I've been to this event numerous times in the past, but this year was a completely different experience for me as, aside from Kathleen's talk on brand publishing, I didn't attend any other talk or programmed INBOUND event.
Instead, this year, I was a good little worker bee at our sponsor booth in Club INBOUND.
As such, my INBOUND experience was... well, a little bit different than most. And while I expected to enjoy it and learn from it, I don't think I was quite prepared for how transformative an entirely discussions-based INBOUND experience would be.
In fact, it kind of reminded me the six months I spent on the sales team, in that you can hem and haw and have a thousand meetings with your marketing team trying to divine what it is that you really need to be talking about. But sometimes the easiest and most efficient solution is to go directly to the source.
In this case, the source was 20,000+ digital marketers and other professionals — of which I was privileged to speak with more than 30.
And here is what I learned from them.
Fundamentally, businesses are tired of not owning their own destiny
If you didn't see the IMPACT crew at INBOUND, we were a bit controversial this year. On the back of our t-shirts, we had printed:
The answer — embedded in a digital sales and marketing owner's manual we were distributing — went as follows:
The Traditional Agency Model Is Broken
That may sound controversial at first, but we know this to be true based on hundreds of world-class client case studies. Whether you’re B2B, B2C, services-focused, products-based, local, or national, what you’re about to read will have a dramatic impact on your business.
Let’s start by thinking about how the traditional agency relationship works.
Typically, when you hire an agency, they do the work for you. Instead of holding your paintbrush and producing your own masterpiece, you tell your agency to produce however many blog articles or email campaigns they say you need.
You may see some promising results from this. The reality, however, is that this model always leads to the same outcome — it creates a never-ending cycle of dependency. Consequently, you never really own your digital sales and marketing efforts. Rather, you become solely reliant upon an agency to move the needle for you.
Think about where you want to be a year from now, and the success and growth you want to achieve as an organization.
Do you truly believe you can accomplish those goals when you are entirely dependent on an agency? When neither your sales nor your leadership teams are bought into your strategic vision? When your outsourced content consistently lacks soul, because there is no way for an agency to authentically capture your unique voice and organizational culture?
We used to be one of those agencies. Rather than “teaching a man to fish,” we always did the “fishing” for our clients.
Over the years, however, we noticed a distinct pattern across all industries — B2B and B2C. World-class organizations that achieved remarkable results with inbound thrived when they were not dependent on an agency. Instead, their agency was a strategic partner that empowered them with the education and expert guidance they needed to understand and own their content strategy, video, SEO, HubSpot, and so on.
In short, their agency “taught them how to fish.”
If you want to achieve world-class, exceptional results for your organization and become the most trusted voice in your industry, you need to own your inbound destiny. You need to learn how to fish.
As I mentioned last week, it's a bit scary to put something bold like that out into the universe. Particularly a big idea where you state unequivocally that you used to be a part of the problem.
And, in this case, we were.
We used to be that same old, same old inbound marketing agency that would seek to create "indispensable value."
It was only when we looked back and critically evaluated the commonalities shared by our most successful clients that we realized when we focused on teaching our clients how to fish, rather than doing the fishing for them, that's when the true magic happened.
I wasn't sure how folks would respond to our manifesto of sorts.
It's a bit subversive and, for some people, the traditional agency model is what they want. For the most part, however, my conversations with people at our booth around this topic inevitably featured the same moment:
A sigh of relief.
Because — finally — someone had the courage to say out loud that the way agencies traditionally approach their client work doesn't work.
Or, as one person said to me, "You know, I was wondering when one of you agencies was going to wake up and see that what you're doing isn't working for anyone."
And as I pushed and pried people who came up to the booth and related deeply to our declaration, time and again, I received some version of the same response:
Digital marketers and business leaders were tired of abdicating the driver's seat of their own destiny. They wanted more control, more understanding, and more ownership over the how and the what of their digital sales and marketing.
But agencies, in their quest to be "indispensable" often refuse to meet those needs.
Should our goal be, as agencies, to work ourselves out of a job?
In a way, being an agency is somewhat like being a parent.
You should teach your "children" (clients) everything that you can. And then, when they're ready, they need to strike out on their own.
They may need to come back when they need advice or encounter a new, unforeseen obstacle — but success should not be defined by dependency. (That's why we constantly preach that, if you want to be truly successful with content creation for your business, you have to own it fully in-house.)
Yet that's what we tried to do for years.
We had the same conversations internally as every other agency.
We genuinely believed we were helping our clients, but we were deathly afraid of that moment when they wouldn't need us to do everything for them.
Because, if they didn't rely upon us for everything, what value did we really provide?
That was who we were when we went to INBOUND last year. But a lot has changed in a year. And while it was absolutely terrifying to completely change how we work with our clients — as any leap of faith with a big pay-off is — I can't imagine us going back to how things once were.
Not just because we've seen the results for ourselves. But because I now know after this past week that it's what digital marketers and business leaders really want.
They want to own their digital sales and marketing future.
They're tired of telling agencies their goals and having them perform an unseen calculation, only to say, "Yeah, that'll take 12 blog posts, 3 email newsletters, and 25 social posts to hit that goal. We'll take care of that for you."
In short, they want to learn how to fish.
And, as agencies, we should embrace that role of being the teacher, instead of desperately trying to control the process.