New business development will make or break your business. And agency owners often find themselves suffering a famine or a feast of new business. But there are some common mistakes that can be relatively easily overcome. The Agency Management Institute has a great presentation on this topic, with FIVE clear tips that will help you avoid new business mistakes. And if you want to go into more detail, listen in to their fantastic podcast with Lee McKnight on the subject of new business development.
One of the most interesting and useful podcasts that I listen to is Drew McLellan’s Build a Better Agency podcast. Each week, Drew serves up fascinating and tangible tips, tricks and proven approaches to help agency owners grow their business. It’s a great combination of tactics and strategy, capability building and new ideas.
A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Drew about the ways that agency owners can re-think their businesses and client relationships. With so many of the traditional agency offerings like design, SEO and even copywriting now commoditised and available through crowd-aggregation platforms, many agencies are being challenged to innovate or die. It seems that digital disruption is reaching into even the most creative of disciplines.
Or is it.
I have always seen the great strengths of the agency model working where a trusted relationship is able to be nurtured over a number of years. In these instances, agencies are able to take on more and more strategic work, shifting from a transactional supplier role into something more substantial. A partner. Or advisor. It is in these roles where agency owners have the greatest of opportunities – to recast the relationship again, bringing their teams’ creative problem solving talents into the value equation.
One of the ways of doing this is through the use of the tools and techniques popularised by high tech startups, like the lean canvas. This “business model on a page” approach quickly moves a client discussion to a higher level. It frames a new style of conversation that agency owners can lead.
And the great thing is, you can try it on your own agency first. In the podcast I share some tips for getting started. And remember – innovation isn’t something you are born with. It can be learned.
No matter whether there is a change in CMO or marketing director or whether it’s time for a review, agency management can be an emotional challenge. Over years of collaboration, organisations build collaborative ways of working together – processes, systems and tools become intertwined. People become friends. Colleagues. Even partners. So what really happens when a client fires an agency? Darren Woolley has an answer that may surprise you.
As Founder and CEO of TrinityP3, Woolley has a particular view on how and why the client-agency comes undone. “The sum of the parts equal an underlying whole … which is they no longer feel the love and commitment”. The challenge, however, is that this is an emotional response to a situation, but the business focus remains on the work being performed. As a result, the agency may respond to the client’s feedback technically or creatively while not addressing the client’s feelings of dissatisfaction. This is a recipe for disaster.
In his chapter for the SoDA Report on Digital Marketing, Woolley goes into more detail, suggesting that there are four critical junctures for the relationship:
- When a new marketing leader is appointed – it’s review time, so the focus on rapid relationship building is essential
- Before the honeymoon ends – don’t wait until the goodwill is gone, start proactive account management from day 1
- Quiet periods – the challenge is to remain visible, provide value but don’t appear to be wasting time and money
- Performance pressure – when the work is underperforming, tensions are bound to arise.
Navigating the professional and emotional tightrope is always challenging. But going that extra mile really never hurt any relationship.
The SoDA Report’s Digital Marketing Outlook is a great snapshot of the industry. Covering topics from the modern marketer to technology, with a couple of handy case studies thrown in, it’s a fantastic resource to inspire your 2015 planning.
A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
I have always loved Shakespeare’s Richard III. It’s an epic experience – no matter whether you see it live in performance or whether you let those words loose in great emptiness of your cognitive surplus. The line comes at the point in the play where Richard – the evil and arrogant king – is about to meet his doom.
Like many of Shakespeare’s best lines, it has found its way into our everyday speech. Accordingly, we use it in a variety of situations – where we are exasperated, challenged or just down right desperate.
But there is more to it. Increasingly I am hearing this in the world of business.
When dealing with strategy and the challenges of social media, many CEOs, CMOs and their compatriots on the agency side are heard uttering these same words. But they are not asking for a horse. They are asking – nay demanding – that you pay attention not to their words, but to the source of their problem.
Any Tom, Dick or Harry can show up with a fistful of Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts. But the true strategist will look beyond the words to the insight – seeking to understand the root cause, understand the behaviour driving the need and develop an approach which will solve the problem. Sometimes it will indeed be a horse.
Rob Campbell suggests that many agencies have been trapped by a form of creativity-by-the-numbers. Rob places the responsibility on the shoulders of the creative and media agencies:
… because clients tend to judge their effectiveness by the level of media exposure they’ve achieved [R&F] – rather than by specific business goals – media agencies are basically being encouraged to push for creative work that can be placed in measurable media channels because it help ensure they get their fees.
But I think clients – the CEOs, the CMOs and all their direct reports also carry some of this responsibility. You may think it is a horse that you need, but that’s applying logic to the problem. What you want is creativity.
If someone had delivered Richard a cannon perhaps history would have had a very different shape. Next time someone calls for a horse, don’t give them what they ask for. Give them what they need.
I have a friend in the industry. Let’s call him, Mr X. In fact, Mr X could be Ms X. You may know her. Or him. Or maybe not. But even if you did know Mr X, I’d be surprised if you knew Mr X’s tale of agency woe.
Now, Mr X is a smart, likeable person. His clients like him as do his colleagues. He delivers value, and consistently challenges his team to push the boundaries of their creativity. He wins work and commitment, and like many in the industry, works above and beyond the hours that he is paid for.
You’d think he’d be seen as a valuable asset. Especially in an industry where you win work based on the skills, expertise and talent of your people.
But Mr X is a contractor.
And despite winning contract extensions, inspiring the creativity of teams and maintaining a high charge out rate, the agency he works with has not paid him for months. Sure there have been dribs and drabs, but he is now out of pocket stretching back to earlier this year.
Maybe I am an idealist, but I believe in paying people for the work they do.
But the most amazing aspect of this story is the damage that this type of behaviour will do to the reputation of the agency involved. Now, even before social media, the advertising and marketing industry was full of rumour and quiet conversation. But these days, anyone with an internet connection can produce content, share their story or experience – and warn off both clients and potential employees.
Employee conversations are no longer only the secret domain of sites like 2000s icon FuckedCompany.com. And while the names may be changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike, the private wires – the DMs, emails and phone conversations – run hot.
So, next time someone contacts me to ask whether they should take a job with this agency … or next time someone rings and asks whether the agency does good work – guess what my answer is going to be?
And if social recommendation carries as much weight as we in the industry claim it does, then slowly but surely the story behind this story will get out. And the talent pool will dry up. The good and talented people will find good and talented agencies to work for, and the projects, opportunities and clients will follow.
And I bet, for every Mr or Ms X out there, there is a whole alphabet of others sitting silently in the corner eating their own self esteem. If this story resonates with you – know that you are not alone. Write your story and share your experience with others – but keep names out of it. This is, after all, a small, global industry – and we are all adept at spotting a trend.
If you work on the client side of marketing you will know that working with agencies can be a challenge. You will have a roster of agencies that you deal with – and many more knocking on the door offering one-off campaigns that just may shake things up (for better and worse). Perhaps you will have an agency of record who will handle the jumble of specialisations that are required to deliver results across a broad swathe of marketing activities. Or maybe you will handle this in-house with marketing, PR, communications, branding and strategy teams all being supported by their own coterie of agencies.
No matter which scenario you operate under, the problem, of course, is that our “audiences” – the customers who buy and sometimes love our products and services – are less inclined to engage with what we have to say. As Nielsen’s Trust in Advertising survey indicated, 78% of consumers are more likely to trust other consumers recommendations ahead of newspapers, magazines and websites. Furthermore, consumers are dividing their attentive time in ever smaller slivers – with the Pew Research Center indicating that we are becoming “news grazers”, spending far greater time getting news and information from online sources than TV.
What are we to do?
Sean Moffitt suggests that client-side marketers need to begin operating like a Zen Master, pulling together your own un-Agency. (Check his description of the different types of agencies for an amusing but also insightful look at this complicated world.) But what might this un-Agency look like?
It's a co-op of equal partners managed by a key client person – a zen master generalist who can pull the appropriate agency levers. The Un-Agency is a marriage of partners that play well together and stay out of each others shorts. It's a hothouse of many ideas that get dreamed up and actually executed. It's a spider web of leading marketing services specialist talent that embeds itself deeply in a company's operations. It is low on bureaucracy and "handlers" and high on "smarts" and "action". Less powerpoint, more insight. More collaboration, less arrogance. More customer/influencer outreach, less boardroom navel gazing. More sustaining value, less flavour of the day. Perhaps paradoxically, more brilliant agency partners not less generic ones.
While I love the IDEA of this un-Agency, it is exceptionally difficult to make this work in practice. All businesses are designed to make money – and agencies are no exception. Put two or three agencies side-by-side and there will be competing interests, egos and revenue targets. But there is no doubt that this type of thing is starting to happen. With agencies coping with the global financial crisis (and the corresponding drop in billings) by laying people off, more and more folks with substantial skills and deep experience are finding themselves in demand. And the smart client-side marketer can now more easily weave together a collaborative group of experienced practitioners without the need (or expense) of working with big agencies. There is even evidence that smaller agencies are employing the same approach to extend their capacity.
Is this the way of the future? I know it works for me.