How CEOs Should Engage With Their Marketing Agency: When To Lean in and When To Step Back

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Mike Santoro speaking in front of Walker Sands office

During my 16 years at Walker Sands, I’ve had the opportunity to work with countless companies and their CEOs. I’ve seen how an engaged CEO can change the course of an agency partner’s work — for better or worse. For the past three years, I’ve served in the CEO role myself and learned some of those same lessons firsthand.

One of the things I’ve learned is that there is a need for balance between the CEO’s involvement in day-to-day agency operations and focus on bigger picture initiatives. Sometimes a CEO’s involvement can vastly improve the end result, but there are also times when it’s better to trust the agency team to get the job done. So from one CEO to another, here’s my take on when it’s best to lean into your marketing partner and when your time is better spent elsewhere.

When to get your hands dirty with an agency partner

Let’s start with the areas in which your involvement is most helpful. As a CEO, your strategic vision, business objectives and industry expertise offer the most value to your agency partners.

Ready to roll up your sleeves? Here are three ways you can best support your agency’s work:

1. Strategic direction at the program launch

The initial stage of the engagement is one of the most critical times for a CEO to lean in. Communicate insights about your competitive landscape, audience and long-term vision for the business. Your marketing team will likely have a solid handle on these items, but no one is more effective than the CEO at communicating the company’s business objectives and long-term vision.

A good agency partner will work hard to understand your current state, then make strategic recommendations to help you meet your desired outcome.

For example, your marketing team may have hired an agency for earned media support, but a conversation with you may better illuminate why — increased brand awareness, improved market position or an elevated employer brand. With a better perspective on the big picture and high-level business objectives, the right agency can shift strategy and tactics to better achieve those goals.

2. ROI assessment with biannual check-ins

Based on the direction you’ve provided, you should have a clear understanding of how the agency’s work ladders up to helping you meet your goals. A reliable agency partner will provide regular reports with meaningful data and insights so you can consistently gauge the effectiveness of your agency based on the progress they’re making toward your goals. 

Your agency should welcome check-ins from the CEO on a bi-annual basis to ensure the results of the program continue to align with your business goals. By engaging in biannual check-ins, you can adjust your goals and make sure your agency’s results track to critical outcomes.

3. Regular thought leadership sharing

Finally, your thought leadership can significantly improve your agency’s results. As a CEO, you have a wealth of industry knowledge and experience your partner can leverage to elevate your brand in the marketplace.

For example, if PR is a focus, you can help your agency by making yourself available for interviews, participating in events and developing a reputation as a subject matter expert in your industry. Believe it or not, your industry insights can fuel a social media program for months. We’ve also had good conversations with CEOs that have unlocked a plethora of new keywords for our paid search and SEO programs.

A good agency will know the right questions to ask to make the most of your time. You just need to make it a priority to prepare for these meetings and come ready to share.

When it’s time to take a step back from agency work

Your time is a limited resource, so you need to make sure you’re spending it where it counts with your agency partner. In some cases, your direct involvement with certain aspects of agency work can slow down a project or compromise results.

With that in mind, there are several occasions when stepping back and trusting your marketing team with an agency partner can actually improve results.

1. Day-to-day operations

You know your company better than anyone, so it can be difficult to trust an agency to understand the nuances of your offerings and marketing needs. Believe me, I get it.

But getting too involved in day-to-day activities can jeopardize the process and erode trust between your internal and agency teams. In the same way that you hired talented people and now trust them to manage various aspects of your business, you need to trust your agency partner to handle everyday details.To lay the groundwork for an agency relationship built on trust, you need to make sure your agency team has a track record for industry expertise, solid execution and proven results. By performing due diligence during agency selection, you gain the confidence to step away from their day-to-day activities.

2. Creative production

Whether you’ve hired an agency to design a marketing asset or create a new content strategy, you have to trust that your agency partner’s team is staffed with experts who understand creative best practices and are capable of generating exceptional outcomes through their work.

I’m not saying you should remain completely removed from all creative aspects of your agency’s work — your input can be particularly useful during the early stages of a project. For example, your initial guidance on brand messaging is essential for steering creative teams in the right direction. But once the project is underway, trust the experts to deliver their best work for your business. 

3. Detailed analytics

ROI undoubtedly falls under your umbrella of responsibilities as a CEO. But leave the minutiae of data analysis to your agency and internal marketing lead. 

To assess ROI, you’ll need access to comprehensive analytics and that starts by selecting an agency that provides insightful reports. Appropriate reporting surfaces the information you need while allowing you to trust your agency partner with day-to-day analysis.

Stepping back takes trust

At the end of the day, your ability to step back boils down to selecting the right partner. As you embark on your agency selection journey, focus on partners who understand your industry, provide meaningful reporting and are eager to learn more about your strategic vision for your business. 

Looking for an agency partner you can trust with your business? Let’s chat


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