A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to record an album at Electrical Audio in Chicago with one of my all-time favorite recording engineers: Steve Albini.
If you don’t know Steve by name, you know his work. In addition to Nirvana’s In Utero, he’s the engineer behind about 10 million records by bands including The Jesus Lizard, Screeching Weasel, Urge Overkill, Veruca Salt and countless others — some famous, many obscure.
It sounds like I’m bragging, but the truth is, he’s an equal opportunity engineer. If you want to record with Steve, for a fee, you can. But here’s the thing with hiring him: without exception, you’re getting an engineer — not a producer.
(A quick pause for definitions: An engineer is the technician that operates the equipment in the studio, while the producer leads and oversees the recording to bring an artistic vision into fruition.)
So, sonically, Steve will make you sound awesome, but he won’t weigh in on creative decisions like a producer will. (Our singer verified this several times when he tried unsuccessfully to get Steve’s opinion on stuff like arrangements and guitar parts. “Tell me what you want to do,” was the response he got back every time.)
Cool Story. What’s Your Point?
It occurred to me that there’s somewhat of a parallel distinction between the engineer and producer when it comes to hiring a marketing agency. While many agencies claim to do it all — from research and strategy to execution and analysis — that’s not always what they’re hired to do. An agency can serve as producer or engineer.
What to Expect with a “Producer”
If you’ve hired an agency for research and strategy, then you’ve basically hired the equivalent of a producer. There may still be an ultimate marketing decision-maker in your company, but you’re paying for their strategic direction and planning in addition to any needed execution.
The specifics of what they’re responsible and accountable for need to be defined and communicated, but their job is to take the makings of a good song (your business offerings) and turn it into a hit (a marketing campaign that helps you achieves your goals).
What to Expect with an “Engineer”
On the other hand, let’s say you’ve already decided that you just need a team to crank out content, send emails and manage AdWords. If you hire an agency and give the directive to skip the discovery (i.e. research, positioning and brand strategy) and get straight to work checking these boxes every month, you’re hiring the marketing equivalent of an engineer.
If someone’s already done the research and there’s a good strategy in place, this isn’t an inherently bad idea. You’re paying for capable order-takers — “doers” who can execute your plan and follow best practices. Assuming they’re a good shop, you can rely on them to make the deliverables shine because they’re drawing on craft and marketing expertise, but you shouldn’t expect them to come to the table with ideas for new strategies or high-level changes in direction; it’s not what they’ve been hired to do.
Determining Which is Right for You
A key part of ensuring you’ve got the right agency and scope in place for your needs is to figure out whether you need a producer or engineer before you start shopping around. This way, you can confidently hire for the right role and make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them from the start.
If there is no marketing strategy or research, or if you need fresh eyes and feedback on your existing strategy, you need the producer. Yes, there’s more investment there, but it’s worth it.
To bring it back to the studio, you can hire the best engineer in the world, but if the songs suck, they’re still gonna suck — you’ll just be able to hear the shortcomings in high fidelity.
Charlie is the Chief Strategy Officer at Simple Machines Marketing. When he's not doing the marketing, he likes playing guitar, hanging with his family in Chicago and lots of other stuff too but this seems like a good amount for a blog bio.