The Danger of Outsourcing Your Whole Content Marketing Program

Have you ever gotten ripped off by a cab driver in Cancun? I have.

The driver sitting outside the airport claimed to have the best price. I knew neither how far the hotel really was, nor how many pesos were in a dollar. He spoke quickly and claimed he couldn’t understand my moderate-level Spanish. (Okay, he may not have been lying about that.) Ten minutes later he accepted my 3,000 pesos, which turned out to be $150.

According to a new report by the Association of National Advertisers, some agencies seem to be taking business practices from the owners of Cancun Taxi Especial.

You can find the whole report here, but these are some of the shocking revelations:

  • Some agencies that place ads for their clients are getting rebates that they don’t pass on.
  • They’re spending client money on unnecessary expenses in order to further their own third-party relationships.
  • They’re marking up ad placements 30 to 90 percent, while claiming the markup is less.
  • They’re hiding all of this.

In other words, the ANA is accusing media agencies of being in the kickback game. Like duplicitous cabbies, they inflate profit margins through information asymmetry.

Many agencies have denied these allegations, and to be clear, many are good actors and behave in their clients’ best interest. But those that the ANA is referring to are being egregiously unethical. If my literary agent did any of these things, I would fire and maybe sue him. And the report illuminates a potential disaster for brands navigating the booming worlds of social and content marketing.

Brands that sell credit cards or sugar water are generally not equipped to make and distribute in-house television advertisements. So for decades, they’ve hired ad agencies to do those things for them, as well as other crucial tasks like crafting their brand identity and marketing message, and identifying their target audiences. But with declining returns on traditional types of advertising—like those TV spots—today’s brands are increasingly publishing tons of content on Facebook, blogs, and any other digital platform they can find. And that creates complications.

The problem is that publishing consistently is different than making a 30-second commercial or a buying a one-off sponsored post on The New York Times website for $250,000. To be consistently successful at content marketing—in which you need to publish all the time in your own voice—brands need to bring content closer to home. If they want to be truly successful, they can’t get away with outsourcing it all.

When you survey the landscape of who’s actually good at content marketing, it’s clear that the most effective brands increasingly bring their content operations in-house over time. Think of GE, Red Bull, Casper, Harry’s, Coca-Cola, and Adobe, among many others.

That’s because when you hand over money and say, “Do content marketing for me,” you potentially give up your brand’s self-interest in two ways:

1. Your voice. It’s hard to build relationships through content if the content isn’t guided by a strong editorial voice inside your brand. This is why so much branded content sounds schizophrenic—or just plain sucks.

2. Your monetary interests. It’s hard to make a marketing channel pay off if every aspect of it is being marked up in some way.

More than half of the companies that approach us at Contently are agencies—content marketing agencies, SEO agencies, PR agencies, and creative and media agencies. As a technology company, we tend to be agnostic about who we sell to. (With exceptions like terrorists and multi-level marketers.) But though we work beautifully with many agencies, some aren’t a good fit, because they’re looking to outsource the work and keep the brand in the dark. We’re wary of this situation because it leads to brands being far too removed from the content they’re creating and leaves open the possibility that they’re being taken advantage of.

content marketing ripoffs

We prefer when our clients have talented editorial employees in-house who can actively run content marketing—even if they’re using freelancers or an agency to create much of their content. I think many agencies feel the same way because they know that encouraging their clients to do good work will create a relationship that lasts way longer than if they fleece them because the client doesn’t know better.

But as the ANA report reveals, some service providers don’t want a bullshit detector in the building. Baron Manet, founder of Per Se Brand Experience and former SVP of strategy at the agency Ariad Communications, said, “Fifty percent of agency folks [who sell content marketing] are not good at content marketing.” These guys benefit from working with clients who are less informed on the real costs and effort.

It’s not that brands don’t need a lot of help with their content. They do. But if they want to do it well, they have to be involved, and they need a partner that cares about their long-term journey. The ANA report underscores a crucial reason why completely outsourcing content is a bad idea: An agency’s self-interest is not always aligned with a brand’s self-interest.

The best long-term content solution for brands is to own their content marketing. To do that, they’ll need technology and smart internal voices guiding the effort.

Otherwise, they’d better be willing to write off a lot of pesos.

Image by Getty

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