Last month I saw the funniest headline I can recall outside of The Onion. As USA Today put it:
“Hitman outsourced a murder to the hitman, who hired hitman, who hired hitman, who hired hitman."
This was not a joke; it very accurately described the story of a real estate developer who put out a hit on a competitor. The hitman he hired subcontracted the job to someone, who in turn, did the same, and so on, as described by the headline.
In this case, no one got killed, and it's generally best that hitman are foiled, but I saw this as a metaphor for white-labeling services.
Every week I get two types of emails asking about white-labeling services for my company, Push ROI.
These inquiries come both from companies wanting us to do work as them and from companies wanting us to sell their work as our own. The answer is "no" to both offers, with some rare exceptions that I will address later. Not because white-labeling is altogether bad, but because our services don't lend themselves well to being white-labeled.
Products (and Productized Services) Don't Require Strategy
For software, packaged goods, or productized services, it can absolutely work to let someone else put their logo on your product and sell it, and vice versa. After all a bottle of water is a bottle of water, no matter what logo is on the front, but consulting-type services are customized to a project’s needs and don't yield themselves so well to white-labeling.
People do sell white-labeled services like SEO & PPC, core services my agency offers. But my experience is that white-labeling these are subpar for the service provider and the end client. It's not always everything it's cracked up to be for the party selling the white-labeled service.
Communication Becomes Convoluted
There is a big difference between partnering with another agency when the client knows that part of the work is outsourced, and being a white-labeled silent partner. For my part, I love the former and will not do the latter. These are my reasons:
Projects Are Poorly Defined
Companies do not frequently approach an agency knowing precisely what they need. SEO has become a word that for many means anything related to the internet and marketing in any way. Often the first task as a service provider is figuring out the true scope of the project and building a prioritized framework based around the budget. Most of the time, if a company cannot do the work in-house, they need guidance during this process. For my money, it's unlikely this guidance can be effectively provided by an agency that is unable to do the work themselves.
The Foundation Is Not In Place
Companies also often need foundational tasks completed before they can start on the main course. If a company has a slow, poorly designed website that is not converting, that is not the time for a big press push — being able to explain what foundational steps are needed and why, goes far more smoothly with direct communication than playing a game of telephone.
Sometimes The Service Never Should Have Been Sold
What I've seen with other agencies is that when they need a white-label service, many times it is because they sold something they shouldn't have. They had no real knowledge of the service and therefore no business pitching or promising it. For example, an IT services firm that negotiated in a line item for digital marketing into the scope of work, because they could get more money on retainer.
The Service Provider Lacks Influence Over The Project’s Success
On the other side of that coin, the agencies which white-label often have problems not limited to the communications issues I described above. Many agencies I've seen depending on revenue from acting as a white-label provider end up in trouble due to actions outside of their agency. If XYZ MegaCorp bids on a project encompassing marketing, design, video, management consulting and development, then outsourced sections of the work to several vendors, any single vendor messing up could end the contract.
The Client’s Costs Are Driven Up
For the end client, white-labeling normally fails to provide the best (or even mediocre) results. I'm not a plumber, so if I start bidding on plumbing projects, charging a markup, and hiring an actual plumber to do the work, it's safe to assume I would be in the way. Even if I was not a direct hindrance to the plumbing project success, am I adding value commensurate with the amount of cost I added to the project? Unless the answer is yes, Mason's Whitelabel Plumbing is not a company worth hiring.
I said that there are some exceptions for when I would white-label. As is the case with most small companies, most people wear many hats. Sometimes people get sick, have kids, or want a vacation. If a project is already scoped, on track, and now needs temporary day to day management, that is the exception to the rule. In that case, white-labeling is more like hiring a skilled temp to do a job, not outsourcing strategy.
Another exception for white-labeling would be a micro task. Specifically a task that will take a few hours, and that can be easily, and clearly defined. Think of an ancillary task that’s required for a project, but is not the core service being sold. For example, hiring a developer for a task requiring technical skill I lack to complete.
If a project grows bigger, it is my preference to simply make an introduction between the client and the actual provider of the service. The client's preference may be that I manage that person as part of a team for the project, but no matter what, it avoids asking someone to work in the shadows.
I'm sure I have other exceptions, but my general rule is if I am adding cost and no value it's time to make an introduction.
Header Image: "General Sense of Caution" by cogdogblog
Header Image: "General Sense of Caution" by cogdogblog