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Beware: The Digital Marketing Scam

By Mac

The Digital Marketing (DM) “Bug” bit me over 12 years ago. Since then, I have had professional experience, both on the agency side, and on the corporate, “in-house” side. Having spent a considerable amount of time on both ends of the table I have made many interesting observations. I have seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly sides of DM.

Despite the title of this article – “The Digital Marketing Scam”, this article is not intended to disparage DM.

I love everything about doing business on the internet.

I have been fortunate enough to learn from some of the best technical and creative minds in the world of modern marketing and sales. And the best part about DM, is that when it is done correctly, it actually works!

Instead, the purpose of this article is to help potential customers who are seeking a Digital Marketing Agency by providing guidance and expectations.

This series of articles is intended to help the uninitiated understand DM best practices. My goal is to to help clear up any confusion, and to provide insights and expectations when dealing with a Digital Marketing Agency.

Why is this Important???

This is important because there are many DM snake oil salesmen out there who will put on an amazing song-and-dance, with smoke and mirrors. Crazy men will shout that they have snakes in their heads because of all their great ideas… Baby “Geniuses” will rattle off all the latest DM lingo and promise growth beyond your wildest dreams. They might even suggest a third-party platform to “organize your process.”

“You need a MarTech Stack to properly organize your sales pipeline.”

If you have heard this song and dance, you might be going down the wrong rabbit hole. Some of the best marketers and salespeople I have met use no fancy tools. They are simply personable, honest, reliable, and they follow through on promises.

Of course, this model is impossible to scale. Thus, we enter the world of MarTech, Digital Campaigns, and ROI.

My hope is that these articles reach customers who are confused about DM… and offers them some insight, and perhaps prevents them from falling into a bad partnership.

Avoid the Buzz – Keep it Simple

Often, DM agencies will throw around technical jargon when they are trying to skirt around answering what you are actually interested in.

Make sure to ask questions like these, and see if you get a straightforward answer:

  • Based on our current position, what should we change about our DM strategy?
  • How will you prove to us positive ROI during and after campaign execution?
  • Given our goals, what metrics will be bench-marked and at what intervals?

Digital Marketing Services are intangible – you cant pick up a Social Media Post and actually feel what makes it worth the money and time investment; conversely, with other forms of marketing, such as print marketing, there are tangible assets that are produced, These could be anything from Billboards to Business Cards. When the client pays for a tangible good, they can easily understand the value it brings to their company. For example, in the case of a business card, the card could be printed on a fancy stock paper and have a nice design. It can be held, examined, and inspected for quality. If the printing company did a good job in the eyes of the client, the client will be happy to have paid for the services.

Perhaps the printing company will continue to do work for the client (brochures, magazines, stationary, and other print materials.) A long-lasting and trusting business partnership could develop from this.

“ABC” Printing Company would not only enjoy a steady stream of income from the client, but more than likely, they would also see new clients coming in because they did such a wonderful job on the business card.

This makes it difficult for Digital Marketers to prove their worth – but it is possible. And it should be expected if you choose to hire an agency.

You Should Read This Free Book… That was written over 20 years ago… That applies to Digital Marketing today more than ever.

The Cluetrain Manifesto

Forget about all the beautiful graphic design, and the endless lines of reasoning about why your product or service is better. By FAR, the number one reason consumers make purchasing decisions is due to feedback from people or resources that they trust.

When you think of the Internet, don’t think of Mack Trucks full of widgets destined for distributorships, whizzing by countless billboards. Think of a table for two.

David Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto

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If you are not currently seeking an agency, you may still find value in learning about the current Digital Marketing landscape – in terms of what actually works, the common traps to avoid, and why, despite the title of this article, I believe DM should be near the top of every companies investment strategy in 2020 and beyond.

Make no doubt about it, DM can be quite complicated. Rarely does an individual or team possess the creative and technical talents needed to understand the full spectrum of DM. Even when teams are brought together – technical and creative – often they are unable to communicate. This is because the technician is so focused and hunched over, almost microscopically, in complete silence, whereas the faintest distraction can cause himself or herself to lose track on a 15 minute train of algorithmic thought. As for the creative types in DM, I have noticed a broad spectrum of personalities. For example, a Graphic Designer, their canvas is digital, and they may internalize their creativity very similar to technicians. 



The Digital Marketing Scam


If your Digital Marketing Agency is not providing concrete ROI reports on campaigns then they are scamming you.

Despite what you might hear otherwise, every campaign, video, post, or blog can and should be tied to your bottom line – SALES.

This is possible now because, unlike years ago, technology has granted us the ability to share marketing data with sales data.

Less than fifteen years ago, marketing focused more on branding and brand awareness. Sales focused on revenue, The two departments typically worked in silos, frequently with a lack of respect for each other’s work, each unable to understand why the other wasn’t doing a better job. With the emergence and adoption of CRM tools, the ultimate hand off was established between Marketing and Sales. Marketing would help bring qualified Opportunities while sales would determine which of these Opportunities would be accepted as leads worth following up on and tracking in the CRM.

Quoted from Transformative Digital Marketing, p. 152

They are scamming you knowingly because their numbers are terrible, or – perhaps, even worse – unknowingly, because they don’t know how to attribute their campaigns to KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

“Attribution” is just ten-dollar word which means the agency had an affect on ROI in some way or another. (ie. Our Social Media Campaign Attributed to 1,000 clicks to your feature video…)

There are many DM agencies who will quiver when you hold their feet to the fire for ROI. 

There is a laundry list of excuses they might come up with: (Here’s 3 examples)

  1. This campaign was a top-funnel social media campaign for branding… so we can’t really tell you how effective it was in terms of dollars and cents.
  2. We are just providing you the marketing services and leads. How can we be held accountable for sales?
  3. Your company does not have the correct infrastructure (MarTech Stack) for us to be able to build an accurate attribution model.

Why these answers are hogwash….

What Should be in a Basic Digital Marketing ROI Report?…

We will dive into that in the next article in this series!


Caution: Retainer Agreements

Digital Marketing Agencies will generally try to push you into a contractual, retainer-based agreement. This means that if you sign, you will be locked in with that agency for a certain monthly retainer price, for the length of the contract. Agencies generally push for a one-year agreement. Depending on the Service-level agreement you will typically see anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000 per month. This is not necessarily the “scam.” We will need to paint the full picture before I make my case for that conclusion.

There is no reason you should ever sign a DM contract with a term commitment.

The agency may have a million excuses as to why they need a year contract:

  • “We want to be your long term marketing partner and we need an investment on your end”
  • “Our campaigns will need time to yield results.”
  • “We will need to make adjustments throughout the course of our partnership to learn what resonates with your audience”

The bottom line is that a solid DM strategy should yield tangible results within the first 2-3 weeks. And the DM agency should be able to prove it. (We’ll dive into that later)

I wouldn’t even recommend signing a long-term agreement with the most credible DM agencies… Why? … Because your business is unique. The agency might know a lot about your industry – they may even specialize in your industry – but they don’t know about what makes your brand special. They don’t know the people that run your business.

What if it turns out to be a bad fit? No synergy, no results, and you are locked into a 1-year agreement trying to make the best out of a partnership that is not delivering.


Smaller Agency Scams

PPC (Pay-Per-Click) Warning:

If Paid Advertising (PPC, SEM) is included in your plan, expect your advertising budget to be a separate cost. There are even some agencies who will ALSO charge you a percentage of your advertising budget (A “Media Management” fee) on top of the the retainer cost AND the Ad Spend. A social media and/or search advertising campaign could end up costing you $16,500 per month.

[$5k Agency “Maintenance” Fee] + [$10k Monthly Advertising Budget] + [15%, $1.5k “Media Management” Fee]

My opinion on Media Management Fee % based structures for Digital Advertising Campaigns:


The amount of money you pay an agency to manage your digital advertising should not be based upon how much you are spending. For example, if you are running a campaign to sell a book…. the same amount of work would go into that campaign whether the spend was $500 per month or $500k per month.

I believe that every project, including digital advertising campaigns, should start off with a research period. The monthly fee structure should be based on the amount of campaigns, ad groups and maintenance required.

Typically the contract will be the reverse of what it is supposed to be. It will outline the cost of the agencies services and not the value of those services to your business.We can’t totally blame the agency for this – and perhaps “scam” is not the correct wording. After all, Digital Marketing Agencies need to keep the lights on, and a guarantee of cash flow will certainly sustain their bottom line.

However, it is a scam for the client… And in the next article I will explain why.

For now, my advice – as someone who has pushed contracts for 10+ years:

If you receive a proposal for a retainer agreement – Don’t sign on the dotted line…

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