Response rates are down. It is impossible to connect on the phone. Interested prospects are nowhere to be found. New leads are drying up. Search consultant opportunities aren’t what they used to be. We are still the same agency, just as good if not better than we have ever been. Where are the new clients?
Ad agency new business is more challenging today than I have ever seen, and I am pretty sure you will agree. It is a confluence of market factors that feed the more significant evolution across this business. It is the empowered consumer that we talk so much about with our clients who is also transforming B2B marketing and to the point, ad agency business development. The consumer, in this case, your prospect, is taking charge of her agency search and doing it in ways that no longer sync with your business development practices.
How can agencies realign their business development practices with the marketplace? Start with three critical steps that will help. None are rocket science but rather the same marketing practices that agencies likely do so well for their clients. These three, in addition to others, aren’t new or novel. We have been talking about them for years, but many are not putting them into practice for themselves. It is probably no surprise that differentiation is number one. Unless an agency can stand apart from its competitors, a prospect will see it as merely a commodity with little use beyond execution and little value except for the lowest possible “commodity” price.
The second is the customer journey, one of the most talked about and practiced concepts in modern marketing. I’m certain you do a remarkable job mapping your client’s customer journey. Your customer, the prospect follows a reasonably predictable path when searching for a new agency, too. You already know this, but it is that path that defines the kind of engagement and information the prospect is seeking to satisfy their purpose and interests. Top of the funnel. Mid-funnel, Bottom of the funnel. Or, no funnel at all. The wrong content; webpage, email, conversation, at the wrong time will send the prospect swiping left without any meaningful consideration. The right content at the right time will be noticed, provoke engagement, and ultimately a conversation which will open up the opportunity for the next step, and the next.
The third is what agencies should be selling to their prospect. I know this is something you do day in and day out for your clients. Like any product or service, the benefits are critical in the beginning, and the features become important at the end. I have a headache. I need something that will make it go away. Without first buying into the benefit, the features are irrelevant. Take two pills or one, every six hours or twelve, gel coating or cherry flavored – who cares if you do not think the aspirin will get rid of a headache? The benefits define the difference between agencies in the beginning while the features help separate the shortlist at the end. The difference today, surprise, is to put the customer first by accommodating their needs in their time versus boasting that your cherry flavor is better before you know if they like cherry.
Think about your prospect. From their perspective, every ad agency out there is mostly the same. They are all strategic, creative, pleasant to work with, team players, fearless, innovative, and on and on. Agencies too often believe those are their differentiators, but prospects see it as the basic features of almost every agency, the commodity of the category, like claiming your water is better because it is wet. Your ability to climb out of that puddle will make a big difference in attracting interest from a more serious group of prospects. I fear you think this is too simplistic or, virtually impossible. Think again.
The prospect probably has an agency or agencies with all those same features. One could argue that a prospect might feel their agency is no longer creative or lacks strategic rigor in which case claiming those features should get their attention. Wrong. When you position the agency as just a different flavor of one or more of those things it is not likely to be enough. However, if you position yourself as an expert at doing something that impacts the business and can support it with past successes, the prospect will see your agency as something different than all the rest. And, while doing so you can flex your creative or strategic muscle. Agencies often argue that they do show how their past client achieved record success but again, so does every other agency. Not different in and of itself.
If you demonstrate leadership around that difference, provocative ideas, unique knowledge, and practical application, and that difference qualifies you to solve their problem, the prospect is going to want to know more and take the engagement to the next step. And, your difference helps qualify good prospects from bad, putting your business development resources where they have a higher potential for success. Don’t get me wrong. It is never black or white and it does take time, effort, and discipline. It is the difference between chasing after anything and focusing on the ones you want to win, those who value what you do.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Identifying and defining that difference is hard but also empowering. When you do, you will see the many ways to apply it to your positioning, case studies, presentations, pricing, and on and on. I know that difference lies somewhere within your past work, your client relationships, a break-out success, even a concept you pitched but never produced. Your agency has been successful for many years doing something well, and different from the many other agencies your client could have engaged. Somewhere at the intersection of all that and what marketers are looking for today is your difference. The problem is, you may be too close to the day-to-day battles to see it. You can benefit from some help.
2. Customer Journey
Think again about your prospect. Only a small percentage, research says about 3%, are ready to buy at any given moment. That means the rest are not interested, at least not right away. The vast majority are either considering the options or have no interest until sometime in the future, maybe when a current agency contract ends, or a new budget is approved, or a new product launch. Understanding your prospect’s timeline guides your prospecting efforts, the way to approach them, and what to say.
If they are the few who need an agency now, they are anxious to find a fast and effective solution to a particular problem. If you can understand their problem and have experience solving it, they are more likely to agree to hear more. If you are only promoting the agency’s features; disruptive creative or a proprietary process, they are not going to care because every other agency is claiming the same thing. Your challenge is how to make them care. The solution is no different than the way you make consumers care about your client's brand.
If they are considering a change in the future, they are exploring options, alternatives, with a broader interest in the possibilities. In the early stages of their journey, prospects are thinking about whatever problem has compelled them to seek a new approach. They are looking for ideas and solutions, for other resources that have and can. They are open to hearing from you if what you do falls within the criteria they have set. They are more interested in ideas, new approaches, past success with similar problems so they can better understand what their options are. When they do, they move from interest and information gathering to intent. Your specific services are not relevant to them until they decide if you offer the value they seek. Data-driven insights or award-winning campaigns are not those values initially.
If they are not interested at all, you have an almost insurmountable challenge. First, they are head down in the day-to-day responsibilities with no time to pause and entertain a new resource. Disruption is annoying or worse. If you can interrupt them and hold their attention, they will need to know how change can have significant benefit even though at the moment they believe their challenges are being handled well enough. Additionally, change is hard, disruptive, and time-consuming. If they come to agree that a move would be good, it may be impossible to change in mid-campaign or mid-contract. If you are happy with AT&T you aren’t going to switch to Verizon – at least not until you have a problem.
And finally, think about your prospect again. When they do start looking it is because they have a problem to solve. Research shows that the number one reason a marketer will switch is that they want new ideas and a fresh approach. There are many more reasons. They are not looking for award-filled trophy cases or nice people. They do not Google “fearless” or “innovative” agencies. They ask colleagues and friends if they know of an agency that devised a solution to launch a new widget in or adjacent to their industry, or turned around a declining brand, or rebranded a challenger that beat the market leader. Fill in the blank. They search all available resources to identify the best solutions to their problem. Wouldn’t it be great if your solution popped up?
Plenty of research shows that their minimum qualifications are industry experience, audience experience, specific capabilities, trustworthy leadership, legitimate accomplishments, in addition to the basics. But first, they want to know that an agency has a solution to the specific problem so when they make a change relief will come as fast as possible. Their management isn’t going to give them much time to reverse declines consequently they are driven to find the fastest way to achieve their particular goals. They can’t afford a learning curve, an unproven team, or risk success when their job is on the line. Given the short tenure of marketing execs today, would you?
At the top of the funnel, you have to demonstrate value and unique expertise with ideas and past success that can solve their challenge. Your interactions should be more solution and benefit-oriented around their need. It is not until you have demonstrated your expertise, experience, and unique difference that your specific services become important, like capabilities, processes, culture, chemistry, and other things. Just look around at what agencies are leading with to understand why pipelines are drying up. The wrong content creates a big disconnect between what the prospect is initially looking for and what is being offered. Prospects don’t have time to connect those dots.
As they move across their journey, you need to nurture the relationship while adding value to their goal of discerning which resource is the best solution to their problem. That value, in the form of thought leadership, case studies, new ideas, insights, and analysis, will prove to be beneficial to them and in turn position the agency as a resource above all the rest. When the prospect is ready to buy, your agency will be on their list or at the top of the list, and maybe, the only one on their list although it is likely they will have to drag a few others along to make the process seem legitimate. Remember, up to 84% of marketers know whom they want before the pitch.
Approaching each stage of business development with the right message will improve your ability to engage and convert new leads. The reality is that you are not going to know what stage any specific prospect is in unless they demonstrate particular behaviors that you can identify and act upon or disclose in the initial conversation. The vast majority will not show their cards until they are ready, typically about 60% through their journey. Having the right things available for the prospects you really want when they want it and with the relevant information they seek will make the difference in your lead flow, your pipeline, and your success. If your agency is casting the right fly in the right stream at the right time, you will hook the big fish.
I’ve got a lot more advice on how to make 2018 your best year and would enjoy sharing it with you. I’m always open to a conversation. If you like this post, click the thumbs up, so I’ll know, and then sign up for my new business newsletter. Follow me on LinkedIn for daily tips, tricks, and insights. #LetsGrow!