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Why More Banks of All Sizes Are Hiring Marketing Agencies

By Karen Epper Hoffman

Banks have long aimed to reach outside themselves to engage prospective customers. With the advent of online and mobile banking, banks big and small are increasingly relying on consulting and marketing firms to support their efforts.

Two years ago, Cynthia Ramsey, brand manager for Progressive Ozark Bank, was tasked with finding an agency that could support the bank’s ideas about digital advertising.

“We are a small bank in an extremely rural market,” says Ramsey, whose bank is based in Houston, Missouri. “We were trying at best to find information on agencies in any capacity, but finding ones that had experience working with community banks and reaching rural markets was its own challenge.”

After interviewing three agencies in the St. Louis area, Ramsey and her team settled on “a small boutique type firm.” Although, in the vetting process, her bank encountered one marketing agency that “refused to give us pricing when they learned how small we were … and one [that]was priced so far outside of budget we didn’t go further,” she says.

The marketing firm that Progressive Ozark Bank chose had worked with at least two community banks previously on re-branding. “It was a ‘toe in the water’ type approach, but they were diligent to understand our market and target demographics and goals,” Ramsey says. “They made the extra effort to provide us with content that exemplified and spoke to our market and truly set us off on a fast track.”

Similarly, Cathy Planchart, vice president and product and segment marketing manager for Bar Harbor Bank and Trust, Ellsworth, Maine, says her bank was not using a marketing agency when she joined the bank in 2007. But in 2012, the then $1.3 billion-asset bank was set on a growth trajectory. “We needed to enter the social media world,” says Planchart. “Our goal for partnering with a marketing agency was to develop creative ideas and a comprehensive media plan faster than we could do it ourselves.”

Andrea Pagiazitis, senior vice president for retail banking at First Constitution Bank, Jamesburg, New Jersey, points out that her bank does not even have its own marketing department. But in the wake of the COVID pandemic, as bank customers are making more use of online, social media and email connections and digital campaigns have become more important. “As a small community bank, the marketing dollars are just not there,” she says. “ So, I strongly believe it is important to pick an agency that knows the market we’re in, knows banking and our regulatory compliance and has a presence here.”

Choosing the right partner

As is often the case, many banks turn to a marketing partner to help them create a unified brand in the wake of a merger or acquisition. Such was the case with Availa Bank of Carroll, Iowa, when the $1.3 billion-asset institution merged “half a dozen bank names” under one in 2017. Lisa K. Irlbeck, marketing director for the bank, says that management realized that “if we were going to grow, we need to choose one name.” In the end, Irlbeck says the bank’s executive team settled on a marketing agency that though “outside the box … they were very artsy and outside the traditional look and feel of bank marketing … which helped us stand out.”

John Hanley, senior vice president and senior director of marketing for $4 billion-asset Equity Bank of Wichita, Kansas, has been working with an outside marketing agency for more than eight years. “There’s a lot of expertise that is needed, so we can concentrate on the day-to-day,” he says. “It’s taken a while for banks to embrace that kind of digital connection.”

Verasoni Worldwide has “pivoted its business model to more of a consultancy in order to better serve the banks with whom we work,” says Abe Kasbo, CEO for Verasoni Worldwide, in the wake of financial technology’s popularity.

“Banks need perspective on marketing within a greater context of what’s happening in the marketplace tied directly to their clients and business objectives and not simply a partner who will run creative and advertising,” Kasbo says.

“In that light, we have helped bring agility and an entrepreneurial approach to marketing to our clients because they are facing unprecedented challenges from fintech start-ups as well giants like Amazon, Paypal, Square, Stripe, Qapital, Acorns, even Robinhood and others who have become significant competitors to banks.”

Experience drawn from working with other banks

The $1.1 billion-asset Union Bank of Morrisville, Vermont has been working with outside marketing agencies for at least eight years, notes Robert D. Hofmann, executive vice president and senior operations officer for the bank, who worked at American Express and other larger banks before moving to Union Bank. Working with an outside marketing agency, Union Bank made more use of video and graphics in the bank’s marketing, Hofmann says.

“As the bank was growing and prospering, we needed to intentionally grow our marketing effort,” Hoffman says, adding that outside agencies are able to bring experience, drawn from working with other banks.

Dennis Gada, senior vice president and head of financial services for Infosys, points out that more and more banks are looking to outside help for their marketing support because, “they are not ready to commit to a full staff team for marketing and hence are leveraging the expertise of external agencies.”

Brian Reilly, director at BankBound, a marketing agency based in Newtown, Pennsylvania, says he works with more than 40 banks under $5 billion in assets. “The growing complexity of the landscape on the digital front and scale up marketing capacity internally [has required banks]bringing on new talent,” Reilly says. “It’s difficult for a small bank to hire enough people … The landscape is more competitive, where local banks have an advantage.”

Indeed, more than ever, banks see the need to “draw on the experience of a marketing agency to help them get in front of new buyers,” says Lee Murray, owner of Orlando, Fla.-based bank marketing agency Signal. “The expertise and capacity of their internal team is usually limited and not being properly utilized. With the help of an outside firm, banks can find a clearer path to buyers and increase the effectiveness of their internal team.”

William E. Mills III, CEO of the William Mills Agency, has been in the bank marketing and public relations business for nearly 40 years. The agency was founded by his parents in the late 1970s. Now, more than ever, it is “paramount to find a trusted outside counsel that doesn’t depend on a paycheck from you,” Mills says.

“It’s so much easier to work with someone who will tell you the truth, that the emperor has no clothes, if needed.” This is especially the case as the “competition is not just the bank or credit union down the road, but other financial institutions in other states, non-banks and online-only banks.”

Focusing on digital and new generations

Ken LaRoe, CEO of Climate First Bank, has employed an outside marketing agency in effort to get the upstart bank “dialed in to the digital space and Millennials.”

“Most community banks don’t utilize outside marketing enough,” LaRoe says. “We want to be more in tune with what’s happening in the world … and to help tell our story.”

Stephen Curry, CEO at Endurance Advisory Partners, believes technology has gone from a “background enabler for marketing to a tool you can use to reach customers individually on their phone, tablets, PCs and even the old TV, through ads, text messages and email, so marketing has undergone a radical transformation.”

“Banking has joined the ranks of eBay, Amazon and Walmart in vying for eyeballs and clicks, but our digital storefronts are inactive billboards instead, slowly transitioning into the digital realm,” Curry says. “This is a huge cultural change in the banking world, and critical.”

Ben Burrows, managing principal and ‘talentology’ lead for Capco, says the role of the marketing agency has “shifted in the past 10 to 15 years. Now, banks are much more focused on the customer experience, with an emphasis on ‘digital-first’ marketing. That’s the challenge of what you need and agencies that know their lane the best. Some know branding best. And other concentrating on digital marketing.

“I have found that it’s important when they focus,” Burrows adds. “I do think it’s important, if they’re not in footprint, they have a capability to know about your footprint. While our industry is similar, there are certain opportunities and issue that differ from state to state.”

Karen Hoffman is a frequent contributor to ABA Bank Marketing.

Why More Banks of All Sizes Are Hiring Marketing Agencies