly the reason why so many brands are struggling to find solid strategic partners for content planning, while content execution increasingly is becoming a commodity.

And the worst part? I’ve never seen a content planning document from an agency that recommended less content or (God forbid) stopping the content program altogether (which is sometimes the correct remedy).

The lesson for brands: Regardless of whether you hired an agency to just do content execution, you must ask for a sample of an executable content marketing strategy from them, as well. You at least need to see if they understand the strategic argument for — and more importantly, against — content creation. There may be a time for producing less content, but without strategic guidance, the answer will always be more (and this is just short-sighted).

4. Most agencies still see content marketing as a campaign

Content marketing is not a campaign — it’s an approach, a philosophy, and a business strategy.

Similarly, a viral video — and its resultant success or failure — is not content marketing. A campaign is not content marketing. A campaign can be the result of a content marketing approach, but in and of itself, it is not content marketing. In other words, releasing the long form of a 30-second advertisement is not a content marketing approach — it’s just a clever form of advertising.

Most agencies aren’t built for consistent, long-form content creation and distribution. They’re built for speed; for great creative that makes an immediate (hopefully) impact. Compare this to what it takes to create content marketing efforts like  Procter & Gamble’s HomeMadeSimple or AMEX’s Open Forum: day in-day out content planning, production, and evolution over a long period of time, with the goal of attracting and/or retaining customers.

The lesson for brands: Be wary of any agency pitching you a “campaign” over a “program.” There is one thing that’s certain with any campaign: It has an end date. Not so with content marketing.

A review

Even though content marketing is 100+ years old, we are in the middle of a revolution. Total consumer control, combined with an absence of technology barriers for brands, has resulted in a content marketing renaissance. At the same time, it has forced marketing service providers to alter their business models, and their sales speak, to include editorial-based content creation.

While, overall, this is good for the industry, it has created a confusion of what true content marketing is — and what the practice of content marketing can look like for both agencies and brands.

And now you know. Good luck!

For more need-to-know details on what content marketing is — and what it isn’t — register to attend Content Marketing World 2013. If you are an agency, consider attending the workshop on Building/Growing your Content Marketing Agency/Consultancy to learn best processes for selling your content marketing services.

Cover image via Bigstock.

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • jaybaer

    Exceptional post, Joe. You are right on the money. As a content consultancy that only does strategic planning – not execution – I’m particularly aware of #3 on your list. But content without strategy, or content without strategy that ties to overall marketing/brand strategy and overall business strategy, can be a colossal waste of time and effort. As I said in my CMW session on metrics last year, everyone has to keep in mind – at all times – that the goal isn’t to be good at content, but rather to be good at business because of content. Lots of shovelware going on right now, and consumers are getting fed up with it. Strategic, useful, outstanding content will win. Crap will lose….eventually.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      “…the goal isn’t to be good at content, but rather to be good at business because of content…”

      Love this Jay. You should put this statement on your business card bottle opener. 😉

      • jaybaer

        Would need to make the bottle opener bigger!

        • Joe Pulizzi

          Half bottle opener, half spatula?

          • toddwheatland

            #3 was my favourite too. Just as big an issue within client organisations – a lot of knee-jerk execution going on to be seen to be in the game.

      • Chuck Kent

        I think that to “be good at business because of content” requires both the shift in mindset that Jay calls Youtility (help rather than sell) AND a realization that it still needs to be served up creatively to connect human-to-human.

        Coming out of a traditional big agency background, I know how gratuitous and self-serving “great creative” can be – but I also see a content marketing industry that’s too-often willing to scrimp on investing the time and money required to conceive and develop big ideas with real legs. Here’s hoping 2013 sees more brands and agencies not just posing as content marketers, but shifting budgets to become outstanding at business because of truly outstanding content. (BTW, I am another proud carrier of the world’s most useful business card – a wonderful example of content creativity itself.)

    • Nenad

      I agree, but what I observe, clients are not so much interested in strategy. They think (I am generalizing here based on experience and observations) it’s just talk talk talk, they want action immediately. Now, it depends on the agency and the clients (brands), to stop them and send them to the right direction. That’s a challenge.

      • Joe Pulizzi

        I hear you Nenad and agree. Many clients think that if they create large amounts of content, it will just work. More is not better. Agencies should be teaching.

    • Adria Saracino

      Really love that you quoted yourself again. I went to your CMW session last year and I STILL say, “The goal isn’t to be good at content, but rather to be good at business because of content.” 🙂

  • John Clark

    Great post. The strategy is highly important and should be maintained/tweaked in the execution process, or even as narrow as how to publicize the content about to be published. Eventually robots will be doing all the execution (we’re helping with that) and strategy will be the only factor that truly makes a company stand out.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks John…to your point, there are lots of kinds of execution. Julie Fleischer at Kraft talks a lot about how Kraft has heavy creative execution (which can not be automated) and some that is light creative executive (which can be automated). Enterprise brands most likely need and use both. Lots of room here.

      • John Clark

        Joe Pulizzi I agree, I don’t think that an algorithm could spend 10-30 days testing/cooking recipes to get that one amazing recipe, unless you have a cooking robot with a flavor sensor of course! On the other side of the automation point is the rapid progression of robot writers. These robots have created over 1 billion songs, millions of eBooks and stories. In the coming years as robots/smart algorithms/offline sensors progress more; I am willing to bet that some of these heavy creative tasks will be heavily aided or even threatened by the right algorithm/machines.

        Interesting about the Enterprise brands offering lots of room for creative automation, do you have any examples/ideas you can share? I am pretty new to the B2B side of content so I’d love to understand more.

        Thanks for mentioning Julie- always excited to absorb new ideas!

  • Greg Bardwell

    Yes … I have seen all this also. The latest is copywriters and freelancers call themselves content strategists! Strategy is not just targeted content. It is not brand journalism or storytelling. Strategy is a plan and corresponding tactics to identify and engage your target audience (influencers and future customers), convert them into leads and customers by sharing their interest, answering their questions and solving their problems. It involves measurable goals, analytic, engagement strategy, etc. The goal is customers as well as building your brand.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Agreed Greg…there are tens of thousands of content creators out there, but very few are strategic. Brands need to know the difference.

  • Anne Miles

    Great post Joe. I feel the same is happening in not just the content creative and strategic side but the production of the content too. Like @Jaybeer says ‘crap will lose’ eventually. That’s why I feel there is a place for a consultancy on production and creative solutions – so clients get the right solution at the best price. I feel that there is a level of understanding only someone hands on in that industry can really bring to it. It is clear by your content that you do it too. Nice one.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Anne…there are so many opportunities in certain expertise areas to help brands. Sounds like you’ve identified one.

  • Andrew Hanelly

    I was preparing to be offended after reading your headline but I was not after reading your post. These are absolutely tires worth kicking hard. The agencies worth doing business with are the ones that will be happy to have conversations with you that directly address each of these points (and many more).

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Ha…great stuff Andrew. I agree…your agency gets this stuff so no worries there.

  • Pamela Muldoon

    Great article, Joe! You speak the truth. I especially love the ‘walk the talk’ point. If you are going to ask others to pay you to do what you say you do well, then you should be putting in the effort to do the same for your company/agency. I have wondered for years how some marketing agencies can call themselves marketing experts when they themselves do so poorly with marketing; content or otherwise. Thanks for sharing these points!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Pamela…an agency that creates epic content marketing for themselves is (I believe) the hardest content marketing of all. So it should be seen as the greatest value to brands looking for agencies. I think the days of the agency just having the “me-too” blog need to end.

  • Craig Hodges

    Very nice piece…and the fact of the matter is its going to get worse before it gets better! A great collaboration between a content marketing agency and its brand will deliver great results… not just search rankings or eyeballs but ongoing sales and recognition. The key for the brands is to have a methodical approach to selecting their partner….im still amazed that there aren’t more quality case studies put forward as reference points. What better way to know if your prospective content marketing agency understands what they are doing then by looking under the hood and having a chat to a few of their clients…..

    • Joe Pulizzi

      “fact of the matter is its going to get worse before it gets better”

      – this is so true Craig. I see you fighting this battle in AU. Keep fighting the good fight.

  • Damian Thompson

    I run a small Content Marketing Agency and must admit that #1 gets me all the time. I have used the “cobblers shoes” argument to myself on more than one occasion. “It’s hard to write for yourself when there is client work to be done”… blah, blah, blah.

    You can make it happen, or you can make excuses, time to cull the excuses and work on execution.

    Thanks for the kick in the ass Joe.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Go get them Damian…when I was at Penton Custom Media, we ran into the same challenge. Once we launched a full scale content marketing program our business went through the roof…but it really did take quite an investment. It’s not easy, but it’s right. Good luck!

  • Barry Feldman

    Money! I love the bold plea to consider turning down the volume or turning off certain programs. There are just countless examples of shops putting out noise that sabotages their efforts at large. And agencies that do this threaten the adoption of sound content marketing strategies. Some great insights Joe.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Barry…thanks…this was an important post for us to write. We all have to work together to get over the “more is better” fallacy with content marketing.

  • Milo Medienmeisterei

    Great post, Joe. Especially your comment on SEO. We need good SEOs with technical and analytical skills, but I can also see the trend that SEOs here in Germany suddenly turn into content experts…Everybody is ready to get on the content-train. But the word “crossmedia” is not often heard 😉 Best regards from Munich, Miriam

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Milo…I’m not hearing “crossmedia”…but “transmedia” is getting big.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Milo Medienmeisterei

        Hi Joe, thx for your feedback. Sorry, but so far the word transmedia has not crossed my way. Would this also mean: combining different media channels and not only focussing on online? Btw.the book you contributed your foreword to will be out June 28th. A little delayed 🙁

  • Ross Hudgens

    Hey Joe, this definitely resonates with me as someone who has positioned my agency as “content marketing” coming from an SEO background. This is an accurate piece for the most part but the one thing I’d contest is this line near the top “SEO companies that are shelving the SEO business in response to Google Panda and Penguin updates”.

    I don’t believe any of us are really “shelving” SEO, we’re just repositioning our place in the market because pure “link building” is simply that – a strategy that likely will not gain long term results for our clients. Otherwise all of your criticisms of the market are definitely accurate, and something I am fighting against every day.

    Looking forward to learning more about the non-SEO focused content marketing practice by continued reading of this blog.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Ross…thanks for the clarification. Most of that take on “shelving SEO” is coming from talking directly with many SEO agencies that, frankly, seem lost. They even say they “get” content marketing, but then after hearing their business model, they clearly don’t.

      I’m glad you are making the transition. Keep me posted.

    • Adria Saracino

      Loved to see you jump in on this conversation, Ross. Know what you mean by “fighting against it everyday.” I think SEO brings some valuable assets to creating successful content (such as on-page optimization and sound IA), and it has personally made me a more data-driven person considering how analytics-focused most in the industry are. But overall I agree that it is a battle moving the industry away from “campaigns” and “tactics” – basically just using “content” to get links and calling it content marketing.

      One day at a time, though, as they say, right?

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Joe – outstanding article and really appreciate the shout out for Vertical Measures. It has been a 3 year struggle to make the transition and many agencies have no idea what they are in for. “Cranking out content” is not content marketing. You may even think you get how to put together strategies, but do you really know how to work with a client to make sure they have an on-boarding process in place? Do you really understand the change in culture that is required? Most agencies have yet to run into those issues and so many more in order to really implement content marketing for a brand.

    We are trying to change habits that have been established for decades, heck like you said maybe 100 years or more. This does just happen because Google says it is now all about content. Unfortunately I agree with Craig. It is going to get worse before it gets better. Just like we saw when everyone was suddenly a social media expert, it will take some time to sort the wheat from the chaff.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      We better batten down the hatches my friend!

      Great take!

      • Arnie Kuenn

        Yep, almost a year ago I wrote a post called “Content Marketing and SEO: a Marriage Made in Mountain View” (referring to Google of course): Once Google takes a stand, the SEO world tends to act – for better or worse.

  • Scott Frangos

    Excellent points from “The Godfather”. We are seeing the same things in the Portland/Seattle markets. It sort of shocked me when Rand Fishkin, the successful CEO of SEOmoz out of Seattle stated that he hadn’t really understood that SEO was a part of marketing — this observation came about 12 months ago. You know, just as Content Marketing harkens back to decades of Publishing principles, I think part of what we are seeing is a back to the future, back to basics and foundational principles movement. Principles of good Marketing Communications, Publishing, and Journalism/Copy Writing go way back and still apply (now more than ever) in our current rapid fire era.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Scott…I actually didn’t know that about Rand (wow!). You are correct…it’s all coming back to telling the best story. Is it possible that the last 50 years are just a blip in 2000 years of storytelling?

    • Mike Tekula

      Hey Scott might you be able to share a link/reference on that point about Rand from SEOmoz? Curious to read more on that.

  • Lee Odden

    Thanks for an insightful post Joe. Practice what you preach, optimize holistically, strategy AND tactics, and the long term view are all home runs in my book.

    On #2, I’d have to say that SEO in the right hands is actually effective across the entire sales cycle. In fact, the best SEO work pulls prospects educated by others’ content to conversion by being the best answer for “buying signal” keywords. Buyers search during discovery, across the funnel and after.

    At this stage in the industry, I think what SEOs are doing in many cases is adopting content marketing as a quantitative approach (more is better) vs. just focusing on a certain stage in the funnel. They’re also viewing content through the lens of link building (great content attracts more links and social shares) rather than as a marketing strategy.

    You’re spot on with the lack of connection between what the brand stands for, it’s story and purpose with most SEO content efforts. Most companies are not asking SEO agencies for that, so they don’t consider it.

    Keyword driven content is all about the trees in most cases, not the forest. Success metrics are more often mechanical than meaningful (rankings, page views, keyword impressions, diminishing keyword referrals). That is not to say conversions are not considered with SEO, because they are. But many companies and their SEO agencies still get obsessed with “rankings” and related KPIs.

    There’s also some language disconnect. For example, many SEOs think of personas as constructed personalities used for link building vs. an archetype representing common characteristics of certain target audience segments.

    With SEO, keyword research anticipates demand. Content marketing creates demand. I think the combination of both in a meaningful way is very powerful across the entire sales funnel.

    Those in the SEO industry that adapt, as SEOs having been doing for 10+ years, will come to understand the role of content beyond keyword performance objectives. The dinosaurs that don’t will simply fall to the wayside.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Lee…thanks for the wonderful clarification. True insight here!

  • BernieBorges

    Joe, great article and VERY timely in more ways than one. We are revising our delivery model and Content Driven SEO is at the top of the list of changes for us, an 11 year old agency rooted in SEO. We’ve been doing content marketing five years now. We just haven’t called it that. So, it’s an overdue revision for us.

    Regarding strategy versus execution, I’m really surprised by the “give away the strategy to get the execution” mindset. We get paid 5 figures to develop a strategy. Then, the client always hires us for the execution because we’ve learned so much about their business and we’ve so nailed their needs and business strategy (as Jay points out), that the client would be foolish not to hire us. In the end, we’re an 11 year old digital agency with client relationships typically measured in the 3 to 6 year range because we’ve always placed a huge value in building a strategy with programs first, campaigns second.

    I’ve spoken on this topic using the “skyscraper” analogy. No one would ever approach building a skyscraper without a solid strategy. We position our agency as one to develop the “blueprint” and the team to “build the digital skyscraper.” Content’s role in this skyscraper is akin to requisite building materials. And, once the skyscraper is built, it’s not over. The business goes on with evolving needs for ongoing content programs that address the audiences specific needs by persona. We’ve been doing persona analysis forever. Is there any other way to do content driven SEO?

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Bernie…great stuff.

      Just a quick take on the “giving strategy away” comment. For these projects, we would sometimes spend $50k+ in the sales process just to get the project, of which the execution of that project would be in excess of 7 figures over multiple years. Sales cycle of some of these were in excess of 12 months. Just wanted to give you an idea of scope.

      • BernieBorges

        Joe, that clarification makes sense in the custom publishing world of years past. Today, clients who don’t value strategy are not viable clients in my book. Arrogant? Maybe. But, it works for us. Thanks!

  • Sascha Stoltenow

    Good post, only one thing missing to my judgement: Clients don´t care about the delineation efforts of agencies, but who helps to solve their business problems. That´s the core content of “content agencies” – unless they admit, their communications lacked content so far 😉

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Sascha…it’s always about problem solving. That’s why the best content marketing is rooted in helping customers with solving their pain points.

  • Siobhán McGinty

    Excellent piece Joe!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Siobhan!

  • Ryan Hanley


    I want highlight your point about agencies being more focused on execution then strategy. In my personal opinion execution (to a degree) is becoming a commodity…

    …its strategy that truly separates the pros from the hacks and ultimately a successful campaign from a lost opportunity.

    Strategy is hard, which is why so few choose to focus their time there.

    Great work here. Thank you.


    • Joe Pulizzi

      Agreed….and good content marketing strategy is so hard to find. I still see the big agencies looking more at inserting content assets into a campaign. This is a good use of content, but not necessarily an approach to content marketing strategy.

  • Russell Sparkman

    Hi Joe,

    This post is striking a chord. And lots of excellent comments here.

    I’d like to pair this post with one I wrote for CMI two years ago called “How To Be a Successful Content Marketing Client,” which can be viewed here:

    We’re still a long way from the client side understanding that investment in quality content is the single most important step toward SEO succcess, and we’re a long way, still, from the client side deeply understanding that if they’re not offering their own prospects and clients the best damned content, then it’s likely that their competitors are.

    And we’re still a long way off from most clients understanding they need to take the Long View … and that they have no other choice … the train has left the station on the adage “whoever has the BEST content wins.”

    So, yes, agencies, including my own, need to step up the to plate and better lead by example.

    And maybe, just maybe, that will help the client side become more trusting and willing to follow advice, and invest in strategy and quality content for the long haul.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for the reminder about the post. Very relevant Russell.

  • Mike Sweeney

    Another great post Joe, and this one really hits home.

    As I consistently tell prospective clients, I don’t admire the choice(s) they have to make when evaluating and selecting an agency to do anything marketing-related, but in particular content marketing. Making apples-to-apples comparisons is not easy, not when agencies come at prospective clients with dozens of different “approaches” to content marketing, and they’re often making up those “approaches” on the fly.

    At Right Source, our rules for client engagement are pretty simple. The client has to a) believe that content marketing is holistic, impacting all facets of marketing, and is NOT just another tactic itself b) embrace a strategy before tactics approach and c) understand that quality will always win over quantity.

    I actually get most excited about the clients that recognize that content marketing’s impact is NOT restricted to just marketing, but other areas like recruiting, public relations, and customer service. With marketing intersecting so frequently with sales, IT and other functions, why restrict our content marketing thinking to limited areas like lead generation?

    Thanks once again for shining a light on an important topic. You continue to use your Godfather status for good, and never evil, and we all appreciate that.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Great stuff Mike…”we’ve only just begun”. Thanks for carrying the torch.

  • David_Drickhamer

    Great insights, Joe (and the many comments), about what’s going on with the explosion of content marketing agencies. In the appropriately lubricated setting I would debate the loose/reverential definition of “strategy” and denigration of execution.

    If strategy at the business and marketing level is defined as making sure the organization is “doing the right things,” and execution is “doing things right,” failure to achieve optimum results is often (I would argue most often) the result of poor execution and not having the wrong strategy. Any marketer reducing execution to a cost-based, commodity level should not be surprised by mediocre or worse results.

    To avoid the content marketing trough of disillusionment that Robert Rose described today (, execution in all of its many facets must continually improve to stand out in each market, and not take a back seat to strategy. Admittedly, that’s the somewhat biased perspective from more of a communicator than a marketer.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Love this take David…and I agree, execution (in all of its many facets) must continually improve, evolve and change. And, if most marketers were developing solid strategies first, that’s what we’d be talking about here…a pure lack of good execution. But since we know that most enterprises don’t truly have a documented content strategy as part of their marketing programs, this is the greater issue. Marketers are building houses without having any plans for what the house is supposed to look like. I believe this is a continuing epidemic, simply because the technology barriers have fallen to zero, and now publishing content is a snap.

  • scotcombs

    Thanks Joe! After reading this I climbed up on my chair to cheer … but I pulled a hamstring so I had to cheer from a seated postion.

    These are the exact issues our team has been talking about for the last two years. So often our clients suffer from the mindset that the newest technology or social media application is the grand solution when it’s really about the stories they tell and the conversations they have with new site visitors and current customers.

    I love your emphasis on strategy; so many gloss over it but without that planning you’re shooting at a target that doesn’t exist.

    Well thought and well said. Your clients are fortunate to have someone like you in their corner. I’m going to show this article to as many people as I can.

    Best Wishes!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Love it! Thanks Scot.

  • Debbie Williams

    Hi Joe – thanks for this insightful post, that is true on many levels. But, as a small content marketing agency, I have to bring up a few points that are not a “one size fits all” for CM agencies. I completely agree on the SEO point, and am floored every day but the varied types of organizations that now say they are content marketing specialists, when they know nothing about the core values of the discipline. We offer organic SEO services in our strategies, which is completely relevant to a client’s plan, goals and content production. Editorial calendars are planned mapped to keywords, we do quarterly keyword reviews, and suggest areas for new content opportunities based on this keyword strategy (as one component of the strategy). With that said, this is the one point I can understand from what we’ve learned about other agencies, but certainly not true for all. Most agencies are less concerned about strategy than they are about execution
    We have also been in your shoes and used to give away the cart to get the horse. But that was not working. In fact, now if a prospect comes to us and just wants the end results (X number of blog posts per month, etc.) with no strategy in place, we say that we are not the right fit. Saying “no” is hard, but it’s what we have to do in order to deliver real results and meet goals. We offer content marketing strategy if they do not have one in place, and if they don’t want to engage on that level, we have to recommend someone else. It’s been a hard lesson to learn but one that we truly believe in. Thanks, as always, for shining light on the topics that need to be out in the open! Debbie

    • Joe Pulizzi

      “if a prospect comes to us and just wants the end results (X number of blog posts per month, etc.) with no strategy in place, we say that we are not the right fit”

      That’s the ticket! Love it!

  • Adria Saracino

    LOVE this post, Joe. What I like in particular is your explanation of content marketing being a philosophy and not just a series of tactically-focused campaigns. I hear a lot of back and forth about the “definition” of content marketing. Some think any form of marketing using content is “content marketing”, while others seem to think “content campaign” and “content strategy” are one in the same.

    I think you explained this well, definitely bookmarking.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Adria…you are so right. Marketers think having content means they are employing content marketing. It’s an important distinction that, I would say, most are not aware of.

  • Stephen Harris

    Great insights. It’s important to know the background and experience when hiring content marketing agency. Their performance would really matters.

  • RebeccaLieb

    Hi Joe. Disclosure: I qualify as belonging to one of those “research organizations showcasing industry experts and thought leaders for strategic content and consulting assignments.” While I agree with many points in this post, I would never lump what we as research analysts and advisors do into the agency category, as your headline and list imply.

    We never, ever “give away the strategy to get the execution.” Strategy is _all_ that we do, the alpha and omega of our client engagements.

    One important point of clarification to an otherwise very strong piece.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Rebecca…thanks for the take and for stopping by. I agree with you that you most likely don’t consider yourself an agency (and I would agree)…but many brands don’t differentiate like we do (it’s more inside baseball).

      100% agree with you on the strategy part (since that is a core revenue driver in most cases)…but nonetheless, it happens…more than you would think. I’ve actually worked directly with a few research advisory organizations that have done exactly this to get the rather large research execution part.

      Because this happens, it probably makes what you (and what we do) harder at times.

      • RebeccaLieb

        Thanks for the reply, Joe. Just want to go on record and clarify that not only are we not an agency, but my firm, Altimeter Group, doesn’t do custom research. So we’re both on the same page here!

  • Marie Wiese

    Great article – thank you. My favorite point is, “if they can’ t do it for themselves, how can they do it for you?” A great 30 second test – if the agency’s web content is no good or worse, they haven’t written anything for 12 months, move on to the next option.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Marie…totally agree. Very easy test toward getting a final list of qualified agencies.

  • Tony Wright

    Interesting take. As someone who’s spent time as a newspaper reporter, a big PR firm executive, an SEO and an integrated digital agency owner, I can see where your frustration comes. I’m biased, of course, but I think that firms that a firm grasp of search engine optimization, analytics and big data are best poised to create the strongest content strategies. I see many “Content Marketing Firms” popping up with a “if we build it, they will come” attitude. These folks have no clue of how to create an effective syndication strategy, how to insure that their content is found by those using search enignes, or even what topics would be of interest to their audience. Firms that couple the keyword research tactics of SEOs, the storytelling savvy of the journalist and a big-data infused metrics driven editorial calendar are already coming out with an ROI that smells like roses. These are the agencies that can insure that the term “content marketing” is more than just a shiny object or the tactic de jour. These folks can take what we’ve learned in the last 15 years of digital marketing and build an integrated approach that actually works for clients.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hi Tony…thanks for the take. I haven’t run into a large number of SEO firms that know how to tell truly amazing stories. They are out there, but hard to find. Also, not that I disagree with you, but some content programs don’t have an SEO goal, so that type of expertise wouldn’t be needed (i.e., customer magazine).

  • Thierry Gillmann

    Thanks so much for this brilliant post, Joe. I’d like to add that the vendors got the CM agency they deserve.

    In my country (France), very few companies have already decided to re-organise their marketing department in order to properly manage a content marketing strategy. All the silos are well in place, and CM more than often hurts current organization.

    Business development people understand the power of a CM strategy, but they don’t have the budgets – others do. Communication department is petrified of entering the field of Sales. Sales department wants immediate PO’s, and rarely bother establishing long term relationships. And most of our CMOs have built their careers on holy Branding, not on managing the funnel. So that, the MD is today our best friend – as the one who keeps a transversal, strategic vision.

    ‘Real’ CM contenders must evangelize, evangelize, evangelize. This is what we do at our humble level – and what the CMI does so well. And evangelization is much easier once entered into the list of providers, multiplying contacts at the client’s side, organising internal meetings, etc. So it is may not be so dull to accept some tactic missions – as a start?

    All the best, and see you in Ohio!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Thierry…so true…so true. Maybe someday we won’t have to evangelize…but in the mean time 😉

      See you soon!

  • Ray Brown

    Hi Joe Greetings from Melbourne. Insightful post. There are indeed lots of folks now professing wide knowledge of content marketing. I think strategy is the key. Particularly SME businesses have not so far been forced to address their “why.” Content without the why lacks soul. Hence, you are right that purpose, vision & strategy precedes content creation – not many agencies are comfortable playing in this space because they’ve lived too long in a marketing silo rather than in a holistic, customer centric, business space.

  • Eileen Callahan

    This is an accurate picture of the landscape and is well stated JP.
    You have hit the nail on the head- AGAIN!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Eileen…you and I know this TOO well. Thanks for stopping by.

  • aboer

    Appreciate the call out for HomeMadeSimple.

  • Manuela Battaglini

    Thank you for this exceptional post, brilliant!

  • Dennis Mccafferty

    (Sorry, just catching up on my reading and read this one.) Really outstanding. I’ve passed this on to our agency leadership. Especially the part about the need to market our own content marketing.

    • Joe Pulizzi


  • melissapaulik

    You hit the nail on the head! I’ve worked with several agencies over the years – both inside big companies and in my current role as a freelancer. Many of them – not my current clients, of course – fall into every single one of these traps!

  • Michael

    Great article, enjoyed reading this.Best regards, Michael (

  • Steve Faber

    Great piece (as usual)
    Okay, now that the obligatory ass kissing is out of the way…

    One challenge we face with clients, especially those used to “traditional” marketing, is the long term view content marketing requires. Sure, you can get the occasional “one hit wonder”, but brand building through content requires long term consistency. Not that brand building is the only reason to use CM, but it’s often the outcome, no matter the initial goal, if everything’s hitting on all cylinders.

    We focus on planning, an oft-neglected part of the process. Goal setting, and a road map to achieve those goals is ignored by businesses that have heard all about the content marketing magic bullet. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, as all too many discover, much to their chagrin.

    It’s funny that most organizations have no problems creating a marketing plan, and in fact, do so. When it comes to making a honest-to-goodness CM plan as part of that, well…. that’s a whole different ballgame. So many are using the “hope something sticks” approach.

    Thanks for highlighting the value inherent in using a CM plan. It’s a critical success step in the process. It’s not a loss leader, and agencies should treat it as such, although the lure of a long term project is sometimes too attractive to ignore.
    Steve Faber

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for the detail Steve…I think it’s odd as well, that most brands are doing some content marketing but almost none have a plan. It IS the first, best step we can all take.

  • Nikhil Khandekar

    Hi Joe,

    Brilliant post, I must say. I am a content writer and to me this is a rich repository of a gazillion ideas to write on. Long live Content! Thanks a million!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Nikhil…appreciate the kind words.

  • tejones

    I find myself at this post more and more. I guess I’ve read two or three times. I appreciate everything Joe. You have taught me so much just reading your material! Thanks

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Really appreciate the comment.

  • De Webian

    Very informative piece of content regarding truth about modern day content marketing firms. It is an excellent example of work I really appreciate it. But in my opinion it’s better if you hire the services of a top digital marketing agency because content marketing alone cannot get your website on first page of Google. It does benefit you a lot with your SEO efforts but a marketing agency does just more than content marketing. I hope this helped.