I recently took a call with a vice president for marketing at a university just to lend an ear and to help them think through a decision we run into a lot in higher education. This institution is down to finalists after a very thorough RFP process and trying to choose the right agency partner for their institution.

This VP pointed something out that got me thinking. As the group was looking over the finalists a majority went toward the agency that had done work for institutions they were familiar with.

Doesn't that sound familiar?

I've seen this approach so many times in higher ed. Bravery has even been a victim of it in the past. I think it's kind of a hallmark of higher education marketing. And we can see the results in the myriad university websites that look the same, the messaging that's a rehash of somebody else's, and the small set of "elite" agencies that operate in this space.

A lot of times it's because our marketing teams don't really understand digital.

Cause and hope

So many institutions have marketing teams that are made up of very nice people with great interpersonal skills. Some departments are lucky enough to have great writers on staff. The luckiest ones have some designers and maybe a web person.

But the institutions that excel don't rely on luck. Their marketing organizations are intentionally built with people who understand and live in the digital marketing world at large. They understand what a website needs to accomplish for the institution and for the user. They make decisions based on information they have painstakingly and purposefully gathered.

The best thing an institution can do for its externally facing goals is to build a better creative and technical marketing team.

My one piece of advice

As our call was wrapping up, this VP was faced with a conundrum. Most of their team really liked the one agency with clients that they were familiar with, while the veteran members—including the VP—saw more value in the other agency.

I realized there was only one piece of advice to give.

Ignore the client list; pay attention to the work.

That's it. When someone doesn't know digital (or food, or drinks, or cars, or... anything really), they're naturally going to be drawn to what's familiar. If all you've known is Domino's pizza, that's going to be your default delivery instead of that great local pizza place a few blocks away. If you're uninformed about politics you're most likely going to vote for whatever party you've voted for in the past—the familiar issues and faces.

This mentality not only perpetuates stagnation in our industry, it all but guarantees disappointment with your final product.

The size of the agency doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if they claim to be full-service (they're probably not). If they're bad at (or farm out) the technical side, don't hire them for that piece of your project. If branding isn't an agency's strongsuit, pay them to design your website after you work with a real branding agency.

Ignore the clients they've worked with. Disregard how flashy their portfolio looks.

Is the work good? Do they get results? Will they make your institution better?

Higher Education can always do better, and usually all we need to do is get out of our own way.