When people talk about agency growth, they usually start with prospecting. You invest in people, technology, and resources to gain new clients and more revenue. You might even hire a consultant like me. Prospecting for new business is a critical part of agency success but not the only part. High-performance agencies usually grow in three areas; new relationships, referrals, and organic growth. Struggling firms often double-down on prospecting because it seems like the fastest easiest way to grow when in fact it is statistically the toughest.
I’ve covered prospecting at great length and recommend you dig into some of the other articles on my site to learn more. Prospecting is an important tactic and worthy of devoting time and resources. Referrals are historically the highest converting type of new business. Organic growth is a potentially rich area as well and should receive as much time and attention as the others. But many agencies don’t approach it in the best way or think they can’t for a variety of reasons. And that means real money left on the table.
To be honest, organic growth isn’t easy or fast. If you think about it like you would a new prospect and approach it as if it is a new account to pitch, your odds are pretty good you’ll be successful. Of course, it is more complicated than what can be covered in a single post, but this strategic outline should help frame how to approach it. In certain cases, you will need a little more diplomacy to navigate other agency relationships and some strategery for executives who are resistant to change. Regardless, you’ve got the skill and savvy to negotiate any roadblocks. Let’s cover the basics.
Client review and opportunity audit
It is common to do annual or bi-annual client reviews with your account people. You may include conversations about new opportunities but do you dedicate a significant amount of time on that subject? The key to success is knowing what the possibilities are that you can go after. Many times, account people are too busy or too focused on delivering excellent work and ensuring a great customer experience that they don’t look beyond their immediate responsibilities for new revenue. That is a skill you must develop with coaching, accountability, and incentive. Your account team should be on the lookout, not just when annual review time is approaching but every day. They need to ask the right questions, probe other activities their client is involved in and opportunities with other groups or divisions. The more knowledgeable they can be, the better you will be able to spot and pursue new opportunity.
In their day-to-day working relationship, they should ask questions like, I need to know what George (a marketing exec your client works with, but you don’t) is doing for his product launch so we can make sure we complement it or, I need to know how the loyalty program works so we can be sure our messaging doesn’t compete. These kinds of questions will help uncover activity in a positive, responsible way. If you don’t normally participate in your client’s annual review, you should. Try volunteer to prepare their PowerPoint presentation for free or review a draft to help find ways to make a stronger case for their accomplishments (and yours).
The result of good questions is a client roadmap of spending and tactics that you can use to determine where your strongest play is and how you should pursue it. The goal is to institutionalize these behaviors within the account team. You’ve got to make sure they allocate time during meetings, status calls, and other times to ask the right questions. It won’t happen right away, but it will in the long run if you are persistent. And it will happen more quickly if you give your account people the time, encouragement, and coaching. If it’s initially uncomfortable for the account lead, have the strategy person or creative director make inquiries, and of course, you should lend a hand as well.
Prioritize by revenue potential and viability
When you have a clearer view of where your client spends money outside of your agency, you’ll be able to understand the ways you can offer the greatest help, do something different, apply new tactics or offer new services. You’ll have a better idea of which of your clients have budget worth going after and which don’t. You can make better decisions if you can calculate your revenue potential based on current billing rates and profitability of that client. You may find that among your top ten clients, four have revenue potential that is appealing but the others aren’t worth the effort. Those four become your top prospects, and you treat them like four new opportunities.
Define a strategy and budget for each
For each of the top prospects, develop a strategy together with your account lead. Define the opportunity, the deficiencies with what they are currently doing, and how what you do will serve them better. Determine how high the barrier is to change and make sure you come up with enough compelling reasons for them to do so. For example, if the client is weak in content marketing you might do an audit of their top competitor’s content marketing efforts. Present the data and offer solutions that will allow them to leapfrog the competition within their existing budget. It is easy to take shots at someone else’s work. When you do, you must make sure those shots are relevant, impactful, within budget and offer a high likelihood of success.
I’ve heard from agency leaders who are reluctant to spend money on existing client opportunities. They refuse to do speculative work, commissioning research, or any of the usual pitch tactics. Why should I do that when they already know me, trust me and have seen what I can do? I’ve already proven myself. A rational point, however, if you think about an organic opportunity like it’s a new prospect and not a current client, you’ll do better work, take more risks, and ultimately impress that client with your willingness to go the extra step. You can bet any outside agency would if the opportunity was opened for bid.
You can also bet that other agencies are constantly trying their best to start a relationship, many of which will spend money betting that the upside will be worth it. For some reason, incumbents don’t think that way and end up losing out on new opportunities, no matter how strong the relationship. Calculate the revenue potential of the organic work and use your own numbers to determine a pitch budget and spend it like you would with a new client. After all, your likelihood to win is far greater than with a prospect who doesn’t know you.
Timeline, actions, milestones, and accountability
Accountability is the key to success. You must put a timeline together with each account strategy including action items and milestones, or it will get lost and neglected under the weight of your account team’s daily grind. Be as relentless as you are chasing new prospects. Be flexible and agile too. If your account lead reports a dead end, find another way around. Once you’ve identified the need and your ability to solve it, don’t let minor setbacks derail the effort. Keep your account leader on task and make sure they have time in their day to spend on the process. Help them see opportunities. Coach them on how to ask the right questions. Give them the opportunity to socialize with the client more often. Put them in the right situations where they can find out the information needed. Pair them up with agency members who have the personality to pry. Then you can hold them accountable for progress, gently at first.
Pitch the business
Let’s face it. Your primary responsibility, no matter what your current assignment, is to make your client successful. Being proactive about that responsibility is a natural extension of your commitment to that client. Don’t worry about boundaries or other agency relationships if you think you can do better. But don’t disparage another agency or impugn the client’s credibility. Make the company’s competitor or marketplace forces be the reason things need improvement so you can be the hero.
You’ve done your homework. You’ve found the silver bullet. How do you broach the subject with your client? You might try by starting with lessons learned from a previous account – I see that you are underperforming in X. We worked with a client who had the same challenge so I took the liberty of gathering our team and brainstorming ways we can help you do better. I’d like to share their ideas, without any obligation of course, and see what you think.
Or, if you have had previous conversations with your client about other work they are doing you may start with a comment you heard – I remember our conversation about your disappointment with Y. I asked Jose to do an audit of your work and your competitors and would enjoy sharing the results with you and some ideas we had about how you can execute without losing momentum.
Try starting with a concern for their success – you are the top brand in almost every metric, but I noticed your competitor was dominating the social channels. I know how fanatical you are about performance so I asked my team to do an analysis and they found some very simple ways you can dominate that channel too. Clients like when their agencies work well together, but they like to win even more. Taking initiative on their behalf makes all the difference between being their vendor and their partner.
It sounds so easy
You’ve taken the proper steps. You executed a great plan. Your team is on board, and your account lead is diligently working to set up the meeting. What happens next? Like any new business opportunity, anything can happen. You may win some new assignments or learn there is no longer budget, George isn’t willing to change, another agency is going to execute, or we are just too busy to think about change right now. Yes, anything can happen, but almost any roadblock is not the end of the process. Keep pushing, try a new angle, strengthen your justification, but be sensitive to your client’s patience.
Some common issues
The health of the account – if account people are constantly on their heels because of problems with the client or the agency it is hard to ask for more work. You can be certain if you are approaching another group within the company that person will ask your current client what she thinks of the agency. If the relationship is strained, you’ve got to solve those problems first before going after new opportunity. When the relationship is good, be sure to ask for a testimonial or recommendation for future use.
Agency perception – too often an agency does such great work that they get pigeonholed as the specialist for that work and never considered for anything else. To avoid this be sure to share other work you’ve done regularly. Strategically build and shape your client’s perception in a way that will allow them to believe you can do new and different work.
Ulterior motives – some clients are reluctant to share what they do beyond your relationship. Some clients think selfishly that any work you do for others in the company will impact them. Other things like politics or ambition can get in the way. It is important to uncover these kinds of issues early on, so you don’t jeopardize existing relationships. Unless, of course, if you are dying to untangle from that relationship.
Together with the other sources, organic growth should be a predictable source of new revenue. I am certain you are constantly amazed at the things a client will spend money on and what they accept from other vendors. They might nickel and dime your costs, but they always seem to have more money to spend on things you could achieve far greater results. It is simply a matter of letting them decide you can.
On a separate but related note
Agencies often forget the power of self-promotion within client organizations and the value of creative reminders around the client’s office. Beyond the mouse pads, pens and beer coasters, there are so many ways to get noticed. You never know when the VP of Cam Shafts might stop by your client’s office and page through a cleverly designed capabilities book or pick it up your logoed 8-ball and shake it to see that you are the answer to her question. And don’t forget to share other agency work with your client. You never know what ideas you might spark while you help shape their perception of your agency. If you treat organic growth as a new prospect, you’ll enjoy the results all the way to the bank.
I’ve got some ideas about how you can capture more revenue from your current clients as well as new clients, and I’m happy to share them with you. If you like this post, click the thumbs up or leave a comment, so I’ll know and don’t forget to sign up for my new business newsletter. #LetsGrow!