Is Your Digital Agency Asleep at the Wheel?


Time and time again we see a common pattern when researching clients or prospects that raises a major red flag; retargeting ads that are run unchecked with obvious automation and no oversight or strategy applied. What exactly does this mean? And why exactly is it a red flag?

Have you ever been to a website, spent a little time browsing, left, and then found yourself seeing ads for that website over and over again? The point of retargeting or remarketing is to re-engage potential customers who have expressed an initial interest but have not yet taken action with your offer. More often than not, this is among the most effective strategies in a digital campaign. The argument here is in no way against retargeting, but rather an indictment on how retargeting is often deployed and the signals it shows about how campaigns are actually being managed.


Because retargeting tends to be one of the most effective strategies in a digital campaign, it tends to get significant budget allocation. The problem with retargeting, when run unchecked, is that it begins to deliver performance on paper instead of real return on investment.

The reality is that customers who have already been to a website are always going to convert at a much higher rate than consumers who have never engaged with a brand. It makes sense then that since retargeting can tag as many of those unconverted users as possible, when some of those customers come back and convert, retargeting efforts will get credit for that activity. The challenge is determining the role it actually played in the conversion. Because “tagging” users is easy to do and tends to get high attribution credit, it can appear to outperform other campaign tactics even when executed poorly.

Tagging site visitors and serving the same messaging to them across the internet, is the worst form of retargeting; yet it’s what we see most commonly done. We’ve identified campaigns where users are bombarded by the same message over and over again, with little concern for f-cap or bid factors, resulting in the 20, 30, or even 50+ ads that are delivered within a month or even a week to the same potential customer.


If a user has not converted after exposure to 20+ ads with the same message, it’s unlikely an effective use of budget to continue serving the same ads to them. You also risk negative brand association by following them across the web with the same annoying message.

Retargeting has immense potential to create influence and enhance conversion rates by strategically delivering ads that engage users with effective follow-on messaging and sequential storytelling. When executed strategically, you can ensure that you invest the right amount by using strategic messaging and bid factors that adjust as users are exposed to your message more and more over time.


Retargeting can be one of the most effective ways to establish meaningful influence among interested consumers, but if shortcuts are being taken and automation is being allowed to control this tool devoid of human engagement, then you have to wonder where else are short cuts occurring? What other areas of opportunity are being missed in favor of automation and one-size-fits-all execution?

Digital media is no longer a zero-sum game and is not simply a matter of turning campaigns live. With the vast array of tools available to digital media buyers today, combined with human intelligence; you can achieve performance with much greater precision than ever before.

Effective campaign management and retargeting especially; require experience, knowledge, passion, time, and energy to make the critical decisions necessary for the highest performance. Far too many agencies tout the efficacy of machine learning and automation with little regard to the impact that talented people are capable of having on how well a campaign performs. This is because machine learning and automation are easier to deploy, cost less, and are in the best interest of the agency and their bottom line. With traditional agency compensation models, it’s too expensive to deploy experienced talent and give them the necessary time and flexibility to really apply their expertise to campaigns.

Smart Money will always outperform Dumb Money

But here’s the thing, smart money will always outperform dumb money. This means that investing a little more in HOW a campaign is run will always yield better results than simply investing more in WHAT is run. Digital budgets are a product of balancing, the total stays the same. What changes is how the money is allocated.

If you spend $1,000,000 in total, that number represents the full investment. An agency’s responsibility should be determining how that investment is put to work to achieve your objectives most cost-effectively with the greatest return. Like a money manager deciding where to invest, an agency needs to figure out all the components of a digital campaign that will impact performance and make the best decisions possible on behalf of their client. It should not be simply deploying a cookie cutter mix of tactics run by machine learning and automation, but rather; a team of people thinking about and considering the overall business goals of the client working on their behalf as responsible financial stewards.


Taking this approach might mean a little less of the $1,000,000 going to media and a little more going to compensate the team for additional time or perhaps deploying a 3rd party partner or tool to enhance targeting or measurement, but when all is said and done, $700,000 spent on media inventory using high intelligence will far outperform $850,000 spent on media inventory using low human engaged, automated services with little regard to the unique customer experience of each potential customer.

Like most things in life, simply buying more of something that is ineffective is rarely the answer. Gone are the days of an agency leveraging their “buying power” to secure media. With connected TV and cable cord cutting on the rise, smart media planning and campaign performance management are the new rules of the game. There are no “deals” in buying cheap inventory or volume discounts where bigger numbers mean doing a better job or higher performance.

Digital media has evolved into a real time, biddable environment with an ecosystem of valuable tools that are nearly impossible to keep up with. To truly win in today’s digital marketplace you need smart, passionate, motivated people working on your business. You are much better off investing in a partner that’s willing to put skin in the game, than buying into the myth that a big, highly profitable agency who comes in and pitches the sun, the moon, and the stars is actually going to deliver that for a minuscule 10% media fee or less. Continuing to buy into this fairy tale will continue to result in short cuts and missed opportunities, the same painful client/agency relationship hamster wheel.


It’s time for a new approach. Why wouldn’t you treat your selection of an agency or marketing partner like an internal hire. Is it not true that you get what you pay for, and things that deliver value are worth more? Too good to be true applies to digital media as much as anything else. If you could hire a CMO for $50K you might be curious why they were willing to take so little, perhaps they don’t have the credentials they’re saying they have, and lied on their resume?

You incentivize and motivate your employees to deliver better work assuming the carrot is better than the stick, why do we not apply that same logic to an agency partner? If they’re willing to put ‘skin in the game,’ and go above and beyond and deliver excellent results; why would you not compensate them for doing so? Does it not stand to reason they may look for ways to do better work if they know it will result in better compensation?

Or conversely, if an agency knows they make their “fee” no matter what they do, and that fee is exceedingly low, does it not stand to reason they might offset that compensation in some way? Perhaps by doing less or simpler work or by adding more clients that dilute the time and energy they’re able to give each client overall?

In the end, all of this comes back to a key question; is your agency asleep at the wheel? Who is really putting time in on your business? What missed opportunities exist with your marketing? What short cuts are being taken? A quick look at your retargeting execution may be the first bread crumb in a long trail of red flags.

Something as simple as retargeting being done wrong could also mean analytics aren’t up to par, fraud prevention isn’t fully in place, inventory quality isn’t being effectively monitored, cookie bombing is deployed, and on and on and on. We see it almost every time we engage in a new client relationship, regardless of how big or small the incumbent agency was or what internal resources a client has in place.


Isn’t it time to stop banging your head wondering why switching agencies for a ‘promise of cost savings’ winds up a dead end? Know what you’re really getting and ask questions. Cheap doesn’t equate to better when it comes to marketing and campaign performance.

Kelly Maguire