Top 5 Mistakes Financial Marketers Make With Advertising Agencies 

Tapping marketing agencies should bring professional expertise and advice to understaffed bank and credit union marketing efforts. Too often the result is anything but successful as institutions and agencies struggle to simply communicate, let alone collaborate. But agency experts say this can be changed.

Is your financial institution looking to push out a new marketing campaign and the team isn’t sure where to start? Or maybe you’ve already launched the effort, but your institution couldn’t get squared up with the agency to turn around an efficient campaign?

The Financial Brand spoke with seven different agencies to get a better idea of how banks and credit unions can better prepare to jumpstart a marketing campaign. The marketers cited five of the biggest mistakes that financial institutions are making. They also addressed how to fix them.

Mistake #1: Treating Agencies Like Any Old Vendor

To be blunt, agencies are fed up with bank and credit union clients who undermine their work because they fail to understand the complexities of the business. Good agencies must make institution messages work on a plethora of platforms and every client expects a home run.

Too often, financial institutions approach marketing agencies like they were vending machines — put dollars in the top, get award-winning campaigns at the bottom.

What financial marketers don’t appreciate is that, by hiring an agency, they are gaining strategic insights which took years to develop, according to Diamond Group CEO Theresa Bassett.

“In general, there’s a lack of understanding or underestimation of how many different tools and skillsets it takes to comprehensively put together a marketing effort.”

— Theresa Bassett, Diamond Group

While many marketing executives profess the wish to be “data-driven,” often financial institutions lack the tools that an agency has to corroborate data and put together an effective campaign, Karen McGaughey, Vice President of Client Services at Strum Agency, told The Financial Brand. “Internal teams are really stretched. They’re stretched for resources, they’re stretched for in-house talent.”

Sarah Bacehowski, President of Mills Marketing, says her team can easily spot which clients don’t actually think they need a marketing agency. She wants to run from such engagements, simply because such clients won’t take the agency’s advice. So, they wind up doing exactly what they did before.

“We cringe at the word ‘vendor’, and we tell our clients that — we’re a partner, not a vendor,” says Bacehowski. “Let us act like one!”

What To Fix:

You don’t know what you don’t know, Bassett says, but agencies can provide access to 7-, 8-, 9-person teams to financial institutions who “wouldn’t be able to hire such expertise.” That’s an advantage clients often underestimate.

What financial marketers should be doing instead is focusing on generating a strong client-agency partnership, says Juliet D’Ambrosio, Senior Director of Strategy at Adrenaline.

“Investing in the relationships you build with your marketing agency, valuing them as more than just a vendor, and trusting them as a true strategic partner in achieving your brand and business goals will always result in great work that performs,” D’Ambrosio says.

Mistake #2: Isolating the Marketing Department

Of all the lessons humanity is meant to learn, the need for good communication seems to be at the top of the list. And it’s true in marketing as well. Bassett says the biggest delays in getting a marketing campaign rolling are often in the execution of communication.

“We were working with one financial institution’s core idea and they suddenly had a huge ‘wash.’ Literally 60 days into [the campaign], the manager got switched out to another unit. Then the project totally stalled and it died on the vine,” Bassett explains. Such blunders can cost financial institutions massive amounts of money.

Josh Mabus, President and Chief Creative Officer at Mabus Agency, told The Financial Brand he recently ran into a situation where his agency and his client — a bank’s director of marketing — couldn’t persuade the rest of the institution to get on board. Both agency and inside marketer would ask themselves, “Why does everybody hate us?”

To shift the narrative, Mabus says he and his client decided to go on a tour to show the various executives at the company what they were doing.

“The transition was almost immediate,” says Mabus. “Everyone became fans. It’s progressed over time and now, we’re viewed as incredibly valuable, and we get more of a seat at the table.”

That’s also why Mark Weber, CEO of Strum, says marketing — while it can be its own thing — cannot really be thought of as just a department. “I call it marketing, with a capital M. Strategic Marketing,” he says.

Weber says the big questions are always the same in marketing: How do you market the organization as an entity? What is the reputation? How does the institution distinguish itself from competitors? He argues that it’s “too often been pinned down to a marketing team,” and lacks the long-game understanding of strategy.

What to Fix:

The stakeholders are the people often overlooked, but they’re the people most important to coordinate with before designing a marketing campaign, Bassett says. When the stakeholders — key officers and possibly certain board members and employees — are on a different page from one another, it makes it nearly impossible to coordinate a successful campaign.

“I think aggregating feedback and clarity on the front end before they ever go to the agency is really smart,” she recommends.

It can simply start with a meeting, says Mabus, but over time, the chief marketing officer should be coordinating regular meetings with business leaders. “Listen, reach out to them and understand their goals, get their wish list.”

Read More: 12 Success Strategies for the Future of Financial Marketing

Mistake #3: Not Coming to the Table with Ideas

Mabus argues there’s no issue that can’t be worked out via effective communication. But even before that, one of the biggest problems when banks and credit unions hire a marketing agency is a lack of goals.

“I wish every client would consider, ‘What do I want?’,” Mabus says. “Too many people think ‘We need an agency’ like that’s a panacea for any kind of problem. But they haven’t defined the problem they’re trying to overcome.”

No effective marketing campaign can get started without a plan and that plan cannot get underway without the initial goals, Strum’s Weber explains. “Either you need to bring those to the table in a loose way or be able to work with an agency who’s really good at planning.”

Weber maintains the underlying problem is banks and credit unions have difficulty distinguishing themselves from competitors, which contributes to a void of inspiration.

“It used to be easier when you could distinguish yourself from other credit unions or banks in the market,” Weber says, adding it’s significantly more difficult to figure out what innovation looks like amidst all the rising digital and fintech providers. And maybe this is because challenger banks are forcing a certain look and feel of innovation throughout the industry.

Frame Your Agency Relationship:

Big picture ideas don’t have to be monumental, Mabus says. There are no rules regarding what they have to look like. He advises financial institution teams assemble a bullet-point list of objectives or simply some general concepts of what the institution wants out of the marketing vendor partnership.

“It can be ‘Do we want to be more efficient with our budget’ or ‘We really need to shoot a TV spot’ or ‘We need a website’,” Mabus explains. “They don’t have to be those profound, well-thought-out goals, but you at least need to consider what you want out of that relationship.”

Mistake #4: Getting in the Way of Creativity

Banks and credit unions alike typically have conservative cultures. That serves them well among regulators. However, when it comes to marketing campaigns, agencies agree there is no room for restricting creative flow.

Josh Streufert, Principal Creative Director at Strum Agency, says he often see clients getting in their own way, especially when a campaign works its way up to the executive level of a financial institution.

“Things get safer, things get more rational, things get more logical. Sometimes, you lose whatever that little magic was that made you feel something about the product or the service,” Streufert explains.

While traditional institutions do seem to be getting better at embarking on modern marketing campaigns, says Eva LaMere, President at Austin Williams, there is still “less willingness to embrace the need to take creative risks and stand out in the market.”

What to Fix:

LaMere understands it’s the nature of the banking provider to be conservative and “plain vanilla,” but paradoxically avoiding risk is a risk they can no longer take.

“You need to push the envelope when it comes to the creative execution,” explains LaMere. “You know you need to break away from that [bankerly] blue and the sea of sameness.”

“Great marketing requires bold thinking and bold moves, and we always do our best work with clients who genuinely want to transform their approaches and help push their brands and the industry forward.”

— Juliet D’Ambrosio, Adrenaline

Mistake #5: Imposing Unrealistic Budgets

Bacehowski says the second most common issue she runs into with banks and credit unions is underbudgeting. “There is a myth that moving more toward digital and doing less traditional marketing means less expense — that is not the case.”

Bassett says her credit union clients are similarly thrown off because they tend to stray from the formality of most traditional marketing campaigns. “They are a little more community-based and focused and they like smaller-scale thinking sometimes. So, there’s a little bit more sticker shock.”

On the upside, she sometimes finds if her clients have a multi-market footprint, the numbers at the bottom of a bill aren’t as bewildering.

“If they have a growth mindset and they really have been focused on scaling and they really are focused on member development, then the bandwidth seems to be pretty realistic,” Bassett explains.

Read More: Data + AI Must Play Bigger Role in Financial Marketers’ Growth Strategies

What to Fix:

The key to budgeting for a marketing campaign is not going to the agency and asking how much money to set aside, Mabus warns. Instead, the first move should be committing to a budget with the institution’s leadership.

“Your budget should be what you can afford,” he continues, recommending that it’s much easier to find an agency who can then meet the budget. “There’s going to be push and pull, and it may be a difficult decision, but at least you have the framework to say yes or no.”

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